Mind Over Matter

by Kate Devlin

Mike Healy opens his monthly introductory mindfulness courses with a seemingly harmless yet potentially loaded question: “What brings you here today?”

A man in a button-down, khakis, and bare feet explains that he’s been practicing meditation on and off (but mostly off) for the past four years. An elderly woman in orthopedic shoes adds that her doctor recommended meditation for her atrial fibrillation.

A much younger woman shifts in her seat uncomfortably, and mentions that today will be her first time meditating. She appears hesitant to disclose anything more, but it seems like she’s here in search of something.

Thanks to what TIME magazine has deemed the “mindful revolution,” there are now thousands of workshops, retreats, books, websites and classes like those Healy teaches dedicated to the practice of mindfulness meditation.

There is in fact nothing revolutionary about it — mindfulness meditation is nearly 2,500 years old.

The practice became popularized in the 1970s due to an MIT researcher named Jon Kabat-Zinn introduced his theory of mindfulness-based-stress-reduction (MSBR). He was one of the first to pose this ancient Eastern practice as the solution to the West’s triple threat of chronic health issues: stress, anxiety, and depression.

His movement first garnered mainstream interest in 1993 after appearing on an episode of Billy Moyer’s PBS special, Healing and the Mind.

Most practitioners and teachers use Kabat-Zinn’s working definition of mindfulness: paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, and without judgement.

As opposed to other forms of meditation, mindfulness is not about clearing or “emptying” the mind. It’s about acknowledging and accepting thoughts without ruminating on them.

Beginners are often encouraged to approach meditation with a metaphor in mind: acknowledge each thought, and let it go as if it were a cloud passing through the sky. You are not the clouds, you are the great blue expanse behind it. In essence, you are not your thoughts.

The truth is that meditation can be hard, excruciating even. First-time meditators can resemble toddlers, twisting and turning and fidgeting under the enormous pressure of sitting still.

According to the 2012 National Health Interview Survey conducted by the Centers for Disease Control, the use of mind and body health practices is on the rise.

From 2002 to 2012, the practice of yoga has nearly doubled among adults in the United States. That’s nearly 21 million adults that reported using yoga as a complementary health practice.

Many adults have been introduced to meditation through their yoga practice, so it’s no surprise that the number using meditation practices is not too far behind. Meditation is now practiced by 8 percent of adults in the United States — that’s nearly 18 million.

While the increase in yoga practice over time is clearly stated, it’s more difficult to track the practice of meditation over time.

“In order to provide greater detail on meditation, in 2012 the type of meditation practiced was specified as mantra, mindfulness, or spiritual,” reads an NHIS report released in February of 2015. “While this change reduced the percentage of false-positive responses, direct comparison to previous survey years was lost.”

The 2012 NHIS data provides a clear figure, but it cannot be compared with data from past surveys. This change in wording affects the ability to accurately report trends, but it certainly brings some sense of legitimacy to the practice of meditation.

In a time where business is a virtue, doing nothing can be seen as waste of time. But doing nothing is exactly what the doctor ordered.

Some of the most recent popularity can be attributed to the legitimacy meditation is now afforded by scientific literature. Neuroscientists have studied the physiological effects of meditation, and realized that this whole “doing nothing” is actually doing a lot of something.

According to 2012 data from the American Psychological Association, 20 percent of Americans report extreme stress levels. While 64 percent said that managing stress was very important, only 37 percent felt they were actually doing a good job at managing theirs.

Mindfulness has now found its place in the workplace, on the basketball court, and even in the military. Not only that, it’s received celebrity endorsements from athletes, CEOs, and Congressmen.

Although it may difficult to pinpoint exactly when the mindfulness boom occurred, but the interest is there.

A Google search for “mindfulness” yields nearly 3 billion results — Google Trends data shows that popularity for the search term has doubled just from 2012 to 2015.

Similarly, an Amazon search for books related to “mindfulness” and it might appear the enlightenment not comes in paperback. The search yields nearly 12,000 titles: Mindfulness in Plain English, Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Awakening, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Mindfulness, Mindfulness and Mental Health, The Art and Science of Mindfulness, The Miracle of Mindfulness, Mindfulness for Teachers, One-Minute Mindfulness, 365 Days of Mindfulness, The Mindfulness Solution.

(Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness for Beginners was temporarily out of stock.)

In the classroom, mindfulness is having more than just a moment.

Scholastic, a major publisher of books and educational materials, has even created mindfulness-based curriculum called “MINDup.”

Dr. Jerry Gale, director of the University of Georgia’s Marriage and Family Therapy doctoral program, incorporates mindfulness meditation into most of his teaching curriculum and professional practice.

Gale has been an instrumental force in bringing mindfulness to the UGA campus. He is part of a Faculty Learning Community geared towards mindfulness, he teaches a Freshman Year Odyssey Seminar on meditation, and he helped organize last month’s UGA Morning of Mindfulness. Now, Dr. Gale is exploring the possibility of hosting a weekly meditation session at the Georgia Museum of Art.

Gale’s first-year UGA students report better eating habits, better study habits, better exam performance, and a heightened capability to deal with issues in their personal relationships.

“They find applications in both education and personal lives,” Gale says.

Lydia Sloan, one of Gale’s students, says that learning to practice mindfulness during her first semester helped her transition into college more easily.

“If I got overwhelmed — which was a lot of the time — I could just stop and take some breaths,” Sloan says. “It was nice to have different things to do to live in the moment and be okay.”

Dr. Sarah Whitaker, an assistant professor in UGA’s Educational Psychology department, has researched how mindfulness can be applied in not only higher education but also elementary and middle grades.

For her dissertation, Whitaker studied a sixth grade classroom in Oakland, California taught by Meena Srinvasan. Srinvasan is a well-known advocate of classroom mindfulness and author of Teach Breathe Learn.

Teaching kids mindfulness is the classroom setting is a natural way for them to adopt a mindfulness practice and then apply it to their daily lives.

“In my interview data, there were some amazing anecdotes about kids using mindfulness at home when they were fighting with their siblings and kids using mindfulness in conflicts with friends at school,” Whitaker says. “You’re teaching them these practices in an academic setting, and then they’re making that extra leap to make it really personal.”

Today, Whitaker begins each of her Introduction to Educational Psychology courses with a five minute exercise in meditation. While there are always naysayers, she says the response is overwhelmingly positive.

“Amazingly, I think I’m getting more unsolicited commendations for exposing them to mindfulness than I ever have before,” Whitakers says. “I think it’s because this trend has some public consciousness behind it.”

Whitaker credits some of the popularity in education with people growing tired of the educational emphasis on test scores and cognitive abilities. Mindfulness is often tied to certain aspects of social and emotional learning.

Although Healy’s own path to meditation was serendipitous in nature — he began practicing in college after renting a spare room at a transcendental meditation center — he believes that many people experience “trigger events” before devoting themselves to the practice.

“There are trigger events usually that bring people to meditation,” Healy says. “They see something differently, they’re having a crisis in their lives, or they’re really stressed out. They’re seeking something else and mindfulness has that to offer.”

It’s difficult to identify a “trigger event” on a societal level, but there are definitely theories.

Mindfulness comes from an Sanskrit word meaning “remembrance.” Being mindful can simply mean remembering to bring the focus of your attention back to the present moment. In age of information overload, that’s easier said than done.

“You see a table of people and everybody’s on their phones, or people walking down the street and instead of talking and interacting, they’re on their phones,” Healy says. “There’s all this multitasking and distance between people and mindfulness is a way to reconnect to yourself and then reconnect to other people.”

Healy believes that people are under an incredible amount of stress, and mindfulness can help them to embrace times of uncertainty.

“Mindfulness will teach you to ride the waves of change, as opposed to getting drowned drown in them. Right now, a lot of people are just barely keeping their heads above water.”

While there are certainly benefits to the growing popularity of mindfulness practice, there are concerns that come with it. There are costs to making an ancient practice so decidedly Western.

“I think there is some sense in our culture of creating a commodity of meditation mindfulness. A pill — take 2 doses of meditation and call me in the morning,” Gale says.

“I’m being facetious, but it becomes something you’re doing instrumentally as an intervention. On one hand, it does serve that purpose but when we commodify it to such a degree, I think we lose it. We lose something.”

What we lose is the context.

There are hazards associated with secularizing such a deeply ancient and religious tradition. And though mindfulness meditation is presented as a one-size-fits-all, it’s certainly not for everyone.

Sean Trostel is a UGA grad who currently resides at the Atlanta Soto Zen Center. In addition to his full-time job, Trostel meditates about 90 minutes each day, and receives several hours of training each week. He has regularly practiced meditation for the past 3 years.

“Much of the “commercialization” of Buddhism aims at bringing in the widest audience possible to the practice, which is a reasonable and commendable effort,” Trostel says.

“The concern comes from the sacrifices made to make the practice palatable to the masses.”

The trouble with mainstream meditation is that it’s often used as a means to an end instead of an end in itself. When used as a “tool” meditation can be powerful — dangerous even.

Dr. Glenn Wallis has a Ph.D in Buddhist studies from Harvard University, and received tenure at the University of Georgia. Currently, he serves as associate professor and chair of the Applied Meditation Studies program at the Won Institute of Graduate Studies in Glenside, Pennsylvania. He founded what he calls a “nasty blog” called Speculative Non Buddhism.

Dr. Glenn Wallis, an “observer of Buddhism in North American and practitioner of Buddhist style-meditation since 1975” cites the 2011 example of Anders Behring Breivik. Breivik reportedly used a Zen Buddhist style of meditation to mentally prepare himself for the terroristic mission that ended in 77 deaths in Oslo, Norway.

While that example is extreme, it makes the case for what happens when you take an ancient tradition out of its cultural context.

“The main thing we lose is the balance that tradition seemed to have considered important,” Wallis says. “Traditionally, Buddhist meditation, or mental training, was just one leg, so to speak, of a three-legged stool. The other two were ethics and wisdom.”

But Trostel says that the problem is that meditating with a goal in mind is misdirected.

“When we sit (or practice mindfulness), the correct approach is to have no goal in mind, but simply to remain unconflicted with reality,” Trostel says. “When a goal is held in the mind, it introduces a sense of conflict with the present moment.”

Trostel acknowledges that these supposed (and well-researched) effects are what brought him and brings many others to meditation, but those results are not enough to create a sustainable, lasting practice. Those in search of something may come up short.

“The ‘positive’ effects of meditation are just that — effects. Sometimes they arise, sometimes they don’t. If one is serious about her practice, it’s important that she not get distracted by them, cling to them.”

Quiet places are far and few in between. Regardless of skeptics, the idea of a quiet place comes as a comfort to many and as a waste of time to the few. But while most “trendy” things go by the wayside, this ancient practice won’t be disappearing anytime soon.

Mindfulness meditation has certainly created a bandwagon effect, but seasoned practitioners don’t seem to mind.

They view the “mindful revolution” with an admirable Zen-like acceptance: it too will pass, like a cloud through the sky.

“In the end, it won’t matter,” Gale says. “It comes and it goes.”

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