Interview with Amy Gross on Mindfulness
You may not know Amy Gross’ name, but chances are you know her work. Although, it’s probably more accurate to say her “previous” work. A veteran of the New York magazine industry, Gross served as the Editor-in-Chief of O: The Oprah Magazine for eight years. After retiring in 2008, Gross embarked on a new chapter of her career, teaching a form of meditation known as Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR.
Gross learned of the practice after years of dabbling in Buddhism and trying — unsuccessfully — to meditate on her own. “I would read a book on how to meditate, and I would try this and I would try that, and I finally realized: enough with the reading. I really had to ‘sit’,” she says.
It became very clear that meditation is a practice that does the transformation — not the reading. So I found a teacher.” It was at the suggestion of one of those teachers that Gross began teaching MBSR after leaving O.
Gross talked with us about the documented physiological effects of being mindful, managing envy, and how you actually don’t have to stop thinking to do this kind of meditation right. (It’s true!)
Zady: What is Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)?
AG “MBSR” takes the practice and the ideas of Buddhist meditation and brings it to people who have no interest in Buddhism. Jon Kabat-Zinn [then, of the University of Massachusetts Medical Center] developed this eight-week program, which unfolds the practice in a very logical way. People are drawn into it. They come to it because their doctors recommended it, or their therapists — or they just realized that they are overwhelmed — and they find a different way of relating to what’s going on in their life. And that’s the major transformation that happens. We say that, “The stress is not in the event, but in the way we handle it. The way we react to it.“
Zady: How is mindfulness different from “traditional sitting?” I think a lot of people think “meditation” and they think: “sitting in a room with my eyes closed, being still.”
AG: Whether you’re doing Buddhist meditation, or Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, the goal is to have mindfulness pervade every minute of your day so that you’re living mindfully. Living mindfully would mean you are present, you are here, and you are able to respond to what’s going on rather than just react automatically. So it’s really mind training. So much of what people think they are is merely a habit of reaction. For example, a woman in class today said, “I’m a very anxious person,” and I hear that as meaning her mind has a groove of relating to a lot of things with anxiety. That’s not who she is deep down, way deep down — that’s just a groove in her mind, it’s a habit of her mind. So what we do with mindfulness, wherever it’s practiced — while walking on the street or in a conversation with someone — is that we are tuning into ourselves. We’re seeing what comes up in ourselves and then questioning, investigating: “Oh, I’m having this conversation with you: Is my stomach tight? Am I feeling pressure? Am I feeling nervous? Interested? Distracted?” So it’s like tuning into the channel of yourself — is it static or is it clear?…When we get the taste of tuning into ourselves and the channel is clear…more and more quickly [we can] find where the tension is and soften it. If I’m holding my breath I can let it go and then there I am back to just being here. It’s much less taxing. If you’re familiar with the experience of multi-tasking: you feel like you’re being pulled — you’re in two places, three places at once. It’s not relaxing, and therefore you are using so much more energy to accomplish what you need to do. You think you’re multi-tasking [and being efficient] but your brain is really toggling between this job and that job. It’s tiring. So we reduce the stress [by bringing] all of ourselves ideally and optimally to a task. We bring all of our attention “here.” And “here” is the exciting place because that’s really all there is. Can you get to the future? Can you get to the past? No. This is the only place you can be. This is where you actually have fun, you make decisions, learn, grow, feel, etc.
“Here” is the exciting place because that’s really all there is. Can you get to the future? Can you get to the past? No. This is the only place you can be. This is where you actually have fun, you make decisions, learn, grow, feel.
Zady: People often think, “If I meditate, that will help me relax and maybe help ease my anxiety.” What are other documented benefits of mindfulness?
AG Jon Kabat-Zinn introduced this course in 1979 and started researching, and found that the immune system is heightened in meditators. There is faster healing time. In that first course he taught he got his population by going to the doctors at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center — he’s a molecular biologist so that’s why they would talk to him. He said, “Give me the chronic pain patients you don’t have anything for. [The patients] you have no resources for.” So these people came [to Kabat-Zinn because] their doctors had no answers for them. This eight- week course changed these patients’ relationship to pain. [The patients] went down in their [use of] medication and they went up in their activity level…They came out with a greater sense of what is called “self-efficacy,” which means, “I can handle what comes up.”…A sense of self-efficacy is related to longevity and a sense of self-confidence. So that was 1979. In the 90’s, when MRI, or magnetic resonance imaging machines came out, the research exploded. If you look up “mindfulness and neuroscience” now you will be overwhelmed by the information that you find. It’s being used to treat post-traumatic stress disorder, burnout, eating disorders, sleeping disorders, borderline personality disorder, depression, relapse, and anxiety. It’s in the classroom. It’s in the Army…Google is teaching something very much like this. Those engineers think stress is good for them so they call it “Search Inside Yourself.” So it is everywhere, and the research is getting more and more rigorous, but all indications — even for those who have questioned the research [in the past] — all the indications are that it takes you in the direction you want to go.
Zady: What about for people who say, “I’m not anxious or depressed?” Does meditation increase one’s overall sense of well-being, focus, concentration?
AG I would add, creativity…This is another piece of research that’s really interesting: meditators have longer telomeres. Telomeres are the caps at the end of the DNA strands that are affiliated with longevity. Here’s another one that I love: the amygdala is the area in the brain that acts like a siren. So, a bear comes and the amygdala starts screaming, “Action! Emergency!” But we can react to a tone of voice as though it’s a bear. We overreact. In meditators, the amydala is thinner. If you experience a moment of envy, it may not be something that you want to pay attention to; you don’t want to see yourself that way. But let’s say you’re sitting in practice and envy comes up and you think, “That’s horrible.” And then maybe you breathe into it and you realize that there is no one who doesn’t feel envy, you have a choice of whether to act on it or not.
Zady: Is the goal is to be fully present in every moment?
AG In a kind of way. In a way with openness, with curiosity, with acceptance. [You’re] training the mind so that the mindful intervention becomes the habit. So, here’s something that might be perceived as a threat, and now the reaction is noted really quickly and you can decide how to respond, rather than act automatically.
Zady: If someone is interested in trying to adopt some kind of practice what would you suggest they do?
AG I would say, “Do yourself a favor and get yourself a teacher.” You can go wrong so easily because [this work] is so counterintuitive. It’s so easy to misunderstand. I can’t tell you how many people have tried meditation 100 times and they say they can’t do it because they just can’t stop thinking. A teacher will tell you that the goal is not to stop thinking. You can’t stop thinking. As long as you’ve got a mind there will be thinking. But you learn how to manage it, and eventually you will find quiet. I would Google “Mindfulness Meditation” and I would I would find an MBSR course because that’s a non-sectarian way of learning it.
Zady: What if someone isn’t ready to take the plunge of a class, but wants to “dip their toe into” mindfulness? Is doing something like paying attention to your breathing or trying to be present while washing the dishes “mindfulness-Lite”?
AG No, it’s not. We ask people to begin to do that in the first class: to pick one ordinary activity and bring mindfulness to it. And mindfulness means becoming aware — from the impulse to do an activity [like brushing your teeth], to reaching for the toothbrush, turning on the water, the movements of the wrist, reaching for the toothpaste, squeezing it — the whole thing. Just paying attention to what’s going on. Someone asked me at their first class, “Does it take longer to do these things mindfully?” No. It’s like reclaiming your time, so instead of being lost in thought you are there. It doesn’t take longer, you’re just actually there. You’re there for your life. It’s also like a time out. Even though it’s like a “time in,” it’s like a time out…We get to check our breathing. Are we holding our breath? Can we let go? And we just relish a moment for what it is. It doesn’t have to be a pleasurable moment, you just have to be in contact with the moment, and that’s where a sense of wholeness in your life comes from.
Zady: What do people report in your classes? How are their lives different once they begin trying this out?
AG The third week one person said her whole day was different. She didn’t squeeze herself onto a crowded subway [car]; she was just going to wait. She got to work a few minutes later — it didn’t matter. The whole day was different…At the end of the course one man said his whole pattern of reactivity of anger was gone. He used to get furious with his boss for coming in several minutes late for meetings, and after six weeks of this course…he told us that was over. It’s not that he was numbing out, he was just recognizing what he could do something about, and what was a useful way of responding to situations. Another woman said her staff told her she had become gentler. Another said a [previously] spikey relationship at home with her daughter and her husband had changed…It’s very transformative. Basically things get easier.
Zady: Is this something that if you’re going to do it at all, you have to do it every day?
AG I think that’s for everybody to work out for themselves. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s course [asks] for 45 minutes a day, six days a week. My teacher Joseph Goldstein would say, “Just get in the position every day.” He says the trick is, once you are there you might sit for longer. It’s easy to be mindful; it’s hard to remember to be mindful. These habits of being on automatic pilot, we’ve developed them our whole lives, so it definitely takes some commitment to putting in the time to re-wire the brain — which is what we think we’re doing here.