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Mindfulness pioneer, alumnus Kabat-Zinn addresses MIT Medical clinicians

Talk examines essential concepts of mindfulness and awareness as applied to medicine
Jon Kabat-Zinn PhD ’71 addresses a group of clinicians at MIT Medical on May 17.
Jon Kabat-Zinn PhD ’71 addresses a group of clinicians at MIT Medical on May 17.
Photo: Amy Helfman, MIT Medical

On May 17, MIT alumnus Jon Kabat-Zinn PhD ’71 led a continuing medical education session for more than 70 MIT Medical clinicians on the topic of “Mindfulness in Medicine: Applications for Personal Self Care, Reducing Burnout and Improving Patient Care.” It was a relatively small audience for Kabat-Zinn, an internationally known speaker and teacher of mindfulness mediation.

Kabat-Zinn came to Cambridge at the invitation of MIT Medical internist Brian Ash, M.D., a graduate of UMass Medical School, where Kabat-Zinn is professor of medicine emeritus. Kabat-Zinn’s talk not only introduced MIT Medical clinicians to the essential concepts of mindfulness and awareness as applied to medicine, explains Ash, but also stimulated interest in an upcoming three-session mindfulness course being developed especially for MIT Medical clinicians.

Kabat-Zinn began studying Zen Buddhism and practicing meditation as an MIT graduate student in molecular biology working in the laboratory of Nobel Laureate Salvador Luria. “I loved science,” Kabat-Zinn said in a 2005 Technology Review alumni profile. “I also saw there were multiple ways of knowing things. It prompted me to want to understand the biology of consciousness itself.” After finishing at MIT, he founded the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic at UMass Medical School in 1979. In 1995, Kabat-Zinn expanded the original clinic to include a new Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society.

Kabat-Zinn opened his presentation by joking that when he first began studying mindfulness, the only question doctors asked was “which side of the lunatic fringe is it on?” Today, the National Institutes of Health funds hundreds of mindfulness-related studies, and clinical research has demonstrated its benefits for both patients and providers.

Invoking the Hippocratic Oath, Kabat-Zinn asked his audience, “How can you know if you’re doing harm if you don’t have awareness?” He cited a 2009 Journal of the American Medical Association study of primary care physicians who completed a course in mindful communication similar to the one that will be offered at MIT Medical. It showed that doctors who practiced mindfulness reported less burnout and improved mood. They also felt better able to treat their patients with empathy.

“Mindfulness is not a technique,” Kabat-Zinn asserts. “It’s a way of being.”

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