JON KABAT-ZINN's prescription for health and happiness is to do nothing. But not do nothing in the way most people might do it, like maybe sit around and watch TV. What Kabat-Zinn has in mind is non-doing.
Or, as Kabat-Zinn puts it, "just hanging out with your own breathing."Kabat-Zinn is founder and director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, where he has taught thousands of people how to practice mindfulness meditation.
Mindfulness, says Kabat-Zinn, is the ability to live in the present, a concept that sounds easy enough, until you think about all the time we spend living in either the past or the future. We reminisce, regret, worry, anticipate. Our minds wander.
Kabat-Zinn calls it "inner busyness," and says it keeps us from being fully aware of our lives and our bodies. As a result, he says, we tend to react to life situations in ways that may not be in our best interest. We aren't tuned in to the signals our bodies give us that something is going awry. We don't know how to deal with pain. And, deep inside, we aren't calm.
Kabat-Zinn's prescription includes focusing on something as deceptively simple as breathing. (See the accompanying box.)
He was in Salt Lake City last weekend as part of "Health and Healing: A Mind Body Exploration," a workshop sponsored by the Mind Body Task Force at LDS, Alta View and Cottonwood hospitals.
A molecular biologist with a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Kabat-Zinn, now 46, has been studying yoga and meditation since he was a teenager. Along with Harvard Medical School's Dr. Herbert Benson, father of "the relaxation response," he has been a pioneer in the use of meditation practices to promote health.
Just spending time being can be profoundly healing, says Kabat-Zinn. He makes no claims that meditation can shrink tumors or unclog arteries. But it's clear, he says, that "you can change some of the risk factors that have to do with cancer and heart disease."
The patients who enroll in Kabat-Zinn's stress reduction clinic are not just stressed but are beset by chronic pain and illness. They have, in fact, an average of 22 symptoms when they start the eight-week course of meditation. On average, these are conditions that have persisted for seven years.
By the time they finish the course, however, they have an average of 14 symptoms - a 36 percent drop in ailments such as migraine headaches, high blood pressure, chest pains, dizziness, depression.
But, even though the patients find that their symptoms abate, the clinic doesn't focus on making that happen, says Kabat-Zinn. In fact, when patients come to the clinic with strong expectations of having particular symptoms disappear, they might be getting in the way of their own healing, he says.
If the essence of meditation is non-doing, he says, then trying hard to make something happen can undermine the very qualities of letting go and acceptance that allow a person to experience what he calls "wholeness." It is this feeling of wholeness, he says, that is the foundation for healing.
Kabat-Zinn has developed a mindfulness meditation TV program for use by patients lying in hospital beds, as an alternative to soap operas and game shows. The program has been purchased by more than 100 hospitals in the United States and Canada.
In other settings, too, meditation is becoming - if not exactly part of the medical mainstream in America - at least an interesting tributary.
Harvard's Herbert Benson has used his "relaxation response" - a variation of transcendental meditation - to help patients lower their blood pressure, rid themselves of migraine headaches and reduce cardiac risk factors.
Dean Ornish, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, made headlines recently when he reported that daily yoga meditation, along with a vegetarian diet, moderate exercise and smoking cessation, may cause a regression of atherosclerosis, without the use of drugs.
Although Ornish has not yet separated out which of the variables actually changed his patients' arteries, the results do pave the way for a closer look at meditation - as something more thanjust a relic of America's hippie past.
Transcendental meditation entered the popular culture in the late '60s, when the Beatles suddenly showed up wearing Nehru jackets and spouting the wisdom of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, guru of transcendental meditation.
In TM, the meditator uses the repetition of a mantra, or Hindi word, to replace the mind's persistent jabbering with silence and calmness.
"It's a deeper relaxation than deep sleep," says Lynn Napper, a US WEST switching design engineer who has been meditating for 33 years. Napper practiced zen meditation for 21 years, then changed over to TM.
TM is the most popular of the various meditation techniques practiced in the United States, and in Utah. But it is not the only one. Locally there are several meditation groups - including a new offshoot of TM called transcendental deep meditation; the Sidda Meditation Center; the Zen Foundation Study Group; and the Self Realization Fellowship, a group connected with the New Frontier markets.
LDS Hospital's new Mind Body clinic, scheduled to open next winter, will use still another form of meditation - mindfulness - for stress reduction, illness prevention and as a way to promote the body's self-healing, says Peg Michel, chairwoman of the Mind Body Task Force.
Unlike TM, which uses a mantra to still the mind, mindfulness focuses on being doggedly in the present. It's not a trance, notes Kabat-Zinn. It's a state of increased awareness, and as a result it gives patients "a sense of control over their lives."
You can practice mindfulness meditation while you're driving or walking or making dinner or just sitting, he says. The trick is to focus on the moment at hand.
"I'm talking about something so unbelievably simple," says Kabat-Zinn. "But not necessarily very easy."