The Healing Power of Mindfulness P5

Daniel Vinograd

 

 

So learning, and out of that learning, growing; and out of that growing, healing, which in my vocabulary, the way I define healing is coming to terms with things as they are. Coming to terms with things as they are. Very different from curing. There are very few cures in medicine, but the opportunity for healing – as long as there’s breath – it’s in some sense already here. All we need to do is see it, feel it, live it. It’s not about denying pain and suffering; it’s about in some sense befriending even that.

 

Resting for a final few moments in stillness, in silence, in wakefulness and full awareness. Outside of time, as if you had nothing to do, no place to go, nothing to do. And nothing to attain, because you’re already whole – the meaning, by the way, of the words “health” and “healing” and even the word “holy.”

 

By the same token, the word “medicine” and the word “meditation,” they grow out of the same tree, the same root, Indo-European root. Medicine and meditation are joined at the hip. It was not so radical to actually bring them together in mainstream clinical care. In fact, it’s essential for caring.

 

So silent wakefulness. Attending to what is. (rings bell five times)

 

Now the real meditation practice never stops. Just because some bells got rung, just because we’re going to shift gears a little bit, the real meditation practice is how you live your life from moment to moment. It’s not how good you are at sitting without moving, or what great yoga poses you’re doing. Because yoga is itself a meditation, a beautiful form of meditation that we use enormously, and it’s a good purpose in MBSR, Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.

 

I’d like to just say a few things about stress and medicine, and then open it up and give you a little bit more of an expanse of how we work. But I wanted you to have at least this taste of it, and I want to share a couple of poems with you. It’s not like all of a sudden I’m going a little weird on you. How many of you, when you heard the word “poetry” or “poems,” you go, “Oh no, not a poem. I don’t understand those things”? (laughter) That’s not uncommon.

 

But one of my colleagues, John Teasdale, with whom I wrote that book, The Mindful Way Through Depression – who is one of the world’s great cognitive scientists – is coming out with several papers in which he is arguing that the root cause of suffering in human beings is not knowing how to deal with our emotions because we don’t know how to inhabit and then shift our relationship to what he calls implicational meaning. Implicational meaning is what moves, say, in poetry. It’s different from the propositional meaning, which is just the bare facts.

 

I’ll recite a poem for you. This is a poem by Antonio Machado, who’s a great Spanish poet of the turn of the 19th, 20th century and won the Nobel prize. It’s very short, but see if you can feel it:

 

The wind, one brilliant day, called
to my soul with an odor of jasmine.

 

In exchange for the odor of my jasmine,

I would like the odor of your roses.
I have no roses; all the flowers
in my garden are dead.

 

Can you feel that? How many times have we had that feeling, or similar feeling? “I have no roses.” There’s nothing beautiful about me. “All the flowers in my garden are dead.”

 

Well then, I’ll take the withered petals
and the yellow leaves and the waters in the fountain.

And the wind left. And I wept. And I said to myself:
“What have you done to the garden that was entrusted to you?”

 

Can you feel that? This is a poem about great sadness. Could easily go into depression. Just because it’s a Nobel laureate, doesn’t mean – I like to actually change the last line. (laughter) I would suggest that for our purposes, rather than “What have you done to the garden that was entrusted to you?”, which is a kind of blaming, wouldn’t you say? It’s like stick the knife in and then, “Oh, right, as long as I’m feeling down, why not just go right over the edge?” A lot of cultures actually perpetrate that kind of perspective.

 

But instead, why don’t we say “What are we doing with the gardens that are entrusted to us?” Gardens, plural. Okay? Because right now, we have a lot of gardens entrusted to us, I would say. The closest to us is, I would say, the garden of the body. Better than an American Express credit card; you can’t leave home without it. (laughter) A lot of the time, we’re not even in the body, and a lot of the time, our feelings about the body are so negative that the less said, the better. Just don’t bother me about the body. I don’t even want to know it exists. If it’s not driving me crazy, I feel lucky.

 

James Joyce is famous for starting out a short story in Dubliners with the following sentence. This is an approximation, but it’s “Mr. Duffy lived a short distance from his body.” (laughter) If you start to pay attention in the way that I’m suggesting, in the present moment, you’ll discover that that’s your address as well, a lot of the time. We’re in our heads, lost in thought. Someplace else, not in the body.

 

That has biological consequences, by the way. Everything I’ve said tonight, when I started the stress reduction clinic in 1979, there was almost no science of the effects of stress and the biology of stress on the body and on the mind and on the brain and on the heart. Now, the data is just overwhelming. Including, as I’ll show you in a minute, aging. That it’s turning out that stress – they used to say stress is not a real risk factor for morbidity or mortality because it’s not like a  high-fat diet, it’s not like cigarette smoking, it’s not like hypertension, high blood pressure.

 

But now it turns out, there’s incontrovertible evidence that stress actually increases the rate of degradation of the ends of all of our chromosomes, which are called telomeres. You’re going to hear a lot more about that word. The woman, Liz Blackburn, at UCSF who actually discovered telomerase, which is the enzyme that builds them back up, won the Nobel Prize in 2008. Her lab is studying the effects of mindfulness on telomeres and telomerase. The evidence is moving in the direction of meditation can actually enhance telomerase.

 

Not just that; it’s more than meditation or mindfulness, it’s your attitude towards what’s happening. It’s not like these people aren’t under a huge amount of stress, but it’s never the stress; it’s how you choose to be in relationship to it. If you have really exhausted your resources for handling stress, then of course, yeah, all bets are off. But if you know how to draw resources to yourself, then even under very, very high levels of stress, you can dance with the energy. Sometimes it’s unbelievably painful, but nevertheless, you’re much bigger even than the pain and suffering, and liberate yourself from that. And guess what? The telomeres get longer.

 

Every aspect of our biology is what’s now called plastic. That’s a new terminology. It’s not like Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate. This is for the older people. (laughter) But it means that our biology is miraculous in another way: it’s constantly reorganizing itself. It’s not just “it’s all downhill from here.” Yes, there is aging; yes, we are all going to die, unless somebody makes a very important discovery very quickly. But the question is not “is there life after death?” or “is there some way to escape death?”, but actually, “can we live while we have a chance?” “Is there life before death?” That’s the most interesting question. And right up to the moment of death.

 

A lot of times, I think that really, when we talk about fear of death, we’re really more afraid of life than we are of death. There are two chapters – I was going to actually tel you some stories, but I don’t think I will, about my early days at MIT, one of which was how I got into meditation. I got into meditation at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a graduate student in molecular biology with a Nobel laureate, believe it or not. Go figure. Not in some monastery in Asia. Because the Zen master came and gave a talk, actually, at MIT, and I was one of five people in all of MIT that went to the talk. (laughter)

 

It took the top off my head at the age of 22. It was like, “Oh my God, there’s an entirely different way of knowing. Why didn’t they tell us this in kindergarten?” (laughter) An entirely different way of knowing, and no less beautiful, no less profound, no less transformative than thought. Just different. This should be part of the repertoire, so to speak, and part of the science and investigation.

 

The other thing was the story of my thesis defense. Because I wrote a thesis on some arcane topic in molecular biology, and it was all these MIT Nobel laureate types, real hotshot molecular biologists. A few from Harvard who came over because you always have to have someone from another institution. My thesis, it was an existential challenge for me. How many of you are graduate students here? Anybody a graduate student? It’s like, hard. (laughter) Hard to be a graduate student. Because nobody cares, and most of the time you don’t either, but it can be really humiliating. Then of course, if you’re a scientist, science is 99% failure. Which doesn’t do that much for your self-esteem, so to speak. Then you’re looking for the 1%.

 

So I finally got my thesis together, and I wrote in the front page, on a page by itself – they let you have a little dedication, a little saying or something like that – I wrote “He who dies before he dies does not die when he dies.” I don’t even know where I got it. (laughter) It was some Greek. Very old Greek. So I put that line in the first page by itself before getting into the thesis. I go into the room with all these scientists who are going to decide whether I get my doctorate or not, after what’s called – I forgot what they even call it, but a thesis review – defense. Right, defense. It’s a war term. (laughter) They’re going to attack and I’m going to defend, and if I do it well enough, then…
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