In the last four decades, renowned mindfulness teachers and scholars Jon Kabat-Zinn, Daniel Goleman, and Richard Davidson played no small part in building the foundation of the mindfulness movement in the United States. Their ongoing research, as well as the institutions and programs they’ve implemented, have guided countless people toward meaningful contemplative practices that nurture well-being and create a more compassionate understanding of themselves and each other.
On October 3rd, these longtime friends came together at the New York Society For Ethical Culture to discuss the roots of this movement, the explosive interest in mindfulness and meditation today, and the ongoing research initiatives that will develop and extend well into the future. [You can watch a recorded livestream of the event here.] They give you a taste of their conversation below.
The conversation is titled “The Untold Story of America’s Mindfulness Movement: Then, Now, & the Future.” What about the stories, research, and work from the early days of this movement seems especially relevant today?
Daniel Goleman (DG): Given the widespread acceptance of mindfulness these days, I think people may be surprised to hear how difficult it was to get people to take [mindfulness] seriously. It was a little scandalous at the time, from the point of view of mainstream psychology. It has taken almost half a century for mindfulness to gain the currency it has today.
Jon Kabat-Zinn (JKZ): We’ve known each other for close to 50 years. We were all into meditation at a time when meditation was like the far side of the lunatic fringe. It was a very wild time. The dominant order was being questioned by our generation like never before. We were in a heavy-duty discovery of sex, drugs, rock and roll, and everything else, including Eastern teachings. People were getting exposed to those things, and some people were experimenting in a very casual way. Other people, like the three of us, were profoundly changed. Our life trajectories were in some sense modified by our meditation practice and by our exposure to meditation and yoga.
Richard Davidson (RD): In the early days, there was a lot of skepticism about this whole area, and in many ways I think we’ve made a lot of progress in surmounting a lot of that skepticism. The scientific research has helped increase the acceptability of mindfulness and other contemplative practices. What is also happening now is that there has been so much hype about its potential benefits that we’re seeing a backlash. I think that in many ways the backlash is different from—but has certain similar elements in common with—the resistance that we first encountered. It’s poignant and interesting that there are these ebbs and flows in interest and acceptability.
What are your thoughts about how meditation and mindfulness are represented in American media today?
RD: Mindfulness is used very loosely. It has become coopted in a lot of ways, and it has lost some of its important nuance. In our own center [The Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison that Davidson founded], although we use the word mindfulness, we don’t use it very much. We certainly don’t talk about what we do as primarily mindfulness. We talk about what we do as studying interventions that cultivate well-being.
[This language] underscores the fact that to produce well-being, you need strategies that go beyond mindfulness. Mindfulness alone is insufficient. It’s necessary, but not sufficient, I would say. In terms of traditional definitions, if you look in the Buddhist literature, mindfulness has an element of retention. It’s remembering to bring a certain view to each moment. The idea that it’s nonjudgmental is problematic, with respect to certain Buddhist perspectives, because there is a quality of discernment. This, in some sense, is judgment. It’s fraught with complexity. Lots of people in my center that I run talk about it as McMindfulness. It has become so overused and diluted that it has lost a lot of its clarity.
DG: Casual writing about mindfulness is very popular. I’m not sure that reading three tips about mindfulness in a blog is very helpful or is as beneficial as, say, doing MBSR [Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction]. On the other hand, it’s better than nothing. There are actual Asian textual sources that say if you can find a fully enlightened teacher, go to that person. If you can’t, then it goes down the scale: if you know someone who has read a sutra, go to that person, and so on. There are definitely benefits to this. People also overhype it, though, and make promises that aren’t based on anything. Then critics come and justifiably say, “Hey, this is not true.” That’s happening now, to some extent. There’s a bit of that backlash.
Dan and Richard, you recently cowrote the book Altered Traits: Science Reveals How Meditation Changes Your Mind, Brain, and Body. There is a section in the book about research bias. You wrote that many studies about mindfulness and meditation are biased because they are produced by people who believe in the potential benefits of meditation. However, skeptics of meditation who conduct research studies may be uninformed or uneducated about the many nuances in meditation such as meditation styles, duration of meditation sessions, and an individual’s meditation history. Can you elaborate on this?
RD: These are important challenges, and they underscore the complex balancing act that those of us who work in this area face. There is no doubt that there’s publication bias. You can establish that empirically. For the most part, people are only publishing findings that “work.” Again, for the most part, they’re not publishing findings that “don’t work,” or findings that are inconsistent with the prediction that meditation produces some beneficial effects.
Three of the papers that I’m particularly proud of that we published at our center are actually non-replications. They are negative findings. We expected there to be a difference from meditation, and we didn’t find that. One of the things that we feel is so important is that researchers be honest and publish negative findings as well as positive findings. That’s the only way we’re going to understand how these practices are working.
In the past five years or so, there has been an explosion in mindfulness research. Thousands of peer-reviewed studies have been published. Have there been any surprises or unexpected outcomes in this research?
JKZ: What this explosion is evidence of is that in medicine and science, there is now a field of research into the clinical and neuroscientific aspects of the results of meditation practice. What Dan and Richard have done is to actually go through the literature, select those that would be considered the most robust, and talk about what’s being learned from them. This is changing the world in the sense that there is a new field of medicine. Now there are even medical departments that have divisions for mindfulness, which would have been unthinkable 40 years ago.
If you understand what meditation really is, and what medicine really is, they’re not that far apart. This is a signature convergence of different systems that can help us to understand what the biggest challenges are in healthcare, psychology, and psychiatry, to limit it to those [fields] for a moment. We can make use of the interior resources of individuals rather than having an auto mechanic’s model of how to fix people that we consider to be broken. It’s much more of a healing-oriented perspective.
There’s also a lot of robust scientific evidence, in terms of neuroscience, of how plastic the brain is and how you can drive what’s called functional connectivity. 30 or 40 years ago, that would have been considered airy-fairy science fiction. Now, it’s science.
What are the next steps in mindfulness and meditation research? What more do we need to understand?
DG: We’ve found about 60 first-rate studies. They’re not continuous, though. They’re disconnected. We need to do some longitudinal studies of a single group of practitioners doing a single practice and follow them over years to see what difference it actually makes. What we’re showing is the first slice of data. It makes it clear that there are real benefits from meditation, but we have no idea what practices will manifest in what ways. There is a lot more to learn.
RD: One area that is going to be really increasingly important as we go forward is working with kids. Teaching kids these kinds of skills early in life can have multiplicative effects as the kids develop. Being able to practice these skills at a very early age can set a child up for a much more positive developmental trajectory. This is a huge area, and I think it’s going to be increasingly important in our educational systems.
A second area is figuring out ways to scale this, which will require the use of technology. In considering this issue, in the back of my mind, I can hear His Holiness the Dalai Lama telling me: “7 billion people! There are 7 billion people!” We need to do everything we can in order to reach this larger swath of humanity. In order to do that, it’s absolutely necessary to use technology.
JKZ: For me, the real question is: what does it mean to be fully human? Meditation practice has a huge amount to say about that. It’s a big gateway into the adventure of discovering who you are and what it means to be human. When all is said and done, mindfulness is really about wisdom, about discerning what is really, really, really, true from what is mere appearance, or what you’re attached to because you want it to be true. That is where humanity needs to go.