On October 6th at UCLA’s Royce Hall in Los Angeles, renowned scientist, writer, and meditation teacher Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn will be giving a talk titled “Letting Everything Become Your Teacher: The Healing Power of Mindfulness,” as part of the Lynn Lecture series. Tickets can be purchased here. The event has been organized by the Los Angeles affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure, an organization dedicated to supporting breast cancer research.
I recently was able to sit down and talk with Dr. Kabat-Zinn and we touched on a wide range of subjects, including tomorrow night’s talk. Most of the interview still needs to be transcribed and edited, but I thought it would be good to share some of it here now.
Tricycle: Please tell me about the upcoming talk for Susan G. Komen for the Cure.
Jon Kabat-Zinn: It’s an attempt to bring greater mindfulness of what’s being discovered in the new field called integrative medicine into the mainstream of understanding of breast cancer and its treatments and prevention. Mindfulness is something that virtually any human being can benefit from. We have now accumulated over 32 years of scientific studies that indicate that mindfulness practice can really make a profound difference in how a human being confronts high levels of stress and pain, both physical and emotional. With the huge uncertainties that come with a life threatening diagnosis, mindfulness practice not only benefits the person who is diagnosed but also to family members and others.
Tricycle: So for women suffering from breast cancer, beyond tools of dealing with the stress and managing pain, has there been any research you know of that shows that mindfulness practice can actually help in the healing process?
Jon Kabat-Zinn: Well, that’s an ongoing area of research and there are some papers in the literature talking about the effects of training and what we call MBSR, or mindfulness based stress reduction, on cancer patients with a wide range of different kinds of cancers in it and it is looking like not only psychological factors are responding to this kind of treatment but also biological factors. So there’s every sense that while mindfulness is not meant to be like curative so to speak that it is profoundly healing.
My working definition of healing is that it’s coming to terms with things as they are. In that sense, being able to live one’s life fully and cultivate and optimize one’s resilience in the face of enormous uncertainty and a certain degree of threat associated with a diagnosis like breast cancer. So the jury is still out about how much it actually influences the progression of the disease but in terms of quality of life and in terms of satisfaction in life I don’t think there’s any question that cultivating the capacity for self awareness and for self compassion is enormously valuable for people on a lot of different scores, one of which is relating to everybody else. Very often your close family members can suffer more than you or suffer in different ways than you, so the more you can really see every moment as an opportunity to learn from and to be in wiser relationship to it, the better one’s relationship to other people is going to be and also to the ongoing unfolding of whatever treatments you’re receiving.
Jon Kabat-Zinn: There’s also issues of recurrence. Let’s say if you’ve gone into remission, there’s always background thoughts about the potential for a recurrence and how to work through one’s thinking and the rumination that tends towards those kinds of catastrophic thinking and so forth can be tremendously valuable in maintaining some degree of calm and clarity in the face of all this uncertainty.
Jon Kabat-Zinn: And as I said, there’s a huge and ever growing amount of literature on the various positive effects of mindfulness. I did a study with Richard Davidson at the University of Wisconsin some time ago that showed that it affects the brain and how it processes difficult emotions under stress and it also affects the immune system. And so there are all sorts of lines of evidence that are suggesting that it really does have some profound biological effects. And it does, we know from another study I did a number of years ago increase the rate of skin clearing in psoriasis in people with the skin disease psoriasis who are receiving ultraviolet light treatments, that when they are actually cultivating mindfulness while they are receiving the light treatments, their skin clears four times as fast as people just getting the light treatment by itself.
Tricycle: That’s fascinating.
Jon Kabat-Zinn: It is, and not just that but psoriasis is not itself a cancer but it is an uncontrolled proliferation of cells in the epidermis and it has genes that are in common with basal cell carcinoma so the overall suggestion is that the mind might be able to influence a healing process, in that case psoriasis and all the way down to the level of gene expression in the chromosomes and all the way up to the actual clearing of the skin.
Tricycle: If I’m not mistaken I believe I may have read about this in your book Full Catastrophe Living…
Jon Kabat-Zinn: I wrote about a preliminary study in Full Catastrophe Living but the big study actually that we did, the second study to confirm that came out long after, eight years after Full Catastrophe Living came out. So I did write about it but it’s in one of my other books, Coming to Our Senses where there’s a chapter called, let me see, A Study in Healing.
Tricycle: Yeah, just thinking about what you’re saying about how deep the effect of mindfulness practice can be—down into our cells and so on. Relating specifically to cancer, from from my limited understanding of the disease, it seems that essentially cells aren’t properly communicating with each other?
Jon Kabat-Zinn: That’s correct. Cells grow out of a certain kind of mutual agreement so to speak, to not just run wild and replicate endlessly. And when they lose that control of cell division then they just replicate endlessly and that is what causes tumors or non-solid state tumors like leukemia. It’s a proliferation of cells that have escaped from the normal regulatory controls that keep everything in its place. And this is one of the things that I will be talking about on the 6th is that there’s never been a better time on the planet in terms of the science and the medicine as we understand it today for taking some degree of responsibility for one’s own health by practicing these kinds of meditative cultivations and also changing or bringing awareness to diet, exercise, our relationships, behaviors of all kinds. Because it’s now being shown that these actually change not only the functioning of the brain but the very structure of the brain itself. People who are long term meditation practitioners are actually noticeably thicker in regions of the brain that are associated with attention. So when you’re meditating it’s actually changing the architecture of your brain.
The other important thing is that has been shown in a number of different ways is that how you behave, how you think or whether you meditate, affects the expression of hundreds if not thousands of genes in our genome, in our chromosomes. So there’s an enormous amount of latitude in actually not just how you are but who you’ll be as a function of how you are in relationship to your life as it’s unfolding, because your chromosomes and your genes are listening.
Elizabeth Blackburn won the Nobel Prize last year for demonstrating that stress can actually accelerate the degradation of the repeat sub units of DNA called telomeres at the end of all of our chromosomes and that when you run out of telomere you’re cells no longer divide at all and they go into what’s called biologically senescence which is akin to death and that is thought to be one of the major biological causes of death and aging. So they calculated that the stress that they were looking at in their patient population, if it wasn’t handled properly would potentially take seven years off your normal life span.
Jon Kabat-Zinn: So you can see my message is broader than just breast cancer but it’s a very positive message in the sense that virtually anybody in that audience, and of course there’ will be many people there who are interested in mindfulness that don’t have breast cancer, it’s just one more reason to actually befriend yourself in the kinds of ways that people have been doing for thousands of years with Buddhist practice. Learning how to live in the present moment with equanimity, self-compassion, and compassion for other people, while you might think this is a luxury, it’s actually an utter vital necessity of living well and certainly of being happy in any kind of genuine or authentic way.
Tricycle: Indeed, many people, myself included sometimes, seem to suffer from this misconception that you can only practice when there is spare time or when circumstance allows, but hearing what you’re saying it seems crucial for anybody in any situation to get to the cushion and practice.
Jon Kabat-Zinn: Right. And not just to the cushion but as you well know, the real meditation and the real meditation practice is your life itself. The real meditation teacher of course is life itself. So it’s not just a matter of being on the cushion although the lessons that you learn on the cushion and the time you log on the cushion is enormously important in being able to actually be mindful and have some degree of awareness and non-reactivity and compassion in the present moment.
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