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Mind Reading: Jon Kabat-Zinn Talks About Bringing Mindfulness Meditation to Medicine

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Jon Kabat-Zinn, an MIT-trained molecular biologist, began meditating in 1966, when the practice was primarily the province of hippies and gurus, not scientists. Now, thanks in large part to his efforts, it has become mainstream medicine. Dozens of studies have since shown the benefits of what he termed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in treating cardiovascular disease, depression, addictions, chronic pain and many other conditions.

Kabat-Zinn has authored a new book,  Mindfulness for Beginners that aims to introduce meditation to first-timers.

Why did you first get involved with meditation?

The one word answer would be karma. Basically, I always felt in some sense, from the time that I was a little, that something was missing in the way life was unfolding. It was almost as if it was all about ‘out there’ but nothing about ‘in here.’

This is a path that I’ve been walking now for over 45 years. It’s been 32 years since I founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.

I was first exposed formally to it at MIT because of Huston Smith, a professor of philosophy and religion there. I started meditating myself when I was 22, in 1966, when I was a graduate student. Almost no one I knew was meditating back then and anyone who was, was considered to be somewhat beyond the lunatic fringe, a drug-crazed hippy communist.

How did you work to bring meditation into medicine?

I started the Stress Reduction Clinic in 1979. The idea of bringing Buddhist meditation without the Buddhism into the mainstream of medicine was tantamount to the Visigoths being at the gates about to tear down the citadel of Western civilization. Partly because I had a PhD from MIT in molecular biology and had studied in the lab of a Nobel Laureate, people projected onto me that ‘He must know what he’s doing.’ So they let me do it, fortunately.” They had no idea how much not-knowing was involved.

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