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Jon Kabat-Zinn: The Prescription is Meditation
From the inner city to the executive suite, in hospitals and prisons, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn’s meditation courses are helping thousands handle illness stress, anger and addiction. Lawrence Pintak profiles the man who has brought meditation to the American mainstream.
John Coolidge was alone with his mind. Paralyzed and rendered deaf by a disease that had attacked his nervous system, Coolidge’s eyes were his one link with the world. And now to protect his eyes, the doctors had decreed that each night they must be covered with gauze.
He was left totally isolated—unable to feel, unable to move, unable to hear, unable to see, unable even to breathe without the respirator which kept him alive. "The good news was that my mind worked fine. The bad news was that my mind worked fine," says Coolidge, looking back on the experience.
Through the long hours of the night, Coolidge lay awake and alone, too terrified to sleep. For some, it would have been a prescription for panic. But John Coolidge knew to seek refuge in the one physical sensation he had left—his breath.
"I had been taught a meditation technique in which you watch your breath—in goes the good air, out goes the bad. The ventilator was moving my chest up and down, and it was the one solid thing I had going for me," he recalls. For Coolidge, the simple act of concentrating his awareness on the flow of air into his body provided the anchor that kept his mind under control.
Awareness, concentration and control. This is the mantra of a movement which is today helping thousands of Americans cope with pain and the emotional stresses which, medical science is proving, contribute to disease. The foundation of this movement was laid twenty years ago by an MIT-trained microbiologist who believed science did not end at the laboratory door. Exposed to martial arts, yoga and Zen meditation as a student, Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn came to realize that Buddhist yogis and Western researchers had much in common.
"They were all inquiring about the nature of reality, the nature of the mind, the nature of being human," says Kabat-Zinn, "and I just didn’t see a big dividing line between one way of inquiring and another."
Kabat-Zinn took a sabbatical from medicine to head the Cambridge Zen Center, and the deeper his practice became, the more convinced he was that meditation could play a crucial role in the healing process. The key was proving it.