by Lee Goodwin
There is a movement afoot these days. It is not a political movement, but it has implications for the lives of countless people every day. It is a movement deeply rooted in religious traditions, but it is not the property of any church or synagogue, mosque or temple. It is a movement that is accessible to every person and holds the promise of great healing. The movement is known in shorthand as “mindfulness.” At its core, mindfulness is rooted in contemplative practices that can be found in all of the world’s major spiritual traditions. However, it finds its clearest expression in the twenty-five hundred year old Buddhist tradition of meditative practice. In the past thirty years, there has been a tremendous acceleration of interest in the application of mindfulness practices, especially as a complement to mainstream medicine and mental health practice.
Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) is a prime example of this movement. It began at the University of Massachusetts with the work of Jon Kabat Zinn (Full Catastrophe Living). Kabat Zinn felt that there could be no better place to introduce those long tested meditative practices than in a hospital. He created the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Stress Reduction and Relaxation Course in order to work with patients for whom it seemed medicine had reached the limits of its capacity to help. Kabat Zinn also understood the importance of doing research. The practice and effect of mindfulness practice would need to be replicable and verifiable in order to gain acceptance in the mainstream of medicine. It has. Since 1979, at UMass alone, over 17,000 patients have completed the MBSR course and MBSR is being taught in over 240 medical centers around the world.
Each MBSR class immerses students in a variety of meditative and attentional capacities. Sitting meditation, walking meditation, yoga and simply attending to pleasant and unpleasant events during the day, all are aimed at helping participants become more open and aware to more of their lives. The aim being that being more awake leads to greater freedom to choose how to live each moment of this precious life.
As an indication of the scope of this mindfulness movement, the University of Wisconsin’s Dr. Richard Davidson was recently awarded a major National Institutes for Health (NIH) grant to study the effects of meditation practice on the brain. The Mind and Life Institute has for decades now carried on significant discussions between scientists and contemplatives at the behest of the Dalai Lama. Major studies of the effects of mindfulness practice are going on every day. A quick Google search of mindfulness and the NIH will reveal the wide range of clinical trials and other studies that are being conducted across the country.
Still, for all the promise that this research and mainline acceptance holds, there is a dimension of this work that eludes the precision and technical skills of the scientific mind. It has been said that in most Asian languages the word for mind and the word for heart are the same. So, to understand mindfulness fully one must also see it as heartfulness. There is a deep mystery that is being uncovered in this movement and it holds tremendous potential for healing. There is a also a delightful joke in all of it – and the joke is that after all the searching and study, the capacity for health and wholeness was there lying close all along just waiting to be found.
Lee Goodwin is a Lutheran pastor currently serving as the director of The Sabbath Project, a program providing support for professional leaders of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America who serve parishes in the Upper Peninsula and northern Wisconsin.