March 16, 2010 — On Sunday morning, more than 200 people rolled out their yoga mats, took off their shoes and eagerly awaited the start of a full-day retreat with renowned scientist, writer and meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn at Alumni Hall.
The event was part of the John and Tussi Kluge Compassionate Care Lecture series and one of two retreats – one tailored for health care professionals and the other for community members – and two talks held during Kabat-Zinn's visit to the University of Virginia.
His talk on Friday at Old Cabell Hall, "Arriving at Your Own Door: Meditation Can Change Your Brain, Transform Your Mind, and Light Up Your Life," was followed by a book signing. He also gave a special Medical Center Hour talk on Monday, "Mindfulness in Medicine and Psychology: Its Transformative and Healing Potential in Living and in Dying."
The group gathered on Sunday included long-time practitioners of mindfulness meditation and novices.
Kabat-Zinn opened the session by inviting everyone to join together in "a day of adventuring in the field of being."
"Being trumps doing," he said, noting that our lives are filled with "busyness," striving and stress.
Mindfulness meditation puts energy in the present moment. The past is past and the future is unknown, but the present is what is happening now, he told the group.
Mindfulness meditation is not a technique and not a striving for an ideal state, but a training of the mind and body to become aware.
"Awareness comes when we pay attention to the moment," he said. "It brings intention and attention together and brings orientation to your life."
Although the exercises focus on breathing, the in and out of a natural body function, Kabat-Zinn instructed participants to pay attention to the stray thoughts that divert attention and to recognize them and go back to the breathing. Throughout the day, he led the group in sitting, standing and walking yoga exercises.
A silent lunch provided an opportunity for participants to be aware of both what they were eating — the taste and texture of the grapes, cheese, almonds, raisins, muffins, Clementines and dark chocolate.
Participants later commented that the simplicity and small amounts of each food were both ample and satisfying.
With food issues related to health so prevalent in the United States, Kabat-Zinn said the silent lunch exercise was a way to bring awareness to the mindfulness of daily living. The benefits of mindfulness meditation and awareness can have impact on all areas of society.
"Awareness changes everything and it has the capacity to move the bell-shaped curve of a whole society," he said.
Kabat-Zinn's scientific work has shown that mindfulness meditation training restructures the brain, and the benefits have been documented on the physical and mental levels. People trained in mindfulness meditation are "off the charts" in effecting changes in the nervous system, aging and even on the cellular level, and science has shown that there are benefits against depressive thinking and pain, he said.
Kabat-Zinn praised the University for embracing mindfulness meditation across disciplines, including medicine, nursing, education and business.
"True education is a thought surrounded by awareness," he said.
Lynn Hamilton, assistant professor and director of the Management Communication Program in the McIntire School of Commerce, attended Sunday's retreat. She has used mindfulness meditation concepts and techniques in small ways with her undergraduate classes in activities that involve public speaking and anxiety.
"Public speaking is one of the most commonly named fears," she said. "By noting, by paying attention to those anxieties, worries and fears can lose power over us."
For health care workers, a major issue is burnout as a result of job stress. Also attending the Sunday event was John Schorling, professor of medicine and director of U.Va.'s Mindfulness Center, who works with students, physicians and other health care professionals. He has participated in the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Professional Training Program with Kabat-Zinn at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where Kabat-Zinn founded the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society. Schorling will soon release an eight-year study on reducing stress in health care providers through mindfulness meditation.
Drummer Robert Jospe, a member of the McIntire Department of Music performance faculty, collaborates at the Albemarle-Charlottesville Regional Jail with Tussi Kluge in a program on rhythm and resilience that incorporates mindfulness meditation and drumming. "One benefit is that it helps re-entry into society," Jospe said.
Building a supportive community that bridges all areas of the University and the local community was one of Kluge's goals in supporting Kabat-Zinn's visit.
"With these events, we are trying to connect communities, the University and the larger community. We freshen each other," she said.
Nursing School Dean Dorrie Fontaine praised Kluge's ongoing support for initiatives surrounding both the University and the community.
"The series of Jon Kabat-Zinn events this past weekend, engaging hundreds of people, was a truly exciting kickoff to our new University of Virginia Initiatives in Compassionate Care, made possible through the generosity of Tussi and John Kluge," Fontaine said.
"Three of the four events reached out to the public, and we're especially delighted at the response of the community, including patients and their families and many who are our partners in offering compassionate care to our neighbors.
"Thanks to programs like Jon Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness workshops, we're also teaching students throughout the U.Va. Health System, and especially in the schools of Medicine and Nursing, how to care for themselves so they will have the strength and resilience to sustain long and successful careers as care givers for others."
The John and Tussi Kluge Compassionate Care Lecture Series is part of a groundbreaking collaboration – the University of Virginia Initiatives in Compassionate Care – established with U.Va.'s schools of Medicine and Nursing and the U.Va. Health System.
Under the initiative, an interdisciplinary team seeks to create a transformational model for delivery of compassionate care to improve the lives of those with life-threatening illnesses across the lifespan and in health care settings by transforming practice, education, research and community partnerships.