Mindfulness Meditation by Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD
“Meditation is simply about being yourself and knowing about who that is. It is about coming to realize that you are on a path whether you like it or not, namely the path that is your life.” — Jon Kabat-Zinn
Mindfulness meditation has grown tremendously in popularity in the past decade in both lay practice and in psychotherapy research literature. When practiced regularly, mindfulness meditation is thought to help develop habitual, unconscious behaviours that can potentially produce widespread positive effects on physical and psychological health (1). The term mindfulness refers to the psychological state of awareness (2). Practicing mindfulness, namely being aware of one’s experience(s), is regarded as an effective remedy against common forms of psychological distress, including anxiety and anger (3). Mindfulness requires the capacity to fixate one’s attention on what is happening, and simultaneously switch attention from one aspect of the experience to another (2). Mindfulness meditation has been empirically tested to be associated with psychological well-being. Studies conclude that meditation mindfulness-based therapy is effective for altering cognitive processes that affect multiple clinical issues, including anxiety and depression. More than other types of meditation, mindfulness meditation has been shown to have significant benefits on psychological well-being by better stimulating the middle prefrontal brain associated with self-observation, and by fostering attentional mechanisms known to bring a sense of calmness to one’s mind (3).
The integration of mindfulness meditation into Western medicine and psychology can be traced back to the growth of Zen Buddhism in America in the 1950s and 1960s (4). One of the most well-known figures in incorporating Eastern techniques with traditional Western medicine is Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. who is now considered to be the “Father of Mindfulness” and mindfulness meditation. Jon Kabat-Zinn is an MIT-trained molecular biologist who began meditating in 1966 when the practice was primarily discounted by scientists (5). Following his personal practice, Jon founded Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) (5). Dozens of studies have since shown the benefits of MBSR in treating cardiovascular disease, depression, mental illnesses, stress, addictions, chronic pain, and many other conditions (6). Due, in part, to his efforts, mindfulness meditation has become incorporated into mainstream medicine and MBSR is currently being used in more than 700 hospitals and clinics worldwide (5).
Overall interest in MBSR, from the perspectives of lay persons, scientists, and health care professionals, has grown exponentially since its introduction approximately 30 years ago. MBSR is a regulated, clinical group program that engages its participants in mindfulness meditation to alleviate suffering associated with physical, psychosomatic, and psychiatric disorders (6). As a single, cost-effective and relatively brief-but-effective, psychotherapy program, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction has the potential to be applied to a range of chronic illnesses and is able to effect a positive shift in fundamental perspectives towards one disease (6). The program aims to provide partakers with a systematic training in mindfulness meditation as a self-regulatory approach to stress reduction and emotion management that can be used to aid in a variety of health concerns (6). This is primarily done through the formal practice of MBSR, which comprises of breath-focused attention, focusing on the transient nature of sensory experiences, shifting attention across sensory modalities, open monitoring of the moment-to-moment experience, walking meditation, and an eating meditation (6). In its informal practice, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction entails brief pauses throughout one’s thinking to invoke a willingness to shift one’s attention to the present moment (6).
The primary goal of this training is to provide individuals with adequate training in meditation techniques to foster the quality of “mindfulness” in their own lives (6). In its totality, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction helps participants cultivate a non-judgmental, yet perceptive, observation of all the stimuli that enter their minds or fields of awareness on a moment by moment basis (6). This mindfulness practice allows for greater awareness of the present moment, as the individual partaking in this technique learns to let go of musings about the past and the constant fears concerning the future. Aligning with the principles of ‘mindfulness’, MBSR is also designed to teach participants to become more aware of, and relate differently, to thoughts, feelings, and body sensations (6). For instance, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction aims to teach patients with social anxiety to approach stressful situations “mindfully” so they may respond to the situation in a way that helps promote wellness instead of automatically reacting to it, which may cause undue harm. In helping to regulate one’s emotions, mindfulness meditation leads to an increased positive effect in one’s mind, including decreased anxiety (7), which can be particularly helpful for those who are experiencing a chronic illness or state of stress.
While mindfulness meditation, as posited by Jon Kabat-Zinn, is primarily designed to establish control over automatic thought patterns and negative affective responses, as previously discussed, many health researchers have also explored the important physiological effects of the practice. Many findings support the hypothesis that mindful meditation directly reduces the harmful effects of stress, which could possibly prevent the occurrence of major or even fatal stress-related illnesses. For example, seminal work done by Wallace and Benson suggests that for an average patient, their heart rate can decrease by as many as three to five beats per minute during their meditative practice (9). These results were confirmed by many other studies in the literature (10). This may have potential in relieving or preventing certain forms of cardiovascular disease and other vascular conditions (11).
Given the empirical support for the benefits of mindfulness meditation, many psychologists recommend mindfulness meditation as a psychosocial technique of improving self-care to help combat daily stressors or as a treatment for mental health concerns. In particular, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction is now being widely used as a way to help support particular individuals in self-managing the stress and emotional distress that is commonly associated with a range of chronic illnesses, including psychiatric disorders (6). With meditation’s rise in popularity, there is now a slew of available ways to approach and adopt the ancient practice. For starters, we recommend that whenever you notice that your mind has wandered, gently bring your attention back to the sensations of the moment by practicing mindfulness. No matter where you are—on your commute, at work, or just at home watching the news—just tapping into the power of creating mindfulness may help trigger your relaxation response.
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