The power of mindfulness

24.10.2017 21:28

The police in Cambridge, Massachusetts, showed no mercy to Jon Kabat-Zinn in May 1970. The man now considered the godfather of modern mindfulness was a graduate student from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and an anti-Vietnam-war protester, agitating alongside the Black Panthers and the French playwright Jean Genet.

“I got my entire face battered in,” he recalls. “They put this instrument on my wrist called the claw, which they tightened to generate enormous amounts of pain without leaving any marks. But they certainly left a lot of marks on my face. They pulled me into the back of the police station and beat the shit out of me.”

Today, at 73, Kabat-Zinn’s restful, lined face shows no scars from that protest outside a police station, when a trip canvassing support for a nationwide university strike boiled over into violence,leaving him with stitches.

“If this is another fad, I don’t want to have any part of it,” he says. “If in the past 50 years I had found something more meaningful, more healing, more transformative and with more potential social impact, I would be doing that.”

There are signs many others agree with its potential. Globally, 18 million people subscribe to the Headspace app, practising mindfulness meditations through their headphones.

In the shops, ranges of mindfulness clothing – not least “drop of mindfulness” tights (the only thing mindful seems to be the brand name) – colouring books and even dot-to-dot puzzles testify to the idea’s growing ubiquity – even if Kabat-Zinn derides much of this as “McMindfulness”.

His work has attracted its share of sceptics, such as Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm, authors of The Buddha Pill, who caution that mindfulness is no cure-all and warn of a dark side if not taught correctly.

In 2002, Welsh psychologist Mark Williams worked with colleagues at Cambridge and in Toronto to combine the US programme with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to form an eight-week mindfulness-based CBT course that, in 2004, was recommended for prescription on the NHS for recurrent depression. Williams taught mindfulness to the comedian Ruby Wax at Oxford University when she was looking to tackle her depression. She then popularised it through her 2013 book Sane New World.

Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) has been shown to be at least as effective as antidepressants at preventing relapse and, in a two-year trial by Willem Kuyken’s team, 44% of the MBCT cohort relapsed compared with 47% on pills. In one trial of 173 people, it was also found to reduce the severity of current depression, with an average 37% reduction in symptoms. It is being taught widely in the private sector with qualified MBCT teachers delivering courses in parish halls, workplaces and beyond.

“The science of meditation is in its infancy,” Kabat-Zinn says. “We need decades more study. People talk about artificial intelligence and machine learning, but we haven’t scratched the surface of what human intelligence is really all about.”

So now, Kabat-Zinn travels the globe. He is fascinated by teaching in China where he has detected a rebirth in the country’s contemplative traditions as a way of tackling its challenges. He leads intensive five-day retreats in the US, runs courses in Austria, Korea and Japan. Lately, he has been talking with David Simas, a former White House adviser and now chief executive of the Obama Foundation, who was inspired to take up mindfulness meditation by Kabat-Zinn. “I feel it’s my responsibility, since to a large degree people blame me for starting this whole ball rolling to participate in whatever way I can,” he says. “This is, in some sense, the fruition of that 10-second vision I had in 1979.”


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