Mindfulness Program Celebrates 20th Anniversary
Madison, Wisconsin - Twenty years ago, Katherine Bonus walked into what was then the UW Sports Medicine Center on University Avenue. She saw a sign on a door that read, "Meditation." When she inquired about it out of curiosity, she learned that the Preventive Cardiology program staff felt that diet and exercise weren't enough to make real, lasting change for patients. The key, they thought, lay in stress management. Bonus, a trained mindfulness teacher, said she might be able to help with that. She was encouraged to write up a proposal and send it in. After she returned home, she promptly forgot.
A few weeks and a phone call reminder later, Bonus did write up that proposal and began offering a 10-session course of mindfulness based stress reduction. There was no budget for a program, nor for salaries, but there was a firm belief from staff that it was the right thing to do. And from that humble beginning, UW Health's Mindfulness Program began.
"It took ordinary folks with open hearts to say what's needed," said Bonus. "And it's a reminder to us all to take risks, offer what you can, because you never know where it will lead."
Bonus shared the humble beginnings of the program during a recent 20th anniversary celebration that featured Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, and Richard Davidson, PhD. Kabat-Zinn, largely recognized as having developed the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction courses commonly taught across the globe, and Davidson, professor of neuroscience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and founder of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds (CIHM), are both long-time friends of Bonus and of UW Health's Mindfulness Program.
During the celebratory evening, Kabat-Zinn and Davidson reflected on mindfulness, their relationship, and how UW Health's Mindfulness Program has been influential in their work, and the field of mindfulness as a whole, to the nearly 400 guests who had gathered. Kabat-Zinn began by leading a meditation.
"[Meditation is] a radical act of sanity and love," he explained. "You are cultivating an open-hearted friendliness with yourself and listening deeply at the wellspring of your own heart."
Kabat-Zinn continued that mindfulness is not about self-improvement, or somehow getting rid of negative emotions. "It's okay to meditate and feel bad, itchy, grumpy," he said. "By meditating we're actually exploring the feeling that we're not dead yet."
As the two took turns speaking, Davidson explained how the Mindfulness Program has been influential in the growth of Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, and has helped transform the practice of mindfulness into one that is more widely accepted. The first randomized controlled study of mindfulness meditation occurred in Madison with Kabat-Zinn, who lived in Massachusetts at the time and flew out every week for 10 weeks during the study so he could lead the sessions.
"It felt like the pioneering days," he commented.
To help provide a more scientific perspective, Davidson cited four major transitions in our understanding of how the brain works:
- Neuroplasticity, which suggests the brain literally changes in response to experiences that we may not even be aware of
- Epigenetics, which indicates that genes have a "control volume" and can be influenced by our lifestyle and experiences
- Mind and body Connection, or the strong influence of our thoughts on our physiology
- Human beings' innate goodness, a trait that has been identified scientifically
Mindfulness, he explained, is crucial to our overall well-being. We can become aware of the moments that are directly influencing our experience and cultivate the habits of a healthy mind and body.
"Meditation means familiarization. It's the practice of becoming familiar with what is already there. So we're tuning into that innate goodness in ourselves," Davidson said.
Now in its twentieth year, UW Health's Mindfulness Program has grown from one teacher, to nearly 10 who work in a vast array of fields – addiction and recovery; behavioral health; pediatrics and more. These teachers, according to Davidson and Kabat-Zinn, are change agents helping to bring mindfulness practices into various aspects of our society. They are helping to create a community to support and nurture that goodness and compassion that is innate to all of us. And, we can be a part of that change according to both of the presenters.
"The world needs every single one of us," said Kabat-Zinn. "When each one of us takes responsibility and recognizes we're part of a larger circle, it's never too late. The opportunity is for each one of us to be all we can be, all we already are."
Date Published: 10/16/2013