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But ultimately, a professor may prove more valuable than a guru in spreading the word on mindfulness. The son of an immunologist and an artist, Kabat-Zinn, now 69, was earning a doctorate in molecular biology at MIT in the early 1970s when he attended a lecture about meditation given by a Zen master. "It was very moving. I started meditating that day," he says. "And the more I meditated, the more I felt like there was something else missing that science could say in terms of, like, how we live as human beings."
By 1979, Kabat-Zinn had earned his Ph.D. and was working at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center studying muscle development and teaching anatomy and cell biology to medical students. On a meditation retreat that year, he had a revelation. What if he could use Buddhism-based meditation to help patients cope with conditions like chronic pain? Even if he couldn't alleviate their symptoms, Kabat-Zinn speculated that mindfulness training might help patients refocus their attention so they could change their response to pain and thereby reduce their overall suffering.
With three physicians, Kabat-Zinn opened a stress-reduction clinic at UMass based on meditation and mindfulness. "It was just a little pilot on zero dollars," he says.
Almost immediately, some of the clinic's patients reported that their pain levels diminished. For others, the pain remained the same, but the mindfulness training made them better able to handle the stress of living with illness. They were able to separate their day-to-day experiences from their identity as pain patients. "That's what you most hope for," says Kabat-Zinn, "not that you can cure all diseases, but you could help people live in a way that didn't erode their quality of life beyond a certain point." Eventually Kabat-Zinn's program was absorbed into the UMass department of medicine and became the MBSR curriculum now used by hundreds of teachers across the country.
In the years since, scientists have been able to prove that meditation and rigorous mindfulness training can lower cortisol levels and blood pressure, increase immune response and possibly even affect gene expression. Scientific study is also showing that meditation can have an impact on the structure of the brain itself. Building on the discovery that brains can change based on experiences and are not, as previously believed, static masses that are set by the time a person reaches adulthood, a growing field of neuroscientists are now studying whether meditation--and the mindfulness that results from it--can counteract what happens to our minds because of stress, trauma and constant distraction. The research has fueled the rapid growth of MBSR and other mindfulness programs inside corporations and public institutions.