Beginning in 1979, when Jon Kabat-Zinn went into the basement of the University of Massachusetts medical school and led a small number of patients through a program he dubbed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)—combining meditation with simple yoga movements—mindfulness was not a word you heard much. There were no studies of the effectiveness of mindfulness practices published in scientific journals, and your doctor was not likely to have heard of it, much less prescribe it.
Now, almost 40 years on, there are racks and racks of popular books on the subject and special publications galore in supermarket and bookstore aisles. Over 650 studies of the effects of mindfulness were published in 2016, which is more than double the number in 2013. Aetna, one of the world’s largest health insurers, now has a chief mindfulness officer; mindfulness is taught in grade schools, high schools, and colleges; and UMass has now become the first university whose medical school contains a Division of Mindfulness.
Judson Brewer—who is the acting director of the newly created Division of Mindfulness and has been the director of research at the Center for Mindfulness for several years—is both a medical doctor and a PhD. And he embraces mindfulness with the same inspiration that launched MBSR: Mindfulness practice is a methodology that has a place not just in monasteries and retreat centers but in doctor’s offices and hospitals. Brewer is proud to stand on the shoulders of pioneers like Jon Kabat-Zinn and Saki Santorelli, who ran the Center for several decades before his recent retirement.
Brewer also knows that while mindfulness has grown in popularity and acceptability, a mixed blessing lurks there. When something takes on the aura of a fad, in the way of Pet Rocks or Fidget Spinners, the very fact of popularity has a notorious way of trivializing something and reducing its credibility within established institutions. And in the rush to respond to the demand for something that promises some relief from suffering, breathless overpromotion inevitably ensues. In fact, a recent paper by a group of 15 researchers called for a halt to extravagant claims surrounding mindfulness, citing a need for more careful definitions of exactly what mindfulness is when it is studied, more rigorous clinical studies, and a check on media reports and advertising of mindfulness as a virtual cure-all.
This is an excerpt of Mindful’s feature on health care from the April 2018 issue of Mindful magazine. Subscribe to the digital issue of Mindful to get immediate access to the April issue.