Mainstream Mindfulness: “Are we in the middle of a mindfulness revolution?”

That’s the quote from this Huffington Post article about Time Magazine’s latest cover and theme. As an “armchair pop culturo-anthropologist,” I’m fairly certain that the answer is a definitive probably. 🙂 All the signs are there, really, from Time’s latest edition to a lesser known, but increasingly popular magazine called “Mindful;” from police departments helping their offers deal with stress to the Department of Defense looking seriously at mindfulness as a way to combat PTSD, the country is responding to information overload, stress, and anxiety with something that actually works: meditation and mindfulness.

JK Zinn Quote

Founder of MBSR at the University of Massachusetts, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn has helped mindfulness become mainstream.

My sense is that because the latest research clearly indicates that mindfulness and meditation can, literally, change the genetic structure of the brain, we have, as Westerners, validated what those in the East have known for thousands of years: mindfulness and meditation improve peoples’ lives. 

I remember back in the ’70s when I was a teenager, when people considered recycling policy. Initially it was rejected as a  strange, left-wing idea that only idiots would embrace. I thought at the time–seems like only yesterday–“For people to accept recycling, it has to be accepted broadly, like taking out the garbage.” Well, that came true, as we all know, and I think it’s largely the same with mindfulness. For the longest time, people have considered those who meditate, Buddhists, and the idea of “mindfulness” as associated with alternative lifestyles and people who live in communes. That’s changing–rapidly.

The latest Time cover.

Why “Now”? Increasing Mainstream Acceptance. I believe that we’ve reached a tipping point where the the latest in neurology and brain research on mindfulness and meditation has “caught up” to what practitioners in the East have known for a very long time. So, why now? What’s the tipping point for general acceptance of mindfulness?

Well, there are lots of reasons. How about a major healthcare corporation? Or the Department of Defense? Neurology researchers who found the whole “spiritual” part of yoga pretty hokey? Or, say, Time Magazine–itself a veritable font of mainstream “wisdom.” More and more doctors are agreeing, too, that meditation and mindfulness can help their patients. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the  eminent founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction at UMASS in the 70s came back from a retreat with well-regarded Vietnamese Buddhist Thich Nhat Hanh, borrowed Zen teachings to help his chronically ill patients. But that was back in the 70s. What’s happened lately to bring mindfulness into the mainstream? Here are some of my faves:

  • AETNA. The CEO of Aetna–yes, that AETNA, the healthcare corporation–instituted a mindfulness study and touted its results as significant. “Stress can have a significant impact on physical and mental health, so there is a strong need for programs that help people reduce stress as part of achieving their best health,” said Aetna Chairman and CEO Mark T. Bertolini. “The results from the mind-body study provide evidence that these mind-body approaches can be an effective complement to conventional medicine and may help people improve their health, something that I have experienced personally.”
  • The Department of Defense. The US military has caught on as well. Mindfulness can help alleviate “illness and other medical or psychological conditions,” and “it can help soldiers in any circumstance,” said Army Maj. Victor Won, deputy assistant chief of staff for intelligence in 1st Armored Division’s general staff section. In April 2013, the University of Michigan reported on a study that showed how veterans with PTSD who completed an 8-week mindfulness-based group treatment plan showed a significant reduction in symptoms as compared to patients who underwent treatment as normal.
  • The Research is In. People who meditate consistently–as the Transcendental Meditation movement is always quick to point out–have lower stress, lower blood pressure, and are generally happier. Oh, and fMRI research has show that their focus increases, their mood improves, and the fight or flight parts of the brain–the limbic system’s amygdala–actually shrink. You can argue with someone from Vermont who swears by crystal and aromatherapy, but you can’t argue with high res scans of changing neural networks, what’s referred to “neuroplasticity.” (See post the research of Dr. Sara Lazar in the post “Meditation can Literally Change your Brain.”)
  • Time Magazine has Mindfulness on its Latest Cover. Now, I don’t know about you, but I don’t know that there are too many media outlets more mainstream than Time magazine. If Time is doing a cover story on it, you can bet that it’s not some crazy, out-there cover story. The more mainstream mindfulness becomes–like recycling–the more it will become accepted.

But there’s also this: our always-on, 24-hour news cycle, multi-tasking lifestyles create stress, tension, anxiety that just didn’t used to exist. Everything on demand is good, in theory, but the ancient brain still deals with stress the “old fashioned way”–to wit, prepare you for fight, flight, or freezing, in order to marshall resources for a real (or apparent) threat. People are starting to realize that the only ones benefiting from all this modern stress and anxiety are the pharmaceutical companies. Also, more and more members of the medical community–including organizations like the Mayo Clinic–are clued into the fact that mindfulness works–at a minimum, as an adjunct to prescription remedies to stress. To paraphrase my doctor, “the less stigma attached to meditation and mindfulness, the more people will accept it as okay.”

This early recycling enthusiast couldn’t agree more. 😉

Yours in Mental Hygiene,

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The Ancient Brain and Modern Mindfulness

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