THE MEANING OF MINDFULNESS
More people ‘paying attention on purpose in present moment’
Jon Kabat-Zinn is Mr. Mindful. He’s been mindful for five decades — long before mindfulness was a movement, a mantra, a brand of mayonnaise, a tea and a diet.
Kabat-Zinn, 71, founder and former executive director of the University of Massachusetts Medical School’s Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society, is widely considered the father of the modern mindfulness movement, a practice derived from Buddhist meditation.
He is invited to speak all over the globe about mindfulness, which he defines as “the awareness that arises by paying attention on purpose in the present moment non-judgmentally.”
So Kabat-Zinn seems the man to ask how “mindful” became the buzzword of the moment. He responds with a shrug: “It’s a mystery to me.”
Surely, we were veering in this direction. An increasing number of academic studies, nearly 700 in 2015, have examined mindfulness’s positive effect on stress, brain connectivity and chronic medical conditions, according to the American Mindfulness Research Association, which pleases Kabat-Zinn.
The ubiquity of the adjective, however, is another matter.
“I don’t feel particularly good about it,” he says. “When something becomes hot in our society, everyone is an expert and wants to commodify it and make money from it.”
Why have we become so mindful now?
“Stress in the last 35 years has gone through the roof,” says Kabat-Zinn. “We’re multitasking continually, juggling a thousand things. Mindfulness is a way to maintain sanity.”
Perhaps the difference is that we’re aware of the stress, and we’re mindful of the time and sleep lost worrying about the stress. Also, appearances to the contrary, we have time to stress about the stress.
And there are plenty of ‘mindful’ applications:
Tara Healey is the program director for mindfulness-based learning at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, which has counselled 150 New England businesses and more than 10,000 workers on becoming more mindful.
“I am kind of happy and excited that this word is out there in the culture in a way that it never has been,” she says, “though I so worry about it getting watered down and losing the integrity of the word. It’s everywhere.”
Frequent mentions of mindfulness — slapping the word on every object and practice — don’t make us more mindful. “People have this magical belief in words as if they’re incantations. The more people use it, the less you’re distinguishing yourself from anyone else,” says Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Information, who views mindfulness as “being present with a whiff of cardamom.”
Pat Croce is energetic, fit, voluble. He made his fortune in sports medicine outlets, served as president of the NBA’s Philadelphia 76ers and opened a Florida pirate museum and a chain of piratethemed restaurants.
Now, Croce spends five hours a day on mindfulness. It’s almost his full-time job: meditating, journaling, intentionally breathing, reading, drawing Chinese characters, getting Chinese character tattoos.
“For 60 years, I trained my body,” he says. “I never did a frickin’ thing for my mind.”
In February, Croce and his wife, Diane, donated US$250,000 to his alma mater, West Chester University in suburban Philadel- phia, for mindfulness study at the school’s Center for Contemplative Studies.
“It sounds a little ‘woo-woo,’ ” Croce said when he announced the gift, “but truly, we’re all here. We’re all mindful.”
He adds: “I would like to see mindfulness become one of the core subjects in the college curriculum. Like math.”
It takes Barry Boyce nearly a quarter-hour to define mindfulness — he’s the editor of Mindful, a website and bimonthly magazine dedicated to the subject.
“The range of interpretations is huge,” he says. “We’re pretty open about letting people discover for themselves what mindfulness means. We’re just talking mindfulness here. I haven’t even gotten to defining mindful.”
But he is not a “mindful” minder. “My job is that we keep giving a meaning for people that is meaningful in a particular context in their lives,” Boyce says.
He notes that “there are some people who think it’s woo-woo” — there’s that technical term again — “but it doesn’t have to be woo-woo.”