Mindfulness is sweeping the western world ‘at a momentous rate’, says its pioneer

Billed a “social phenomenon” by its leading advocate, Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness is changing the face of health and humanity. Naomi Tolley reports from London

He entered the room to a rapturous applause, and left to a standing ovation. In the two hours between, the hundreds who had gathered to hear Jon Kabat-Zinn speak were stilled to a meditative silence: eyes shut, minds open, eager to know more about the power of the here and now and how it could change their lives for the better, forever.

“This is something of a social phenomenon in it’s own right,” Kabat-Zinn tells the 1,000-capacity audience, standing where Mahatma Gandhi stood in 1931 in advocation of world peace. “It is a deeply moving sight to see so many here this evening,” he adds.

The 68-year-old, who founded the famous Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Programme in the US, appeared at the Friends Meeting House, Euston, London for an event organised by the Action for Happiness movement. During his mindfulness crusade in the capital, he met with politicians at Westminster, policy advisers at Downing Street and addressed the public on the benefits of mindfulness in schools and in the NHS.

“You’re part of a community, a community which is growing at a momentous rate and which has the potential to move the gravity of the world,” he says.

Kabat-Zinn’s journey began in 1965 when he discovered Zen Buddhism. Little did he know this discovery would put him at the forefront of spreading meditation across the western world.

“It is what distinguishes us from other animals — being aware of being aware. We are, after all, human beings, not human doings”

He doesn’t call himself a Buddhist, however. “Not even Buddha called himself a Buddhist,” he says. “It’s about being human and being aware we’re human. It is what distinguishes us from other animals – being aware of being aware. We are, after all, human beings, not human doings.”

Wholeheartedly promoting mindfulness’s achievements in science, and acting as one of the leaders of the dialogue between science and Buddhism – in which the Dalai Lama has been an enthusiastic participant – Kabat-Zinn says: “We have much leverage on the physical effects on the body, right down to the DNA – much more than you could imagine.” He noted the work of Elizabeth Blackburn, the Australian who has won a Nobel Prize in Biology for her work on the correlations between the Telomerase enzyme and mindfulness, which suggests practicing mindfulness could also be the answer to anti-ageing.

“[Mindfulness is] stress-busting, increasing positive states and decreasing stress cognitions which may in turn slow the rate of cellular ageing,” reads Blackburn’s paper on the research, titled To Age or Not to Age.

Kabat-Zinn has also been collaborating with psychologists in the UK who have adapted his work for Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy, which has won recognition from the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence as a treatment for depression.

So how do you practice mindfulness?

“Let’s take a little minute to tap into being here,” says Kabat-Zinn. “Awareness, minute by minute and breath by breath as you sit here in the present without trying to get anywhere, just simply being with your experience as it’s unfolding.”

A fervent believer in practising what you preach, Kabat-Zinn passed his own mindfulness tips on to the audience: “Every morning, breathe in the day, and do what you need to do: sit down with your mind and body. How long will it be before your first thought?

“When you’re showering, check you’re in the shower, or are you allowing your work emails to come into the shower with you? Before you know it, everyone at work is in the shower with you. Be aware and rest in your own awareness; put a welcome mat out for things just as they are.”

After hearing Kabat-Zinn’s “encouraging” conference, Anh Nguyen, a 32-year-old teacher from Hackney who was among the audience, said: “I’m convinced, by practising mindfulness in schools we could prevent violence on par with the 2011 riots.”