I like to think that conditions are ripe for a new, more enlightened, mindfulness-based renaissance here in the United States, if not the world. I envision something of a “dharmic” rotation in consciousness. Driven by the strong inward longing of our society for well-being, meaning and connectedness, mindfulness practice has the capacity to transform our institutions for greater peace, to enrich our lives, and to sustain our planet.
In 1979, we established the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in a conscious attempt to introduce the essence of Buddhist mindfulness meditation practice and mindful Hatha yoga to patients within the mainstream of medicine and healthcare. For many years we did our work without anyone knowing about what we were doing. Our sense was that if we did the work with integrity, and it was of some real value, the ripples would go out by themselves. Over the past sixteen years, more than 7,000 people with a wide range of chronic medical problems, diseases and pain conditions have taken our eight-week training program in mindfulness meditation, and many have continued with regular meditation practice. Now our approach is becoming known nationwide, in part because of the success of the Bill Moyers special Healing and the Mind, which featured the work of our clinic and other similar programs. We now receive over a hundred calls a day, more than half of them from professional people who have been touched by mindfulness in one way or another—even just the idea of it—and are hoping that through us they can learn more for themselves and their clients.
To better serve in our capacity as “mother ship” to this rapidly growing pool, this past January we established a Center For Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society, also under the auspices of the University of Massachusetts. Our mission is to disseminate an understanding of what mindfulness practice really is, as well as its potential range of applications in life—in medicine, healthcare, prisons, schools, the inner city, corporations, factories, sports venues and at home.
Over the past several years, people have done amazing things in adapting the curriculum we use in our clinic and have had successes I never would have thought possible. An elementary school teacher, Cherry Hamrick, who practices with tremendous devotion, has introduced mindfulness-based stress reduction within a public school system in Utah. She has integrated mindfulness training into the fourth-grade curriculum, and her work has been supported and adopted by other teachers and parents to an extraordinary degree. The curriculum includes body scans, sitting meditation, Hatha yoga, walking meditation and eating meditation.
Cherry has been able to integrate mindfulness into the curriculum based on the state of Utah’s own formulation of educational objectives: learning should be a fourfold process involving the body, emotion, intuition and cognition. Most education is oriented toward cognition: learn these facts and spew them back out. But Cherry is using mindfulness as a way of grounding kids in the feeling states of their bodies, in their emotions, in trusting their intuition as disputes come up with their friends or as they grapple with an assignment and how they are feeling about it. With this foundation, she teaches the details of math, vocabulary and science.
The kids are engaged in helping shape their own practice in the classroom.They decided to stand silently waiting to go in at the bell. They do walking meditation as they are going to their seats. One child per day has the responsibility to decide how long the group will do sitting meditation (up to fifteen minutes) and to ring the bell for the start and close of the sitting. Through mindfulness, Cherry teaches communication, self-esteem, honoring other people’s feelings, and acting with compassion in the world.
One might think that Mormons (who make up a large majority of the citizens in Utah) would have strong objections to sending their kids to a classroom organized around meditation and yoga. In fact, the first year, the parents did have all sorts of questions and concerns. So Cherry has begun to offer an eight-week course for the parents of the kids who are in her class. Starting in September, she teaches the parents mindfulness-based stress reduction so that they will understand what their children are doing. On another evening, she offers a similar course for the other teachers in the school.
Throughout the country, there are lots of teachers who are experimenting with this approach to one degree or another, or who are yearning to do so. Cherry and I piloted a “Mindfulness in the Classroom” workshop at Interface, Cambridge, Massachusetts in April, 1995. Over 100 teachers participated.
There is a tremendous hunger for this training in the field of education, just as there is in many other domains. We have done mindfulness training with numerous groups, from the Olympic Rowing Team and the Chicago Bulls to corporations looking to create a happier and healthier workforce. My feeling is that there is nothing particularly problematic about being out front in using the term meditation in these diverse settings as long as we redefine what meditation is so that it is freed from religious connotations that may be threatening to many people. Instead, we present it as part of the universal human repertoire of sensible things to know about and practice.
I believe that there is a tremendous potential for transforming the institutions of the society if the teaching of mindfulness is introduced into “orthogonal” programs within larger institutions. We use the term orthogonal to describe a program or institution which is rotated in consciousness. Our mission at the Stress Reduction Clinic has been orthogonal from the start. From the outside, the Stress Reduction Clinic is no different from any other clinic in the hospital, physical therapy, HIV clinic, etc. It has people that see patients, a budget, employees. But once you get inside the Stress Reduction Clinic, you realize that, in fact, we are operating out of a different paradigm that embodies principles the larger institution may want to embody but often doesn’t. Some of those principles are that each encounter between human beings is sacred, that each encounter is held in mindfulness, and that the staff members make their work part of their meditation practice and their meditation practice part of their work. After all these years that the Stress Reduction Clinic has been in operation as part of the medical center, the institution at large is beginning to recognize that mindfulness has a profound generic value. There is starting to be a sense that the whole institution should become more aligned with those kinds of principles. Amazing as it may seem, a mainstream university medical center is saying: Not only do we have a center for mindfulness, we are a center for mindfulness.
Meditation is not “the answer” to all of life’s problems. Anybody who practices knows that. But most of us who practice meditation do so to live more integrated, peaceful, wiser lives. I’ve found that you can find peace by sitting on the cushion, but wisdom doesn’t really get challenged, and therefore grow in robustness and strength, until you are trying to be mindful raising children, or working, or raising children and working, out there in the world living your life.
What I would like to do is ignite a passion in people who are already practicing to think of practice in a more inclusive way. It is possible to bring mindfulness to all of the various domains in which we exercise agency as human beings, including work and family and leisure time. Practice becomes life itself, a big expression of wakefulness and appreciation for this moment going out in many directions. The peculiarities of each person and each situation are important. When people’s innate genius and creativity percolate with the practice itself, what will come out of it will be what will come out of it. What an adventure!