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How Mindfulness Reduces Stress and Improves Health

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World Economic Forum
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Jon Kabat-Zinn teaches mindfulness meditation at the Annual Meeting 2015 of the World Economic Forum.

In 1971, Jon Kabat-Zinn finished his Ph.D. in the laboratory of Nobel Laureate, Salvador Luria, at M.I.T. Then, he took what might be considered a left turn – he went to study with Buddhist masters. Several years later, he drew on both his training in both biology and Buddhism when he founded the Stress Reduction Clinic at U. Mass. Medical School and created the first course in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction.

"It seems like 'wow, what a gigantic shift from molecular biology to Buddhist meditative practices,'" says Kabat-Zinn. "But it wasn't so much of a shift for me because ever since I was very young, I was interested in consciousness, and how it evolved, and the biology of consciousness."

Mindfulness is the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally.

Kabat-Zinn says he'd gone into biology to try to answer some of those questions, and that meditation offered another way to study oneself and explore what fundamentally makes us human.

Of course, in the 1970's, when Kabat-Zinn began his work, there were no scientific studies about mindfulness. He credits his M.I.T. credentials with convincing colleagues to give him the benefit of the doubt.

"Of course, I didn't know what I was doing," he says. "I was feeling my way with that intuition that came from just being young and wanting to understand things that nobody was looking at."

Now, there are hundreds of increasingly rigorous studies showing that mindfulness training and the practice of meditation can produce measurable biological changes. Meditation changes the structure of the brain, enhancing regions responsible for learning and memory processes, emotion regulation, and perspective taking, while thinning areas involved in stress responses. In clinical trials, mindfulness training also appears to suppress inflammation pathways, boost cell-mediated immunity, and slow some aspects of biological aging.

Kabat-Zinn says that it's important to realize that the science of mindfulness is "really, truly in its infancy." While much of the research is "rigorous, out of very reputable labs, published in top-tier journals," he acknowledges that some of the studies out there are not top of the line. And, he says, this is a complex subject that will take decades to work out.

"What people are trying to do is drill down to the mechanism," he explains "Mindfulness seems to be beneficial on so many different levels, it's like 'how can that be?'"

As with anything that seems to good to be true, Kabat-Zinn says it's important to question whether there are any potential risks from mindfulness meditation.

"The biggest negative effect, so to speak, would be that you run into mental states that you really don't want to pay any attention to - like boredom, or anxiety or panic - because you're going to be welcoming and embracing any state of mind and body to arise."

While that may not be a good idea for some people, Kabat-Zinn says that the quality of the teacher can be important in determining the outcome of mindfulness training. 

For himself, Kabat-Zinn says he'd still be practicing mindfulness - even if there were no science to back it up - simply because of the enhanced quality of life he experiences as a result.