Event: Google Tech Talks
Title: Mindfulness, Stress Reduction And Healing
Speaker: Jon Kabat-Zinn
Date: March 8, 2007
Aimée Christensen: Welcome, everyone. My name is Aimée Christensen and I’m working on climate change for google.org. And my good friend Meng asked me to do the introduction to Jon Kabat-Zinn, and I’m honored to have the opportunity to do so.
But I first wanted to thank Meng for organizing this event. It’s such a special occasion, and I thought that Meng’s title was especially appropriate given that he’s known as Jolly Good Fellow here at Google. It best captures Jon’s teachings.
So just a little bit of background on his bio. Jon Kabat-Zinn is a scientist, writer, and meditation teacher engaged in bringing mindfulness into the mainstream of medicine and society. He is professor of medicine emeritus at University of Massachusetts Medical School where he was founding executive director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society, as well as founder and former director of its world renowned stress reduction clinic, which, I don’t know about you guys, but I could use a little bit of that now. I’m looking forward to this.
He is author of many books, including Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness, as well as Wherever You Go, There You Are, the book that introduced me to him. Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s work has contributed to a growing movement of mindfulness into mainstream institutions in our society, including medicine, health care, schools, corporations, and perhaps even here at Google.
Dr. Kabat-Zinn received his Ph.D. in molecular biology from MIT in 1971, and his research focused on mind-body interactions with healing and various clinical applications of mindless meditation, training for people with chronic pain and stress related disorders. We’re hoping that his teachings will help all of us to not only optimize our mental output for Google but also optimize our quality of life wherever we are. So welcome, John. Thank you.
Well, thank you for that very sweet introduction. And it’s wonderful for me to be here. I’ve never been here before and it does feel like an interesting planet to be on. I’m just feeling my way.
But I, too, want to express my gratitude to Meng for inviting me. And I understand that I’m part of a much larger scheme in his mind. How many of you heard Alan Wallace talk when he was here some time ago? Not that many. So we’re covering a very broad spectrum because I’m sure a lot of people showed up for his talk. And then Paul Ekman is going to come in May, I’m told. And Paul Ekman is also involved in this kind of work in another way, some of which I’ll explain to you when I get to the slides.
What’s that? And Matthieu Ricard, whose face you’ll see in some of the photographs I’ll be showing, is coming next week, and I highly recommend you to see him. We have sort of a parallel background in that I was a student of Salvador Luria’s at MIT, who won the Nobel Prize early on in the history of molecular biology. And he was a graduate student at the same time at the Pasteur institute in Paris, France with Francois Jacob, who was a close friend of Luria’s. And then he happened to go off to Nepal and was so struck by what he felt from the Tibetan meditation teachers that he met there that he gave up molecular biology and has been a monk for 40 years. But now, as you’ll see, he’s been engaged in a larger enterprise to do science on meditative experience and look at the neuroscience of what happens in the brain when people have been meditating for very long periods of time and with tremendous motivation and intensity.
So it sounds like there’s something of a sequence of speakers coming to Google that are in some way all pointing to some hidden dimension of reality that’s in some way hidden to us, in other ways completely self-evident. But when it isn’t self-evident, it is really opaque. And I like to think of it as an orthogonal dimension — that is rotated 90 degrees in relationship to conventional reality — but one that allows in quantum mechanics, for instance, as I understand it, an orthogonal relationship allows, actually, two different entities to occupy the same space at the same time.
And in the mind, that is a very, very useful feature to actually bring online as opposed to leave just as potential.
So I’m going to be talking from a number of different angles. I entitled the talk, after talking with Meng about it, Mindfulness, Stress Reduction, and Healing, because that’s what a huge amount of our work in the past 28 years at the UMass Medical Center has been about. But there’s another parallel element to it, and it partly depends on how you feel about stress and stress reduction.
But when we use the word stress reduction, we’re not talking about some kind of dime store relaxation attempts to calm people down and just make them feel a little bit better so that they can work a little bit harder. We’re talking about, actually, a transformation in the way in which we relate to our lives, to our bodies, to our calling, to our loves, to our ambition, and so forth, so that we can live lives of balance and fundamental, profound satisfaction.
And I believe that’s true for human beings, that that is possible. And I think that a lot of time, the society entrains us, if we don’t do it ourselves, into severe imbalances that can sometimes be unbelievably addictive, intoxicating, and wonderful on one level, and on the other hand, maybe actually draining your life’s blood on another level or killing you. And so, in a certain way, metaphorically speaking, I would say that in this society, we seem to more and more be dying for some authentic door into ourselves in a way that’s bigger than just what usually defines us.
And that’s not to deny the beauty of what we often do, how creative we can be, how important it is to — I mean, at a place like this where you’re basically redefining the world and the universe in ways that potentially are tremendously healing for the planet. But to have this be, in some sense or other, held in a kind of awareness that ordinarily, we’re just not taught in school and that requires a certain kind of intimacy in cultivation in order to be able to have it more at our disposal.
Stress and Stress Reduction
So if we’re going to start with stress and stress reduction– periodically, Time Magazine and Newsweek and so forth put stress right up there on front because — I don’t know –I mean, I started the Stress Reduction Clinic in 1979. And when I think back to 1979, I say to myself, 1979 — what stress? I mean because of you folks and people like you, I can get more work done in a day than I used to be able to get done in a month, and it’s far better work.
But it still has a cost. Do you know what I’m saying? Because then the expectation is– not just from other people but from myself that I will just be — so the digital revolution already has catapulted us into a condition where increasingly, there’s no end to the work day. There’s no end to the work week. And so there’s a way in which work can encroach all of life. And if you love work more than anything else in the world, hey, no problem with that. And there have always been people like that on the planet– scientists, musicians– where it’s all that.
But there’s also potential costs to pay in terms of burnout, in terms of addiction, in terms of overdosing, so that you’re not actually tapping into the creativity that maybe you once were. And it requires more and more effort to get the certain kind of return, as opposed to less effort, more dance.
But for 20 or 25 years, there has been a lot of research being done epidemiologically, what are the effects of various kinds of risk factors on human health, mentally and physically? Everybody knows smoking is a big thing in this society, to actually demonstrate that cigarette smoking is not good for your health. And in 1964, the Surgeon General’s report actually came out and said that.
So there’s that and there’s high blood pressure and there’s high cholesterol and all sorts of risk factors for coronary disease, for cancer and so forth. But stress was always considered not measuring up to a bona fide risk factor. But a couple years ago at UCSF, in the laboratory of Liz Blackburn, Elissa Epel, who actually happens to be a mindfulness teacher but is a young assistant professor at UCSF, did a study looking at the rate at which the repeat subunits at the ends of all of our chromosomes, which are called telomeres and which are required for every cell division in every cell in our body that divides, that it turns out that long-term chronic stress can accelerate the rate of telomere degradation enormously.
And so if you have ever heard the words coming out of your mouth after a particularly horrific experience, “god, that one just took years off my life,” it turns out it’s true. Because the telomeres, once they degrade, the cells can’t divide any more. So if stress increases the rate of telomere degradation, I mean, you can’t get more somatic and molecular than that in terms of evidence that stress has, potentially, if it’s not mitigated, the consequence of basically increasing aging.
And I’m not going to go into the study in any great detail. It was published in the PNAS — Proceedings of the National Academy of Science– in 2004. But just to say that they did this study on parents of children with chronic medical problems that are basically not going to get better. So it just doesn’t get any more stressful than that kind of thing. It’s not like, well, at a certain point, I’ll get to go on vacation or this will evolve in some way.
No, that’s just going to be the way it is for life. But they actually took parents who didn’t have chronically ill children, which are the blue points, and what they found was that they were also showing telomere degradation. And what really mattered was how much stress they thought they were under. They were under a lot less stress than the other parents, objectively speaking. But if you think you’re under absolutely intolerable levels of stress, you create that reality. But that’s a very positive finding because it says, if you change your relationship to your perception of the stress, then you could actually, potentially, reduce the rate of telomere degradation.
And now, every study on meditation has thrown in the telomerase assay and so forth now, and we don’t know any results yet. But looking to see whether training in a course of meditation over a period of time might actually slow or restore to normal, say, the rate of telomere degradation. So I just want to throw that out to you because there’s so many exciting things going on in the field nowadays about that kind of thing.
But I want to make some pretty fundamental points here. If you stare at that word for too long, it doesn’t mean anything, as you know. But I want to make a distinction between how much doing we do and — what’s that? Yes, if you’re Swedish, it’s doing. How much doing we wind up doing over the course of the day, as opposed to what you could call, and the Chinese might call, non-doing, or what I like to call “being.” We’re called human beings. But it might be more appropriate, the cliche goes, for us to rename ourselves “human doings” because we seem to be very much doing all the time. And often, the doing is coming out of the head, but not necessarily coming out of the heart or coming out of the body. And so it’s, in some sense, disembodied doing. And over time, even the greatest doing, disembodied, can get you into real trouble at the level of the body and its health but also at the level of our human relationships.
Have I lost the audience already? Or am I making some sense here? Okay, because a lot of this is going to be impressionistic. In the amount of time I have, I’m not going to be able to go into this in tremendous detail. But what I’m going to be doing is trying to point you at some places where you’ll be able to verify this or not for yourself on the basis of your own experience just by paying attention in a certain kind of way that ordinarily we don’t. And if you want a brief definition of meditation, it’s about paying attention. It’s got nothing to do with Buddhism, mysticism, the East, the West. It’s about paying attention.
So by virtue of the fact that it’s about paying attention, it universalizes it. It’s about something that’s totally universal. And it’s not attention for its own sake. It’s attention for the sake of a profound capacity that we all have innately that we ordinarily never pay any attention to. And that is awareness. And I’m going to argue that awareness has a way of balancing out thought in ways that are profoundly intuitive and also profoundly creative. And we were never taught that in school. We were only taught to think in school, and we get better and better at being critical thinkers, but we are not so good at holding our thoughts and emotions and sensations and relationships in ways that have coherence, groundedness, the potential for greater satisfaction, balance, and, if you will, happiness. And Matthieu Ricard is going to talk on happiness. And he’ll come in his very colorful Tibetan robes. And Matthieu is the real thing, so you’re going to really enjoy him, and I urge you not to miss him.
So we call what we do “mind-body medicine.” We’ve been calling it that for a very long time. Finally, the media has picked up on that. Because from the very beginning, we’ve been trying to actually transform medicine. Medicine itself is suffering from some serious chronic diseases. You may have realized that in your own encounters with the medical profession. And so we’re, in some sense, trying to breathe new life into medicine, and in some other ways through science and through some other ways, get it back to its Hippocratic roots and not lose the art of medicine while we’re developing the science of medicine.
I’ll just point out in passing, the word meditation and the word medicine sound a little bit alike in English, don’t they? And there’s a very, very deep root meaning that they share, and that makes it not quite so weird that we would be bringing meditation into the mainstream of medicine. Whereas, it could have been thought 30 years ago that it’s tantamount to the Visigoths being at the citadel and about to tear down the gates of the city and so forth. Far from it, meditation has now become completely accepted within mainstream medicine the past 30 years.
And I’ll show you some evidence of that. This is basically a photograph of a 150 doctors and other health professionals being trained in mindfulness at one of our professional training retreats. I just got back from another one last week. And what we call mindfulness-based stress reduction is spread — this map is 10 years old. And by the way, I’d just like to pitch — this is the perfect environment to do it.
If any of you folks can put me in touch with software that I can put points on a map at will, I would love that. Without the coordinates. Just name the city and it shows up on my map of the world. I’m looking for it. And I’m serious. I’d love that.
So this is a poster of a daylong seminar that was held at the National Institutes of Health at their giant auditorium in the Natcher Conference Center, right on the grounds of the NIH in 2004 called Mindfulness Meditation and Health. And what I want to say is, from the perspective of 1979 when I started the stress reduction clinic, the idea that the National Institutes of Health would hold a daylong symposium entitled Mindfulness Meditation and Health, it’s more infinitesimally improbable than that the big bang would stop expanding and the universe would begin to collapse. I mean, this is like a huge sea change at the NIH. And they are now funding studies of meditation in the range of between $10 million and $100 million at the moment. And are really interested in this, in part because the more you can teach people how to take care of themselves as a complement to what the health care system can do, the cheaper it is and the more effective. Because then what you’re doing is you’re creating a participatory medicine as opposed to an auto mechanics model of medicine. And we mostly practice auto mechanics in medicine.