Mindfulness, health, and wellbeing: an international conference with Jon Kabat-Zinn

On Wednesday 20th, I took the 7:52 train to Glasgow from Dundee to get to the conference and despite my best attempts I arrived at 9:30 as Sir Harry Burns was about to finish off his opening remarks.. My entry into the Charles Wilson Building auditorium was announced with a bang of the door! Ooppsss…

Now, I have to confess: I have a general interest in mindfulness practices.. I don’t regularly practice mindfulness meditation. I am particularly drawn to Paul Gilbert’s Compassion Focused therapy. Jon Kabat-Zinn (will be affectionately referred to JKZ throughout the rest of the blog) has such a reputation that I simply didn’t want to miss it – I’m also collaborating with colleagues and we hope to apply some of his principles for stress reduction in university students..

Well, I must admit I have been first and foremost amazed that JKZ talked for 3 hours non-stop! And more amazingly, he talked for the first half hour without the aid of powerpoints! Now those who know me also know that I’m a bit allergic to the overreliance on pp in lectures.

So, you ask, ‘did you learn anything?’

I think I did… Firstly, I didn’t know that JKZ was a microbiologist! I thought he had a medical background … that’s probably not news to you. It’s good to see someone coming from ‘hard’ (another one of my bugbear words) sciences doing so well and inspiring in something generally construed as less ‘hard’ stuff..

Secondly, he described his mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) as a public health intervention. Now that came to me as a surprise.. I should know this but what separates a ‘public health’ intervention from any ‘intervention’.. It seemed that JKZ was construing MBSR as such because of the number of attendees in each course (about 30-40)… Also, I guess it was meant to be for everyone – for instance the ones he runs in hospitals are for mixed diagnoses groups and not specific to one illness group.. He certainly didn’t think it was a therapy which I also agree…

I won’t really go into about mindfulness, embodied presence, ‘being/seeing’ concepts, how it’s not relaxation but it’s familiariasation… It’s because I can’t really do justice to these and you have his books to read and learn from..

But I will tell you what struck me.. JKZ talked about ‘having a relationship to things as they are without wanting to change anything’.. I felt that there were a lot of parallels between cognitive behavioural therapy (although CBT is about ‘changing’ cognitions) and he said that himself too. More than that, he was talking about taking responsibility for ourselves. I think he meant that we have a choice in how we respond to things. And I agree with that stance. And I can also see its usefulness in helping people with physical conditions deal with their pain and disabilities in a different way.. To have a different relationship with their bodies and whatever goes in their minds.. I guess I found myself a bit skeptical of the use of this approach when we talk about people who have very difficult pasts and also very difficult presents… How does this approach help them change their relationship to what happened to them and how they cope? I couldn’t find answers to be honest.. I wish JKZ had talked more about the details of the programme. BUT, he did tell us a little bit about the MBSR programme in prisons! And they’re also running an inner city programme (with an on-site day care and taxi vouchers!). So, the applicability of the ideas to difficult life circumstances must be possible. Does anybody know anything about these non-clinical population programmes and their effectiveness?

JKZ is an inspirational speaker/scientist. And he communicates well. If you have a chance, go hear him.

I will leave you now with something that JKZ said: ‘next time when you’re in the shower, check if you’re really ‘there’. Maybe you’re there with your entire Monday morning meeting!’

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