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Mindfulness Is Everywhere. Is It Working For Everyone?

Miami Beach, Fla. Wednesday, April 28, 2010. (Lynne Sladky/AP)
Miami Beach, Fla. Wednesday, April 28, 2010. (Lynne Sladky/AP)

With Meghna Chakrabarti

Less stress and more inner peace. We walk through the promises of living mindfully.


Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Author of “Falling Awake: How to Practice Mindfulness in Everyday Life” and “Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life.” (@jonkabatzinn)

Rhonda Magee, professor at the University of San Francisco School of Law. Author of “The Inner Work of Racial Justice: Healing Ourselves and Transforming Our Communities Through Mindfulness.” (@rvmagee)

From The Reading List

Parade: “Meet Mr. Mindfulness: How Jon Kabat-Zinn Brought Mindfulness to the Masses” — “There are many reasons why mindfulness has become a buzzword in current mainstream culture. The tensions of life in the early 21st century have certainly created an urgent demand for it. But perhaps the single most important figure in the mainstreaming of mindfulness has been Jon Kabat-Zinn, creator of the MBSR (Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction) training program. This accessible brand of mindfulness training has helped thousands of people alleviate the harmful effects of not only stress but also medical conditions ranging from chronic pain to psoriasis.

“Kabat-Zinn was working on a Ph.D. in molecular biology at MIT in Boston when he attended a lecture on meditation by the Zen Buddhist teacher Philip Kapleau. Both before and after completing his doctorate in 1971, Kabat-Zinn studied meditation with prominent Buddhist teachers such as Thich Nhat Hanh and Seung Sahn, and also at the Insight Meditation Center in Boston, where he later became a teacher.

“By 1979, he was doing postdoctoral work in cell biology and anatomy at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and had 13 years of meditation training and practice under his belt. During a two-week meditation retreat, he had a vision of his ‘karmic assignment’ in life. He’d use the insights he’d gained from Buddhism to help Americans suffering from chronic health conditions and stress. To carry out that mission, he convinced the University of Massachusetts Medical School to let him establish the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic there.”

Above The Law: “Using Mindfulness To Combat Social Bias” — “Rhonda Magee is Professor of Law at the University of San Francisco. She teaches Mindfulness-Based Interventions and is a student of awareness and compassion practices from a range of traditions. I had the opportunity to sit down with her to chat about how we can use mindfulness to combat social bias.

“Jeena: You’ve written and done a lot of work around social justice and implicit bias, and how mindfulness can help us to be more aware and to start to shift, and really use mindfulness as a tool for uncovering our own bias. Tell me about that.

“Rhonda: We know from neurobiology that our bodies are formed to respond to perceived threats in one of a few deeply ingrained ways; to flee or flight. Polarizing is another common response.

“Choosing to tend and befriend, to not flee, to know that there are other options often involves a more sophisticated engagement with our capabilities.

“Moving from what many people call the early human aspects of the developed brain, the reptilian kind of brain and cortex and into the neocortex; the later evolved part of our brain that assists us in making these more sophisticated decisions, responses to these stimuli in our world.”

The Guardian: “The mindfulness conspiracy” — “Mindfulness has gone mainstream, with celebrity endorsement from Oprah Winfrey and Goldie Hawn. Meditation coaches, monks and neuroscientists went to Davos to impart the finer points to CEOs attending the World Economic Forum. The founders of the mindfulness movement have grown evangelical. Prophesying that its hybrid of science and meditative discipline ‘has the potential to ignite a universal or global renaissance’, the inventor of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Jon Kabat-Zinn, has bigger ambitions than conquering stress. Mindfulness, he proclaims, ‘may actually be the only promise the species and the planet have for making it through the next couple of hundred years.’ ”

“So, what exactly is this magic panacea? In 2014, Time magazine put a youthful blonde woman on its cover, blissing out above the words: ‘The Mindful Revolution.’ The accompanying feature described a signature scene from the standardised course teaching MBSR: eating a raisin very slowly. ‘The ability to focus for a few minutes on a single raisin isn’t silly if the skills it requires are the keys to surviving and succeeding in the 21st century,’ the author explained.

“But anything that offers success in our unjust society without trying to change it is not revolutionary – it just helps people cope. In fact, it could also be making things worse. Instead of encouraging radical action, mindfulness says the causes of suffering are disproportionately inside us, not in the political and economic frameworks that shape how we live. And yet mindfulness zealots believe that paying closer attention to the present moment without passing judgment has the revolutionary power to transform the whole world. It’s magical thinking on steroids.

“There are certainly worthy dimensions to mindfulness practice. Tuning out mental rumination does help reduce stress, as well as chronic anxiety and many other maladies. Becoming more aware of automatic reactions can make people calmer and potentially kinder. Most of the promoters of mindfulness are nice, and having personally met many of them, including the leaders of the movement, I have no doubt that their hearts are in the right place. But that isn’t the issue here. The problem is the product they’re selling, and how it’s been packaged. Mindfulness is nothing more than basic concentration training. Although derived from Buddhism, it’s been stripped of the teachings on ethics that accompanied it, as well as the liberating aim of dissolving attachment to a false sense of self while enacting compassion for all other beings.”

Adam Waller produced this hour for broadcast.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.