May 11-17, 2001
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Meditation can assist in the healing process

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“It’s an incredibly rich adventure into the domain of the inner landscape,” said Jon Kabat-Zinn of meditation. Sitting in or thinking of a peaceful place like this pavilion garden can help the mind relax and focus on breathing.

Meditation can assist in the healing process

By Nancy Hurrelbrinck

Healing doesn’t necessarily mean curing disease, but coming to terms with things as they are in the present moment, University of Massachusetts professor of medicine Jon Kabat-Zinn told a Medical Center Hour crowd filling McLeod Hall’s auditorium and an overflow room May 4.

In his U.Va. talk, he addressed the benefits of practicing mindfulness for doctors, patients and anyone who feels stressed.

“Healing is possible in the absence of a likely cure. It can happen up to our last breath,” said Kabat-Zinn, who founded the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the U. Mass. Medical School, a program featured on Bill Moyers’ PBS documentary, “Healing and the Mind.”

“We want to energize people to embrace the good, the bad and the ugly, whatever demons come up for them,” he said, referring to the goal of the stress reduction clinic he also founded.

Mindful meditation, a process of seeking to attend fully to the present moment, often focusing on the breath, seems simple, but it’s not easy, said Kabat-Zinn, the author of Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness.

“Meditating can enliven everything else you are and do. It’s about ‘falling awake,’ as opposed to being on auto-pilot or caught up in worrying about the future or reviewing the past. The only thing we have is this moment.”

“There are very real limits to our medicine,” he said. “We may understand what is wrong, but not be able to [cure it]. This is no reason for despair.”

Even when someone has a chronic illness, he can come to “feel free of the condition even though it won’t change. It’s an inner shift, a rotation in consciousness.”

“Imagine if patients were invited to participate in their healing so that they had the sense that they could work on it, that they have … a sacred responsibility to themselves,” he said.

“A lot of the time we diminish ourselves, or we have been scarred, led to believe that we’re less than we truly are,” said Kabat-Zinn, who spoke without notes and radiated a vibrant serenity. “We put on a mask for the world, but there can be a feeling of loss or emptiness inwardly.”

By cultivating mindfulness, health care workers, as well as patients, can be more fully present when interacting with one another.

“Medicine is about the intention to serve from the deepest place in oneself as a healer, to recognize the sacred privilege of working with people in pain and suffering. Doctors are supposed to do no harm,” he said. “It’s essential to recognize the patient as a whole human being; if you’re not doing that, you’re doing harm.

Kabat-Zinn encouraged doctors and nurses to engage patients in the healing process, noting that scientific research conducted in the past three decades is leading to “an understanding that human beings are extraordinary living systems capable of learning, healing and growing across the lifespan.”

“We’re talking about reclaiming our wholeness. Meditation traditions have been creating [ways] to explore this terrain for thousands of years. They all have to do with presence, with stepping outside of time,” said Kabat-Zinn. During a meditation retreat the next day, he said that a clock at the U. Mass. clinic is covered by a sign that reads, “NOW.” Held at Morven Farm Pavilion, the “silent day” drew 360 people.

Kabat-Zinn’s visit was co-sponsored by the Humanities in Medicine Program, the Cancer Center and several other medical departments, as well as Tussi and John Kluge.

Local health care workers can refer patients to U.Va.’s Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program, modeled on the one Kabat-Zinn founded, which offers eight-week courses in mindfulness meditation practice. (Information can be found at or by calling 924-1190.)


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