Mindfulness becomes Mainstream

Mindfulness has reached a milestone in its evolution as a social movement. Mindful.org and Omega Institute, lined up Jon Kabat-Zinn (see photo on right), Congressman Time Ryan, and a few other speakers in the mindfulness movement, and then advertised a day and a half conference called “Creating a Mindful Society” was held in New York City on October 1st, 2011. How many people would you guess paid $275 each to attend this event?

Keep in mind that the vast majority of Americans don’t know what “mindfulness” means, and those that do, often cannot explain it to their friends. Those who talk about mindfulness often note the need for hours upon hours of meditation and discipline. I’ll give you another hint, Professor Kabat-Zinn, a key spokesman for the movement, warns his audiences about the pitfalls of proselytizing.

Despite these obstacles, over 500 showed up for the event, half of them arriving from outside the City. In addition, another 5,000 signed up to watch the event on their computer screens around the world, thanks to Google setting up web-casting. The “Creating a Mindful Society” event itself did not disappoint. Over 20 audience participants spoke from the floor at the final session, from which it became clear that most were inspired and fired up to share their enthusiasm with others.

dIf you missed the event, it is still possible to experience the entire conference video online free. Just go to http://live.soundstrue.com

The most repeated phrase of the event was “The time has come.” However, by the end of the conference, it had become obvious that “The time has come” has many different meanings in the mindfulness community. For some it stood for the urgency of deep awareness of inner feelings and integration of inner selves. For others, it spoke to the desire to bring mindfulness to the masses in order to restore justice, peace, goodwill, and integrity.

While Saki Santorelli opened the conference, the opening keynote address came from the heart of Jon Kabat-Zinn, the father of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), and author of widely acclaimed books and meditation CDs on mindfulness. The Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society that he started at the University of Mass has trained thousands in MBSR, many of whom have gone on to train others across the world.

Before hearing him that night, I had read some of his books and listed to one of his CDs and was prepared to hear one of the most brilliant and articulate contemporary thinkers. Except for his intellectual meandering, I was not disappointed. His charisma and ability to spontaneously express deep, heartfelt ideas was enrapturing.

What is Mindfulness?

Jon Kabat-Zinn defined mindfulness as moment by moment non-judgmental awareness. He went a step further and said “It is mind-body awareness, concentrating on it and accepting it.” He described this experience as direct perception, not cognitive processing. He went on to say people are starving for wholeness inside ourselves, i.e., reducing the separation between what we are and what we think we are and integration of heart mind, and body.

Mindfulness meditation is only one of thousands of different types of mediations, said Professor Kabat-Zinn. Many types of meditations are called contemplative practices. A short description of these contemplative practices can be found, with a taxonomy in tree form, in an article on this website called What are Mindfulness and Contemplative Practices?. The chief difference between mindfulness and meditation that Kabat-Zinn tried to make is that mindfulness is a state of being and meditation is collection of mental exercises. But they are not conceptually distinct because meditation is designed to bring one to desired states of being, and for the states of being to eventually become traits.

The Mindful Society

Kabat-Zinn addressed the societal and political links to mindfulness, which I think are best addressed in his discussion of politics in his 2005 book “Coming to our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World through Mindfulness.” At the conference, he argued that mindfulness is essential to politics because politics has to do with community, which depends on citizens to take social responsibility. While he also argued that mindfulness has an ethical foundation, he did not develop that connection. His above book does have a chapter on ethics, however.

As a way to explain his view of how mindfulness can contribute socially, he gave two examples, one is Via Verde, a South Bronx housing project combining mindful architecture with social policies, and a second, Kiva.org that has connected over 600,000 donors to the micro financing of those living in poverty around the world. He pointed out that KIVA is a distributed organization and he several times expressed favor for distributed organizing.

Kabat-Zinn contrasted the mindfulness approach to activism with the Wall Street Occupation occurring at the other end of Manhattan. In so many words, he said that mindfulness activism occurs when we are caring individuals working toward doing what we are being.

A point of contention came up during the questions of the final session, the Town Hall. At one end of the spectrum were those ready to leave the meeting fired up to change the world, and at the other end were those convinced that their highest priority should be to focus upon being and becoming. Kabat-Zinn linked the two opposing positions together by pointing out some political options, but he leaned toward the reflecting-meditating end of the spectrum.

Mindfulness Could Save Politics

One of the reasons why many were ready to leave the gathering and spread the gospel of mindfulness was the powerful speech given by U.S. Congressman Tim Ryan of Ohio, whose new book, Mindful Nation, was published in March, 2012. Tim Ryan, a true believer of mindfulness, argued that there was no question that mindfulness should be spread widely. With humor and conviction, he pointed out that in the context of extremely contentious politics, “mindfulness is something that Americans could agree on.” “Who doesn’t want students to pay attention,” he proclaimed, and followed with: ” Who doesn’t need to pay attention to the small things in life that make a difference.”

Congressman Ryan added that mindfulness gatherings could help us get re-connected, like three generations ago before insurance, when people took care of each other. He urged “We can build this from within,” but went on to say that, it would “save the nation.”

Tim Ryan defined a mindful society as one where compassion and kindness permeate the whole mind. A mindful nation would address America’s crisis, which is that we have not found ways to help the struggling kids in schools. His final admonition was to stay focused and engaged, spending some time in activism and supporting the nation going in the right direction, and don’t be distracted by others’ visions.

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