The Healing Power of Mindfulness

Daniel Vinograd

MOORE: My name is Helen Damon-Moore, and I am the Director of Service and Education at the Tucker Foundation here at Dartmouth College. I am honored to welcome you all and to introduce Jon Kabat-Zinn on behalf of the Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center Palliative Care Service, the Tucker Foundation, the Ruben Committee of Dartmouth College, Alice Peck Day Hospital, Dartmouth Medical School, the Norris Cotton Cancer Center, and the Valley Insight Meditation Society.


Special thanks to Ira Byock and Ivan Corbet [sp] and the Palliative Care Service for partnering on this project, and to those at Tucker who have worked so hard and who are this week celebrating the 60th anniversary year of the Tucker Foundation Dartmouth Center for Service, Spirituality, and Social Justice.


We are pleased to welcome Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn to Dartmouth College today for the second time. Kabat-Zinn first visited Dartmouth in the summer of 1984, when the college and the Connecticut River served as the training camp for the men’s Olympic rowing team. He was the meditation trainer for the team, helping them to optimize their mental performance. Today, he is here to help optimize our performance.


Jon Kabat-Zinn holds a PhD in molecular biology from MIT. He is Professor of Medicine Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society and its mindfulness-based stress reduction clinic. He is the author of numerous bestselling books, including Full Catastrophe Living, Wherever You Go, There You Are, Coming to Our Senses, and The Mindful Way Through Depression, co-authored with Williams, Teasdale, and Segal.


Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s research focuses on mind-body interactions for healing and on the clinical applications and cost-effectiveness of mindfulness training for people with chronic pain and stress-related disorders, including the effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction on the brain. His current projects include editing The Mind’s Own Physician with Richard Davidson, and guest co-editing with Mark Williams a special issue of the journal Contemporary Buddhism.


Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s work has contributed hugely to a growing movement of mindfulness in mainstream institutions such as medicine, psychology, healthcare, schools and colleges, corporations, prisons, and professional sports. Courtesy of Kari Jo Grant here in our Student Health Promotion Department, Dr. Kabat-Zinn and his work have even made their way to the inside of our bathroom doors, featured as they are in the current edition of the Dartmouth College Stall Street Journal.


Please join me in welcoming Jon Kabat-Zinn back to Dartmouth College.


KABAT-ZINN: Thank you. It’s a delight to be here. Do I have to have the light this bright in my eyes? Maybe you could tone it down a little bit, so that people can still see me, but I’d like to be able to see you, too.


It’s a delight to be here. It’s nice to walk into a theater where mindfulness is on the marquee. You know you’ve really made it when it’s on the marquee along with Frankenstein. (laughter) It’s like you’re part of the mainstream, so to speak, however that goes, from moment to moment and from day to day. But it’s really a delight to be here.


I am here, basically, because of Helen Damon-Moore and her work, which I got to actually see at the University of Iowa, when she was at Iowa before coming here. Also Dr. Ira Byock, who I met in Ireland about two years ago – almost exactly two years ago – and I was just incredibly impressed by what he’s doing with integrative medicine and palliative care. I don’t live that far from this place, and I got in the car this morning and drove up. I’m really happy to be here for the next three days.


To have this many people come out at 4:30 on a sunny afternoon, after the kind of winter that we’ve had, to a talk about mindfulness is really some kind of indicator that something has shifted in the society. You all have better things to do, I’m sure, this afternoon, than to come here. Unless you have some kind of real intuition about what the healing power of mindfulness might be, and then it might actually be incredibly valuable to spend the end of a nice sunny Thursday afternoon here together.


This talk is really not about me or what I have to say; it’s about us. It’s about every single one of us, and in some sense, what the potential is, as the slide says, for living your moments as if they really mattered. I put a little asterisk in there, just kind of an aside, “and they actually do.” The reason they do is because we’re only alive when we’re alive. This seems a no-brainer, but you could say that a lot of our lives, we’re walking around with a no-brainer or just basically no brain, or the brain is on auto-pilot or something like that. What mindfulness really is about is bringing it back online, so to speak, in the present moment. Because that turns out to be the only moment any of us ever have.


But we’re so good at thinking, so incredibly good at thinking, that we can spend enormous amounts of our time and energy absorbed in the past. Have you noticed that? Just incredible preoccupations about who’s to blame for why it’s like this, or how great it was in the good old days, and why can’t it be that way now? There’s a tremendous attraction to the past, or a tremendous aversion. But whether it’s attraction or aversion, we spend a lot of time there. Would you agree? Have you noticed that a lot of the time, if you check on what your mind is up to, it’s up to memory. It’s up to thinking about things that are already over, to a large degree.


The other favorite preoccupation of the mind is in the opposite direction, the future. If, again, you check in every once in a while, just to – sometimes I like to say you can call yourself up. You may have to, because we are “on” 24/7. We’re infinitely connected. Probably every single person has one of these in their pocket. I hope there are some exceptions. And they’re called “smart” phones, but they’re not – but they can really dumb us down, because we can be infinitely connected everywhere except here. So we may need to call ourselves up every once in a while, “Hello, Jon? Are you actually here?” (laughter) And the answer is, “No, I’m off in the future, thinking.” By the way, of course you’ll get a bill from AT&T or Verizon.


But seriously, what are our favorite preoccupations in the future? Well, one is worrying. I don’t know about in the north country; maybe you’ve gone beyond worrying. But the rest of the world, a lot of worry about things that haven’t happened yet, and may never happen. In fact, Mark Twain is famous for having said – you probably heard this in a lot of different guises, but he’s famous for having said, “There’s been a huge amount of tragedy in my life, and some of it actually happened.” (laughter)


There is this saying that “he died 1,000 deaths.” We drive ourselves crazy over things that are not going to be happening, because we’re not smart enough to actually forecast the future, but that doesn’t prevent us from driving ourselves crazy and perseverating over and over and over again about what will happen, and then something else happens, because we’re not that smart. So something else happens, and we say we’re blindsided.


How many of you would like the future to be different from the way we think it’s going to turn out? Anybody ever find yourself wishing the future was going to be majorly different, that we’d make some kind of change in the world? Raise your hands. I want to just feel in the audience.


I heard social justice mentioned earlier, and this is, after all, a university or – I guess you call yourself a college, but a campus kind of situation – so it doesn’t surprise me. This kind of engagement really requires thinking about what it means to make the future different. How can we possibly apply any leverage? Could we find an Archimedes fulcrum with which to influence the future? There’s only one fulcrum that I know of for that, and that is the present. Because guess what? We’re living in the future of every single moment in all of our lives that came before this one.


Do you remember back – I see there’s kind of a range of ages, although most of you don’t look like you’re college students, I’ve got to say. (laughter) And I’m a little disappointed. Not that I’m disappointed that you came, but I’d like to see a lot more college students. They’re going to Frankenstein, probably, later. It’s an awkward time of day for the young people. How many of you are under 25? 25 or under? Oh, so I’m wrong. That’s really nice to be wrong. (applause)


I was going to say to the older people, maybe you did it when you were even younger; do you remember before you came to college here, and probably you got into planning what the courses were that you were going to take when you got a hold of the catalogue, or you went online and you began planning, “Oh, in the freshman year I’ll take this, and sophomore year, and the junior year…” And then maybe you planned even who you were going to meet and who you might marry and what your children will look like. Does that sound familiar? Sometimes we do that when we’re young. And then we think that it’s all going to turn out in the future.


No matter what your age is, I’ve got news for you: this is it. It already turned out. How did it turn out? It turned out just like this. In this moment, your life is just like this. Not happy with it, a little bit sad or depressed or wishing it was different? That’s not a problem. That’s not a problem, because we can always feel like okay, how are we going to be in relationship to this? Of course, life is not easy. A lot of times we’re faced with enormous challenges, sometimes with enormous pain, sometimes with enormous threat. That’s part of the human condition.


But the real interesting question when it concerns, say, the future, and concerns living as if life really mattered, is can we actually be in the present moment when things are not the way we thought they would be? Or sometimes the shorthand for it is “I didn’t sign up for this.”



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