When I was a senior in high school, my brother brought back from college a book he described as “mind-blowing” (this was not yet a cliché) and “life-changing.” The book was by a former Harvard University professor, inspired by his experiences in India with a guru named Neeb Karori Baba. Be Here Now was the name of the book, and the author was Richard Alpert, rechristened as Ram Dass by his guru.
Along with the teachings and stories of his journey, Be Here Now included photos of Dass’ guru, hindu graphics, images, prayers, aphorisms, a book list, lessons and other wisdom from various spiritual traditions.
At 17, I was knocked out by the world it revealed, where miracles and supernatural events were commonplace, where people had special powers and, more than anything else, where Dass began to discover inner freedom through meditation and spiritual practices unlike anything I was familiar with.
The book knocked a lot of people out — it eventually sold more than 1 million copies — I think because it left the strong impression that something big was happening here. The old order was coming to an end. A profound new — non-Western — truth was emerging about the nature of the universe, human happiness, love and the meaning of life. A new age was upon us.
Yet there was a lot of confusion, too. I wanted to understand and participate, but the proposition was so big. What did it mean to “be here now”? The book said to “lose your ego.” What was that about? Was this practice something specifically Indian or Hindu? Did I need to go to India and find a guru myself? Would there be long hours of meditation in uncomfortable locations? Were there certain clothes or a certain look to let others know I was on board? And what was the role of drugs, such as pot — which was just now making an appearance at my high school — or LSD? And The Beatles and Donovan — were they somehow a part of this, too?
I wasn’t the only one confused, as I learned when I went to college the next year. A new wind was blowing in from the East and bringing new ideas about how to live, both individually and collectively. In Psychology 101, after covering Sigmund Freud and B.F. Skinner, we skipped immediately to new ideas from theorists talking about “human potential” and “self-actualization.” An entire class session was devoted to a poem that began, “You are a child of the Universe,” and concluded with, “No doubt the Universe is unfolding as it should.”
This was all pretty exhilarating, but was it psychology? Was it anything? Forty or so years later, the notion of spiritually oriented psychology is still somewhat troubling to the mainstream psychological establishment, especially advocates of data-driven, evidence-based mental health.
Sometime in the late 1970s, a young, MIT-trained molecular biologist with an interest in the science behind such Eastern spiritual arts as yoga and meditation made a proposal to his bosses at the University of Massachussets Medical School. Based on his own training in yoga and meditation, Jon Kabat-Zinn laid out his plan for a clinic based on Eastern spiritual principles.
Coming from MIT, the UMass doctors “figured I must know what I’m doing,” Kabat-Zinn explained in a recent interview. “I didn’t.”
But the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Clinic they allowed him to build there, the first such clinic in the United States, was the beginning of a revolution. The yoga and meditation techniques Kabat-Zinn introduced have gone global in the years since its founding. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programs have spread to more than 100 locations, serving thousands of people each year on five continents. Kabat-Zinn himself “has become synonymous with mindfulnesss in the West,” at least according to Oprah Winfrey.
More importantly, Kabat-Zinn created the Trojan horse that the spiritual advocates would use to sneak meditation techniques into the medical mainstream. Originally promoted as an antidote to the negative health effects of stress, in the past 10 to 15 years, mindfulness meditation has crossed the East/West barrier to become an evidence-based treatment itself. It has been used successfully to address serious psychological and behavioral problems including suicidality, borderline personality disorder, depression and anxiety.
Kabat-Zinn, who is now a professor emeritus at the UMass Medical Center, spends much of his time touring, lecturing and promoting the message of meditation and mindfulness to the public. But others have taken up the mantle of bringing spiritual practices into the mainstream of clinical practice. Marsha Linehan, a psychology researcher at the University of Washington, combines standard cognitive-behavioral techniques with concepts of acceptance and mindful awareness largely derived from Buddhist meditative practice. Zindel Segal at the University of Toronto has developed a standardized method for treating depression using mindfulness methods, with follow-up research applying similar methods to anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and substance abuse.
What Is Mindfulness?
According to Kabat-Zinn, “The word ‘meditation’ is often freighted with so much cultural baggage.” Because the innovations of spiritual psychology incorporate the language and practices of a wide variety of Indian, Japanese, Tibetan and Indochinese cultures, many clinicians — doctors and psychotherapists along with their clients — are confused and even overwhelmed by all the exotic references. So Kabat-Zinn and others try to keep it simple. “Being in the present moment with an open mind and heart, nonjudgmentally,” is one way Kabat-Zinn has described it.
At its simplest, mindfulness is the practice of paying close attention to what’s happening right now in your body and mind, like your breathing or your feet touching the ground as you walk, or the sequence of little aches, pains, itches or other sensations that come and go.
“Mindfulness” describes both a very specific style of meditation (there are many others) and an attentional state you can enter at almost any time. Like mindfulness of your thoughts, which is achieved by observing the parade of words and images through your mind, without becoming attached to their content. Or mindfulness of emotions, in which you let your feelings well up and pass, calmly observing them from an internal observational perch that is “decentered” from the normal way you engage your mind.
The benefits of mindfulness, over time, can include an increasingly relaxed and confident approach to life, compassion for your own suffering and the suffering of others, and the freedom to engage in activities that you avoided in the past out of fear. Psychologist and mindfulness teacher Tara Brach uses the expression “radical acceptance,” which she describes as “accepting absolutely everything about ourselves and our lives, by embracing with wakefulness and care our moment-to-moment experience.”
And you don’t have to be a monk spending years on a meditation pillow to achieve these benefits. Kabat-Zinn’s program takes eight weeks, with two hours a week devoted to training, and a half-hour each day practicing. Meditators who persist in their practice for longer (and a very high percentage of Kabat-Zinn’s patients do) report not only the increased sense of well-being, but also a deep interconnectedness with life, the Earth and, yes, even the cosmos.
Dass himself, meanwhile, has moved past the exuberant and somewhat indiscriminate evangelizing for mind-blowing experiences depicted in his first book, and has become a respected and thoughtful advocate of the East-facing spiritual path. Mindfulness itself, without the esoteric trappings, is rapidly becoming a force in Western medicine and psychology, available to an ever-broadening audience.
No doubt the Universe is unfolding as it should.
— Russell Collins, Psy.D., is a Santa Barbara psychotherapist and divorce mediator. Click here for more information.