Kabat-Zinn emphasizes ‘power of mindfulness’
By Felicia Schwartz, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Friday, April 8, 2011
Students and community members crowded into Spaulding Auditorium on Thursday afternoon to hear mind-body medicine researcher Jon Kabat-Zinn discuss “the power of mindfulness.” After the overwhelming majority of audience members affirmed that they wished the future would be different from the way they envisioned it, Kabat-Zinn explained that the “only fulcrum” for desired change is the present.
Kabat-Zinn, the founding executive director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, emphasized the importance of focusing on the present in order to promote general health and overall well-being. His goal was not to leave the audience with “just facts,” but rather provide them with strategies to help them bring about positive change, he said.
“You’ll lose [facts] immediately,” Kabat-Zinn said. “I’m trying to plant seeds in the fertile ground or garden of whatever it was that brought you here, so that when you leave you will keep those seeds nurtured in a certain way.”
Mindfulness is a new approach to life that is energized by a desire “to be as alive as you can be while you have the chance,” Kabat-Zinn said.
“This is not a philosophy, a technique, a special state,” he said. “It’s a way of being.”
During his presentation, Kabat-Zinn sat down on a stool and remained silent for approximately a minute.
“Maybe you’re waiting for something else to happen,” he said. “Nothing else happens — this is it.”
Although audience members might have hoped for a special “meditative state” as they sat in silence with him, Kabat-Zinn explained that expecting such a state is a mistaken interpretation of mindfulness and reality.
Kabat-Zinn encouraged audience members to set aside their past experiences of pain or suffering in order to focus on the current moment.
“The sum total of this universe is good enough to have gotten you here today,” he said. “It’s good enough for now.”
Kabat-Zinn then led the audience through a meditation exercise. Asking audience members to assume a posture that embodied “wakefulness and dignity,” he displayed a set of bells and instructed audience members to follow the sound of the bells into the space of the air.
Sound awareness is an important part of mindfulness, Kabat-Zinn said, explaining that the exercise demonstrated how hearing can help “anchor attention.”
He then asked individuals to stop focusing on hearing and turn their attention to the breath moving in and out of their bodies. The exercise was not about the sound of the bells or the breath in the body, but rather the importance of awareness and the ability to “non-conceptually” think about the body’s processes, Kabat-Zinn said.
“I’m pointing to something that’s already yours, that has tremendous healing power,” he said.
Although some physicians are skeptical about healing through nonconventional methods, the words “medicine” and “meditation” grow out of the same Indo-European roots and the impacts of both in curing illnesses are “joined at the hip,” Kabat-Zinn said.
“It’s not so radical to bring them together in mainstream critical care — it’s essential,” he said.
Kabat-Zinn cited an ongoing study by Nobel Prize-winning molecular biologist Elizabeth Blackburn, which he said provides “incontrovertible evidence” that stress increases the degradation rate of the ends of chromosomes, called telomeres. An individual’s ability to manage stress can lead to longer and healthier telomeres, he said.
Kabat-Zinn said he wanted audience members to take away the idea that individuals should not “take things personally when they’re not personal.”
“You have the potential to live your life as if it really matters, and it does,” he said.
Kabat-Zinn’s lecture, “The Healing Power of Mindfulness: Living as if Your Moments Really Mattered,” was sponsored by the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Palliative Care Service, Norris Cotton Cancer Center and the Tucker Foundation.