When Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in 1979, he joined together his twin passions—human biology and the study of consciousness—in a single program. Trained as a molecular biologist and having been a longtime student of the Zen and vipassana traditions, Kabat-Zinn wondered if a program that utilized the practice of mindfulness would reduce stress levels and symptoms in individuals struggling with chronic pain and illness.
Since the clinic first opened its doors, more than five thousand people—with diagnoses ranging from cancer and AIDS to high blood pressure, back pain, and panic attacks—have taken the eight-week outpatient course. The program trains individuals to fully experience each moment, and it is not intended to cure old diseases or create a pain-free future. Yet eighty-five percent of all participants report a significant reduction of symptoms, and ninety-three percent continue some form of contemplative practice in their daily lives. Few clients had had any prior knowledge of meditation techniques.
In his book Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness (Delta, 1991), Jon Kabat-Zinn outlines the clinic’s program which has attracted considerable interest from patients and health care professionals across the country. As Kabat-Zinn points out,meditation and medicine share the same Indo-European root meaning: the restoration of [medicine] and direct perception of [mediation] right inward measure, or harmony and balance. This interview was conducted for Tricycle by Barbara Graham.
Tricycle: How can medicine be a vehicle for Buddhist teachings in this country?
Jon Kabat-Zinn: Hospitals and medical centers in this society are dukkha magnets. (Dukkha means “suffering” in Pali.) People are drawn to hospitals primarily when they’re suffering, so it’s very natural to introduce programs to help them deal with the enormity of their suffering in a systematic way—as a complement to medical efforts.
When we set up the Stress Reduction Clinic, the question was: Would people accept an intensive meditation-based training program to learn how to take better care of themselves? Would they be willing to roll up their sleeves and work hard on themselves?-a question that isn’t very prevalent in the United States.
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