Los Angeles Times Fully experiencing the present: a practice for everyone, religious or not
Practices such as meditation, yoga or Eastern martial arts can aid the process, but mindfulness is fundamentally an “acceptance” or “coming to terms with things as they are,” not in the sense of passive resignation but active awareness, says Kabat-Zinn.
Although this article from October does not break new ground — the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) approach is well known — but Kabat-Zinn’s insistence on mindfulness not being a spiritual or religious experience is germane to the public discussion about all these exotic practices taking over the American mind. He’s so clear in how he opens up the discussion by suspending the more traditional terms for defining the experience. I’m going to have to re-read one of his books (well, maybe an article or a chapter).
Perhaps just as important as the Begley book is the recent publication of The Mindful Way through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness (The Guilford Press, 2007) by J. Mark G. Williams, John D. Teasdale, Zindel V. Segal, and Jon Kabat-Zinn. It gives a detailed process of how to implement a meditation practice — and find happiness at the same time. Or in more Buddhist terms, relieve human suffering. The book comes with an audio CD with guided meditations by Jon Kabat-Zinn. It’s a much more practical book, compared to Begley’s: “Mindfulness is the awareness that emerges thorugh paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally to things as they are.” Although it may not seem like it, but that is a mouthful of mindfulness. You don’t need a psychological study — you just have to sit and focus.
I have been lugging Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book, Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness, around for the past month, reading on the Metro, rather than sticking my nose in a newspaper.
Kabat-Zinn tells us that Buddha was not a Buddhist and that Buddhism is not really a religion, but a highly sophisticated psychological technique for relieving human suffering. That 17th and 18th century Westerners (“ethnologists, philologists and religious scholars”) put the religion tag on the Buddha’s followers because that’s the way Westerners’ brains worked, they needed to classify them with Christians, Muslims and pagans.
“… so we could say that the historical figure of the Buddha, and those who have followed his lead, gave the world a well-defined algorithm, a path of inquiry, which he himself pursued in search of what was almost fundamental to the nature of humanity: the possibility of being fully conscious, fully awake, and free from the fetters of our own conditioning, including our unexamined habits of thought and perception and the afflictive emotions that so intimately and frequently accompany them unbidden.” [page 129]
So “Buddhism” and Zen are not doctrines of faith, but systems of methodologies to explore the human condition. Just as yoga is not a religion — and you can practice it while remaining a Christian, Jew or atheist. This realization intrigues me because I now have another tool set to add to my survival kit and explains why I have felt drawn to understanding more about the Buddha and his teachings.
Cool, I feel more empowered already. Of course, I now have enough knowledge to be dangerous. Excuse my over-generalization.
Anne Morrow Lindbergh was a wise women. I’ve been reading Kabat-Zinn’s latest book, and the following passage resonated with it, even though it was written decades ago. Maybe she was Buddhist:
It is not physical solitude that actually separates one from others; not physical isolation, but spiritual isolation. It is not the desert island nor the stony wilderness that cuts you from the people you love. It is the wilderness in the mind, the desert wastes in the heart through which one wanders lost and a stranger. When one is a stranger to oneself then one is estranged from others too. If one is out of touch with oneself, then one cannot touch others. How often in a large city, shaking hands with my friends, I have felt the wilderness stretching between us. Both of us were wandering in arid wastes, having lost the springs that nourished us – or having found them dry. Only when one is connected to one’s own core is one connected to others, I am beginning to discover. And, for me, the core, the inner spring, can best be refound through solitude.
This excerpt comes from Gift from the Sea, written in 1955. I came across it in the Daily Dig sent out by Bruderhof Communities.
I am reading Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness. It’s a really ambitious book that addresses the personal and the global. It’s a heavy assignment because it’s 600 pages and weighs like a ton. It’s a kind of daily act of penitence to remind me about paying attention and cultivating mindfulness. That’s what I’m sweating about on the mat, to purge and purify the bullshit and get down to the essentials.
Jon Kabat-Zinn’s new book Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness
has now appeared. All 656 pages of it. Kabat-Zinn probably has a lot to say, and I will definitely read it. I have sworn that I will finish at least two of the books I have already begun reading before I order it.
I should mention that Kabat-Zinn has done some of the most respected scientifically based research on the effects of meditation, mindfulness and yoga in the past 20 years. The book brings together his investigation and thinking since his previous book, published in 1995.
I have already purchased a new set of Kabat-Zinn audio CDs/tapes, including a bodyscape, a soundscape, a mindscape, a nowscape, and a bunch more fun things to do while you’re mindful. Almost four full hours of programming — of course, most of it is silence. I’ve used his previous set for more than two years and enjoyed them. They are currently on loan to my son in graduate school.
I went to a dental appointment in the morning; it was a follow-up to treatment that had been done last week. By the time the anesthetic started wearing off, my jaw was throbbing. The nerve endings must have been hypersensitive the second time around. The pain was distracting and made me feel like a zombie. Coincidentally, I’ve been reading Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living, which is about using meditation and yoga to face pain. Of course, Kabat-Zinn is talking about chronic pain from serious illness, not just pain resulting from a dental visit. But pain is still pain, in the last count.
I decided to see if my yoga practice could help me. At lunch, I went to an available meeting room at work and shut the door. I did 15 minutes of pranayama and 30 minutes of meditation. It really did help me. The pain was still there but it seemed to shrink. It was no longer throbbing and radiating down my neck.
After work, I went to my evening yoga class. During warm up, I scanned my body and noticed that the pain had stiffened up the muscles in my neck and shoulders, even though the pain in my jaw was less severe that earlier in the day. By the end of the class, the tension had been released and I was drenched in sweat and energy.
And to top it off, I shared the class with my 27-year-old daughter. We had a light supper afterward, talking about yoga, football playoffs and life plans. Talk about feel good.
I originally wrote this account as part of my participation in the online course with Kelly McGonigal. It’s been quite enlightening and empowering. We’ll see how it plays out over the next 50 weeks.
I bought two books:
600 and 400 pages, respectively. Looks like I have my bedtime reading booked for the rest of the year.
I never thought of meditation as being pivotal to my taking up yoga and pranayama. I wanted the benefits that yogic breathing gave. Meditation seemed like a non-essential frill. None of my yoga or AOL instructors seemed too keen on pushing me in that direction. I was pretty clueless even though I was closer than I had ever thought.
Actually, I had been laboring at meditation without even realizing it. I had Jon Kabat-Zinn’s CDs about mindfulness meditation, but it seemed like such hard work to do the exercises. In December I started doing the gentle yoga exercises. I could not focus my mind on the meditations. I’d go through the motions, and scratch my head about what I was doing wrong.
But after I started getting more serious about my yoga practice and started seeing the benefits of my AOL kriya, I suddenly got the knack. The key lay in my breath — once my breath was let free, unfettered, expansive, it was a much bigger target for my mind to focus on. I could focus either on my belly moving up and down or the air going through my nostrils or the sound of my breath. They all worked.
Once I tasted the release of meditation, I was a convert. Just one session turned into a daily practice. Now I practice meditation for about 10-30 minutes every night. I never really had a problem with time — I started out at 30 minutes and only drop down the time when I’m really tired. Meditation slows down my brain and stills my body. I usually find myself going to bed earlier because I take my meditation time and then go straight to bed. I usually hit my pillow and am out like a light — I used to toss and turn in bed for hours.
I also find myself grabbing short sessions during the day — riding the Metro, after lunch in a quiet room at the OAS, waiting to pick up my daughter.
I am looking for a chance to approach meditation more systematically. I will take some classes at the Insight Meditation Center or the Shambhala Center, both of Washington. Of course, with the Web, there is lots of help online to get you pointed in the right direction. Have a look at my resource gateway.
MIT Technology Review Meditation and the Brain: “Of course, the monk lifestyle isn’t for everyone. So a recently published study on the effects of short meditation sessions with novice practitioners is perhaps of greater relevance to the rest of us. As reported in the journal Psychosomatic Medicine, Davidson and Jon Kabat-Zinn, a medical professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, conducted a small controlled study of “mindfulness meditation” training for employees of a small biotech firm. Four months after an eight-week meditation course, the researchers found that emotional and immune system benefits persisted—with just 15-minute meditation sessions only two or three times a week.”
I came back to this article after reading it two month ago. It caught my attention because it captured my penchant for rationalizing my intellectual queries and my emotional satisfaction with my yoga and meditation practice. Whenever I ease into meditation mode, it’s like slipping into a hot bath. You think to yourself — “This is so right.”
But I suddenly realized that there is another level in which this feeling of satisfaction can border on self-righteousness. There can be all kinds of claims about the value of yoga and meditation that cannot be confirmed objectively. You can see it a lot in the “life style” choices that surround these traditions. Do I have to become a vegitarian to follow through on my new yoga-based options. How can you prove some of the claims made about yoga and meditation — curing back pain, managing mood swings or increased holiness.
The interesting angle is the collaboration between Western science and Eastern wisdom.
You can find out more about this trend by going to Center for Healthy Minds for the September 2003 conference that brought the Dalai Lama to Cambridge, Mass or the Mind and Life Institute, the organization that has been exploring the trend for the past decade or so.