Buddha Lessons (Newsweek)

by Claudia Kalb, Sept. 26, 2004

For decades, Dalia Isicoff has suffered the agony of rheumatoid arthritis–joint pain, spinal fusion, multiple hip surgeries. Painkillers dull the aches, but it wasn’t until she took a course at the University of Maryland’s Center for Integrative Medicine that Isicoff discovered a powerful weapon inside her own body: her mind. Using a meditative practice called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, or MBSR, Isicoff learned to acknowledge her pain, rather than fight it. Her negative and debilitating thought patterns–“This is getting worse,” “I’m going to end up in a wheelchair”–began to dissipate, and she was able to cut back on her medication. The pain hasn’t gone away, but “I view it is an ally now,” she says. “Mindfulness is transformational.”

With its roots in ancient Buddhist traditions, mindfulness is now gaining ground as an antidote for everything from type-A stress to chronic pain, depression and even the side effects of cancer treatment. At the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where MBSR was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, a leader in the field, 15,000 people have taken an eight-week course in the practice; hundreds more have signed up at medical clinics across the country. Studies have shown that mindfulness can reduce pain and anxiety. Now researchers are using brain imaging and blood tests to study its biological effects, and early results are intriguing: this spring, the National Institutes of Health hosted its first conference on the topic. “People in the scientific community used to think that this was a lot of mystical mumbo jumbo,” says psychologist Ruth Baer, of the University of Kentucky. “Now they’re saying, ‘Hey, we should start paying attention’.”

Paying attention is the very essence of mindfulness. In 45-minute meditations, participants learn to observe the whirring thoughts of the mind and the physical sensations in the body. The guiding principle is to be present moment to moment, to be aware of what’s happening, but without critique or judgment. It is not easy. Our “monkey mind,” as Buddhists call the internal chaos, keeps us swinging from past regrets to future worries, leaving little time for the here and now. First attempts may provoke frustration (“I’ll never be able to do this”), impatience (“When will this be over?”) and even banal mental sparks (“What am I going to make for dinner?”). The goal, however, is not to reach nirvana, but to observe the cacophony in a compassionate way, to accept it as transient, “like bubbles forming in a pot of water or weather patterns in the sky,” says Kabat-Zinn.

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