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Learning About Mindfulness on a Kabat-Zinn Retreat

On the third day of a silent meditation retreat in upstate New York’s bucolic Hudson Valley, the muscles in my thighs and lower back were burning.

I had started meditating a few years earlier. I was told it might help me get through a bout of the blues. Like many meditation novices, I found it hard to make it part of my day. I signed up for the week-long getaway. The retreat’s goal was to teach that a regular practice of meditation can help achieve mindfulness. I hoped I might learn to sit still and let go. Perhaps I might even experience the emotional benefits that regular practitioners attribute to the thousands of years-old Buddhist technique.

But what really is mindfulness? I had read about it as it moved from being an exotic Far Eastern practice to a new star in the self help and wellness firmament. Still, I didn’t really understand the concept, how I could make use of it, or even whether its promise of heightened self-awareness was something I needed. The advertised notion that we carry within ourselves the power to find joy and self-fulfillment amidst life’s ups and downs—and that we need only to learn how to tap into it—seemed too mystical for my taste. I was dubious, but curious.

The retreat, I quickly learned, was more boot camp than vacation. My friends will tell you that I like to gab. I’m also a pretty antsy guy. I’m not naturally inclined to long periods of sitting still, keeping my mouth shut, or paying close attention to my thoughts and feelings. Yet, after several days sitting in a cross-legged position on a round hard pillow called a Zafu, I slowly began to get it.

Our teacher was the American mindfulness guru, Jon Kabat-Zinn. Introduced to Zen Buddhism as a young man, with a doctorate in molecular biology from MIT, Kabat-Zinn has been championing mindfulness for over four decades. He is the founding executive director of the Center for Mindfulness located at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, and the creative force behind the 8-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program regularly offered at hospitals and mental health centers around the world. He is the author of best-sellers with wryly humorous titles like “Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness,” and “Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life.”  At 74, the slightly built and graying Kabat-Zinn scatters his talks with the irony and common sense of a late night talk show host. His lectures and retreats are sold out months in advance. If I was going to get mindful, a Kabat-Zinn course seemed like a good place to start.

On the first day, I joined the 200 attendees packed closely together in a light-filled, airy auditorium tucked within the kind of wooded getaway people seek for self-improvement tutorials, or simply to relax and escape. My fellow seekers were a diverse group: young, old, and middle-aged, professionals, students, and retirees. Some had come from as far away as India and Europe.  For the first two days, we were allowed to chat among ourselves and interact with our teacher during his lectures. Most of the folks I came across had things in common: We had gone through painful experiences, tragic loss, disappointments, regrets, or a chaotic childhood. We were distracted, agitated, isolated, or unhappy individuals who had become weary of our anxiety ed. Some of the newbies were looking for a quick fix. Veteran meditators had come for a refresher.

Soon, though, it became clear that Kabat-Zinn had even bigger fish to fry. In his early years, his main goal was to teach how the ancient Eastern traditions of meditation and mindfulness can provide relief for a host of emotional and physical ills. More recently, he’s come to believe that an ever-widening practice of mindfulness might also help mend the world.

Mindfulness, he now says, is a way to “train the heart and mind to create a balanced life and a wise society.”   Big stuff, indeed.

We spent the first two days learning the basics of how to meditate. Many people believe that meditation requires sitting in an uncomfortable lotus position, cross-legged, back straight, eyes closed, and, most especially, with a mind empty of thought. None of this is necessary. Indeed, the notion of an empty mind is a common error, something that is impossible to achieve. This wrong-headed belief about meditation keeps many people from even trying it.

Meditation involves the opposite of emptiness. Why? Meditation teachers explain that the mind itself has a ‘mind of its own’. It’s unruly. It’s busy. The brain carries out innumerable tasks, often at the same time, mostly without our knowledge. A lot of this unconscious activity creeps into the mind without us ever needing to understand how or why. Much of this surfaces as thoughts, stories, memories, or snippets of ideas. The mind creates whimsical dramas in technicolor while we sleep. Sometimes to-do lists pop up out of nowhere, or a worry refuses to disappear. Mostly, the mind is useful, of course, but there’s also a constant hum of seemingly unnecessary chit-chatting going on. Try to stop the mind and you will fail.

The merciless information jetting at us through the internet, emails, texts, and social media makes things worse. Humans have always sought ways to escape our mind’s bustle and painful or unpleasant feelings through distraction, denial and physical activity. That’s healthy in moderation. Many of us deploy less healthy techniques: over-eating, drugs, and alcohol. The current obsession is the ever-present smartphone. Our already over-taxed mind is now being flooded with so much information many of us have lost touch with the knack of silence. I recently watched a YouTube lecture given by a playwright who explained creativity. “Do nothing and do it a lot,” he said. His message is that if undistracted (but not thoughtless), the mind will unleash the imagination. When once asked where his songs come from, Bob Dylan playfully said: “I have no idea.”  Likely they were blowin’ in the wind. 

Well, that’s how mediation works. Sitting quietly, or even lying down, eyes open or closed, breathing in a steady rhythm and paying close attention to it alone, busy thoughts still emerge, crying out to be noticed. Counting your breaths, or repeating a phrase like a mantra, is a good way to let a thought come and quickly go. Even then, though, a new thought will intrude. So instead of trying to ignore your thoughts, meditation experts say embrace them, but only for a brief moment. When a thought emerges, give it your attention as if it were an actor entering from stage right, passing quickly across the stage and letting it exit to the left. It can return later when you consciously call it up.

With this intentional meditation we become mindful. Instead of distracting ourselves with TV, streaming and incessant checking of emails, we learn to take a brief mental vacation during our busy day to pay close attention. This can be done while eating a meal, reading a book, driving, or having a conversation. In this way, as in consciously attending to thoughts, we train our mind to monitor what we’re doing, seeing and hearing, and even what we think and say.

After the first two days at the retreat, Kabat-Zinn guides us into a round of 30-minute meditations. While I sit on my Zafu, Kabat-Zinn suggests it’s best to sit on the forward half so we can naturally lean forward on crossed legs. At first, this feels somewhat uncomfortable. By the fifth day, the position is as soothing as falling asleep. Over three hours, we alternate sitting meditation with a walking meditation of the same length. We walk back and forth, in circles, indoors or outside. I walk in slow motion. My eyes are open, but my attention is directed at every aspect of my movement, how I lift my leg, how it moves through the air, how my foot slowly approaches the ground, first my heels, and then my toes.

At first, it took me about a minute to walk 30 feet. By the end of the retreat, I had slowed down so much that the same distance took me half an hour. As I looked across a broad field at the other walkers moving at an ever-slowing pace, they appeared as if they were frozen in place. After several days, the distinct chirps of birds, the gentle breeze cooling my face, and individual blades of grass bending under my naked toes took over my attention.

Meditation isn’t the only way to achieve self-awareness. Yoga is a good tool, too. Several styles of yoga have become popular, and any way you do it can provide a relief for stress, a physical workout, or both. Kabat-Zinn teaches to pay close attention to muscles you didn’t even know you had. I felt how the stretching practice rested my mind and body. None of my worries, concerns, or my obligations disappeared. But over time, they seemed more manageable and less a cause of angst. After days of practicing mindfulness, I began to feel more in control.

Eight months after the retreat, being mindful all the time still feels impossible. When I get annoyed and feel I’m treated unfairly, I can still lose sight of true mindfulness. In those moments I think of Kabat-Zinn’s words, sit down, meditate, take a slow-motion walk, or head to the nearest yoga studio.

Fortunately, you don’t have to pay the top-dollar Kabat-Zinn charges to learn to meditate and become mindful. You can find places for both beginners and advanced practitioners alike on sites similar to the Insight Meditation Society. If you want a more accessible approach, check out some of the many available mindfulness apps that you can download on your phone.


Michael Waldholz is a Pulitzer Prize winning healthcare journalist and author. For many years, he was the chief medical reporter at the Wall Street Journal. While we have a host of health-related subjects we plan to cover in the Healthcare Matters series, please feel free to send any questions you have for the author or our team to, and don’t forget to follow us on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.

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