Mindfulness Time Magazine Cover Story February 2014
The raisins sitting in my sweaty palm are getting stickier by the minute. They don’t look
particularly appealing, but when instructed by my teacher, I take one in my fingers and examine
it. I notice that the raisin’s skin glistens. Looking closer, I see a small indentation where it once
hung from the vine. Eventually, I place the raisin in my mouth and roll the wrinkly little shape
over and over with my tongue, feeling its texture. After a while, I push it up against my teeth and
slice it open. Then, finally, I chew–very slowly.
I’m eating a raisin. But for the first time in my life, I’m doing it differently. I’m doing it
mindfully. This whole experience might seem silly, but we’re in the midst of a popular obsession
with mindfulness as the secret to health and happiness–and a growing body of evidence suggests
it has clear benefits. The class I’m taking is part of a curriculum called Mindfulness Based Stress
Reduction (MBSR) developed in 1979 by Jon Kabat-Zinn, an MIT-educated scientist. There are
nearly 1,000 certified MBSR instructors teaching mindfulness techniques (including meditation),
and they are in nearly every state and more than 30 countries. The raisin exercise reminds us how
hard it has become to think about just one thing at a time. Technology has made it easier than
ever to fracture attention into smaller and smaller bits. We answer a colleague’s questions from
the stands at a child’s soccer game; we pay the bills while watching TV; we order groceries while
stuck in traffic. In a time when no one seems to have enough time, our devices allow us to be
many places at once–but at the cost of being unable to fully inhabit the place where we actually
want to be.
Mindfulness says we can do better. At one level, the techniques associated with the philosophy
are intended to help practitioners quiet a busy mind, becoming more aware of the present
moment and less caught up in what happened earlier or what’s to come. Many cognitive
therapists commend it to patients as a way to help cope with anxiety and depression. More
broadly, it’s seen as a means to deal with stress.
But to view mindfulness simply as the latest self-help fad underplays its potency and misses the
point of why it is gaining acceptance with those who might otherwise dismiss mental training
techniques closely tied to meditation–Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, FORTUNE 500 titans,
2 Pentagon chiefs and more. If distraction is the pre-eminent condition of our age, then
mindfulness, in the eyes of its enthusiasts, is the most logical response. Its strength lies in its
universality. Though meditation is considered an essential means to achieving mindfulness, the
ultimate goal is simply to give your attention fully to what you’re doing. One can work
mindfully, parent mindfully and learn mindfully. One can exercise and even eat mindfully. The
banking giant Chase now advises customers on how to spend mindfully.
There are no signs that the forces splitting our attention into ever smaller slices will abate. To the
contrary, they’re getting stronger. (Now arriving: smart watches and eyeglasses that will
constantly beam notifications onto the periphery of our vision.) Already, many devotees see
mindfulness as an indispensable tool for coping–both emotionally and practically–with the daily
onslaught. The ability to focus for a few minutes on a single raisin isn’t silly if the skills it
requires are the keys to surviving and succeeding in the 21st century.
REWIRING YOUR BRAIN
With Tiny Bits of raisin still stuck in my teeth, I look around at the 15 other people in my MBSR
class, which will meet every Monday evening for eight weeks. My classmates cite a wide variety
of reasons they have plunked down $350 to learn about meditation and mindfulness. One 20-
something blond woman said back-to-back daily work meetings meant she couldn’t find time to
pause and reset; she had been prescribed the anti-anxiety drug Klonopin. A mother on maternity
leave said “being present” with her infant seemed more important than ever, but she was
struggling. One man, a social worker, said he needed help dealing with the stress of working
with clients trying to get their lives on track.
Although I signed up to learn what mindfulness was all about, I had my own stressors I hoped
the course might alleviate. As the working parent of a toddler, I found life in my household
increasingly hectic. And like so many, I am hyperconnected. I have a personal iPhone and a
BlackBerry for work, along with a desktop computer at the office and a laptop and iPad at home.
It’s rare that I let an hour go by without looking at a screen.
Powering down the internal urge to keep in constant touch with the outside world is not easy. At
the start of each two-hour MBSR class, our teacher, a slight woman named Paulette Graf, hit two
small brass cymbals together to indicate we should begin meditating. During this agonizingly
frustrating period, which lasted up to 40 minutes, I would try to focus on my breath as Paulette
advised, but I felt constantly bombarded by thoughts about my family, random sounds in the
room and even how I would translate each evening’s session into this story.
One evening, we were introduced to mindful walking. In our small meeting room, we formed a
circle and paced together. “Feel your heel make contact with the floor, then the ball of your
foot,” said Paulette. “One foot, then the other.” Anxious feelings about planning the week ahead
and emails in my inbox that might be waiting for replies crept into my head even though my
phones were off and tucked away. Mindfulness teachers say this kind of involuntary distraction
is normal and that there’s no point in berating ourselves for mentally veering away from the task
at hand. Rather, they say, our ability to recognize that our attention has been diverted is what’s
important and at the heart of what it means to be mindful.
Some of this may sound like a New Age retread of previous prescriptions for stress. Mindfulness
is rooted in Eastern philosophy, specifically Buddhism. But two factors set it apart and give it a
practical veneer that is helping propel it into the mainstream.
One might be thought of as smart marketing. Kabat-Zinn and other proponents are careful to
avoid any talk of spirituality when espousing mindfulness. Instead, they advocate a
commonsense approach: think of your attention as a muscle. As with any muscle, it makes sense
to exercise it (in this case, with meditation), and like any muscle, it will strengthen from that
A related and potentially more powerful factor in winning over skeptics is what science is
learning about our brains’ ability to adapt and rewire. This phenomenon, known as
neuroplasticity, suggests there are concrete and provable benefits to exercising the brain. The
science–particularly as it applies to mindfulness–is far from conclusive. But it’s another reason
it’s difficult to dismiss mindfulness as fleeting or contrived.
Precisely because of this scientific component, mindfulness is gaining traction with people who
might otherwise find mind-body philosophies a tough sell, and it is growing into a sizable
industry. An NIH report found that Americans spent some $4 billion on mindfulness-related
alternative medicine in 2007, including MBSR. (NIH will release an update of this figure later
this year.) There’s a new monthly magazine, Mindful, a stack of best-selling books and a
growing number of smartphone apps devoted to the concept.
For Stuart Silverman, mindfulness has become a way to deal with the 24/7 pace of his job
consulting with financial advisers. Silverman receives hundreds of emails and phone calls every
day. “I’m nuts about being in touch,” he says. Anxiety in the financial industry reached a high
mark in the 2008 meltdown, but even after the crisis began to abate, Silverman found that the
high stress level remained. So in 2011, he took a group of his clients on a mindfulness retreat.
The group left their smartphones behind and spent four days at a resort in the Catskills, in upstate
New York, meditating, participating in group discussions, sitting in silence, practicing yoga and
eating meals quietly and mindfully. “For just about everybody there, it was a life-changing
experience,” says Silverman.
The Catskills program was run by Janice Marturano, a former vice president at General Mills
who began a corporate mindfulness initiative there and left the company in 2011 to run an
organization she started called the Institute for Mindful Leadership. (About 500 General Mills
employees have participated in mindfulness classes since Marturano introduced the concept to
the company’s top managers in 2006, and there is a meditation room in every building on the
company’s Minneapolis campus.) Marturano, who ran a well-attended mindfulness training
session at Davos in 2013 and wrote a book called Finding the Space to Lead: A Practical Guide
to Mindful Leadership, published in January, says most leaders she encounters feel besieged by
long work hours and near constant connectivity. For these people, there seems to be no time to
zero in on what’s important or plan ahead. There’s evidence they’re correct. Researchers have
found that multitasking leads to lower overall productivity. Students and workers who constantly
and rapidly switch between tasks have less ability to filter out irrelevant information, and they
make more mistakes. And many corporate workers today find it impossible to take breaks.
According to a recent survey, more than half of employed American adults check work messages
on the weekends and 4 in 10 do so while on vacation. It’s hard to unwind when your boss or
employees know you’re just a smartphone away. Says Marturano: “The technology has gone
beyond what we are capable of handling.”
It might seem paradoxical, then, that Silicon Valley has become a hotbed of mindfulness classes
and conferences. Wisdom 2.0, an annual mindfulness gathering for tech leaders, started in 2009
with 325 attendees, and organizers expect more than 2,000 at this year’s event, where participants
will hear from Kabat-Zinn, along with executives from Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
Google, meanwhile, has an in-house mindfulness program called Search Inside Yourself. The
seven-week course was started by a Google engineer and is offered four times a year on the
company’s Mountain View, Calif., campus. Through the course, thousands of Googlers have
learned attention-focusing techniques, including meditation, meant to help them free up mental
space for creativity and big thinking.
It makes sense in a way. Engineers who write code often talk about “being in the zone” the same
way a successful athlete can be, which mindfulness teachers say is the epitome of being present
and paying attention. (Apple co-founder Steve Jobs said his meditation practice was directly
responsible for his ability to concentrate and ignore distractions.) Of course, much of that worldclass
engineering continues to go into gadgets and software that will only ratchet up our
But lately there’s been some progress in tapping technology for solutions too. There are hundreds
of mindfulness and meditation apps available from iTunes, including one called Headspace,
offered by a company of the same name led by Andy Puddicombe, a former Buddhist monk.
Puddicombe, 40, co-founded Headspace in the U.K. in 2010 and opened a new office in Los
Angeles in 2013 after attracting venture capital. The company offers free content through an app
and sells subscriptions to a series of web videos, billed as a “gym membership for the mind,” that
are narrated by Puddicombe and explain the tenets of mindfulness and how to meditate.
“There’s nothing bad or harmful about the smartphone if we have the awareness of how to use it
in the right way,” says Puddicombe. “It’s unplugging by plugging in.”
THE SCIENCE OF DESTRESSING
Jon Kabat-Zinn, the father of MBSR, doesn’t look like the kind of person to be selling meditation
and mindfulness to America’s fast-paced, stressed-out masses. When I met him at a mindfulness
conference in April, he was dressed in corduroys, a button-down shirt and a blazer, with wirerimmed
glasses and a healthy head of thick gray hair. He looked more like the professor he
trained to become than the mindfulness guru he is.
But ultimately, a professor may prove more valuable than a guru in spreading the word on
mindfulness. The son of an immunologist and an artist, Kabat-Zinn, now 69, was earning a
doctorate in molecular biology at MIT in the early 1970s when he attended a lecture about
meditation given by a Zen master. “It was very moving. I started meditating that day,” he says.
“And the more I meditated, the more I felt like there was something else missing that science
could say in terms of, like, how we live as human beings.”
By 1979, Kabat-Zinn had earned his Ph.D. and was working at the University of Massachusetts
Medical Center studying muscle development and teaching anatomy and cell biology to medical
students. On a meditation retreat that year, he had a revelation. What if he could use Buddhismbased
meditation to help patients cope with conditions like chronic pain? Even if he couldn’t
alleviate their symptoms, Kabat-Zinn speculated that mindfulness training might help patients
refocus their attention so they could change their response to pain and thereby reduce their
With three physicians, Kabat-Zinn opened a stress-reduction clinic at UMass based on
meditation and mindfulness. “It was just a little pilot on zero dollars,” he says.
Almost immediately, some of the clinic’s patients reported that their pain levels diminished. For
others, the pain remained the same, but the mindfulness training made them better able to handle
the stress of living with illness. They were able to separate their day-to-day experiences from
their identity as pain patients. “That’s what you most hope for,” says Kabat-Zinn, “not that you
can cure all diseases, but you could help people live in a way that didn’t erode their quality of life
beyond a certain point.” Eventually Kabat-Zinn’s program was absorbed into the UMass
department of medicine and became the MBSR curriculum now used by hundreds of teachers
across the country.
In the years since, scientists have been able to prove that meditation and rigorous mindfulness
training can lower cortisol levels and blood pressure, increase immune response and possibly
even affect gene expression. Scientific study is also showing that meditation can have an impact
on the structure of the brain itself. Building on the discovery that brains can change based on
experiences and are not, as previously believed, static masses that are set by the time a person
reaches adulthood, a growing field of neuroscientists are now studying whether meditation–and
the mindfulness that results from it–can counteract what happens to our minds because of stress,
trauma and constant distraction. The research has fueled the rapid growth of MBSR and other
mindfulness programs inside corporations and public institutions.
“There is a swath of our culture who is not going to listen to someone in monks’ robes, but they
are paying attention to scientific evidence,” says Richard J. Davidson, founder and chair of the
Center for Investigating Healthy Minds at the Waisman Center, at the University of Wisconsin at
Madison. Davidson and a group of co-authors published a paper in the prestigious Proceedings
of the National Academy of Sciences in 2004 that used electroencephalography to show that
Buddhist monks who had logged at least 10,000 hours of meditation time had brains with more
functional connectivity than novice meditators. The monks also had more gamma-wave activity,
indicating high states of consciousness.
Of course, most people will never meditate at the level of a monk. But neuroscientists have
shown that even far less experienced meditators may have more capacity for working memory
and decreases in mind-wandering.
Many of the studies on mindfulness and meditation have been funded by individual private
donors and have not met the highest scientific standards, leading the NIH to declare in 2007 that
future research had to be “more rigorous.” Perhaps to this end, the NIH has funded some 50
clinical trials in the past five years examining the effects of mindfulness on health, with about
half pertaining to Kabat-Zinn’s MBSR curriculum alone. The NIH trials completed or now under
way include studies on how MBSR affects everything from social-anxiety disorder to the body’s
immune response to human papilloma virus to cancer-related fatigue. Altogether, in 2003, 52
papers were published in scientific journals on the subject of mindfulness; by 2012, that number
had jumped to 477.
MINDFULNESS GOES MAINSTREAM
Tim Ryan, a democratic Congressman from Ohio, is among those pushing to use more federal
funds for mindfulness research. Stressed and exhausted, Ryan attended a mindfulness retreat led
by Kabat-Zinn in 2008 shortly after the election. Ryan turned over his two BlackBerrys and
ended the experience with a 36-hour period of silence. “My mind got so quiet, and I had the
experience of my mind and my body actually being in the same place at the same time,
synchronized,” says Ryan. “I went up to Jon and said, ‘Oh, man, we need to study this–get it into
our schools, our health care system.'”
In the years since, the Congressman has become a rock star among mindfulness evangelists. His
book A Mindful Nation was published in 2012, and Mindful, launched in May 2013, put Ryan
on the cover of its second issue after he secured a $1 million federal grant to teach mindfulness
in schools in his home district. Ryan has hosted meditation sessions and a mindfulness lecture
series on Capitol Hill for House members and their staffs. The effort, says Ryan, is all about
“little candles getting lit under the Capitol dome.”
Elizabeth Stanley, an associate professor at Georgetown, is trying to do the same for those in
uniform. Stanley was an Army intelligence officer deployed to the Balkans in the early 1990s.
After she left active duty, Stanley enrolled in a doctoral program at Harvard and pursued an
MBA at MIT–at the same time–planning a career studying national-security issues.
But as the demands of two graduate programs combined with leftover stress from her time
deployed, Stanley found herself unable to cope. “I realized my body and nervous system were
constantly stuck on high,” she says. She underwent therapy and started practicing yoga and
mindful meditation, eventually completing both of her degree programs as well.
“On a long retreat in 2004, I realized I wanted to pull these two sides of me together and find a
way to share these techniques with men and women in uniform,” Stanley says. She teamed up
with Amishi Jha, a neuroscientist at the University of Miami who studies attention, and together
they launched a pilot study with private funding that investigated whether a mindfulness program
could make Marines more resilient in stressful combat situations. The findings were so
promising, according to Jha, that the Department of Defense awarded them two $1 million grants
to investigate further, using an MBSR-based curriculum Stanley developed called Mindfulness-
Based Mind Fitness Training. Stanley has been involved in two additional mindfulness studies
with Marines since, and Jha has been awarded $3.4 million more in federal grants to study how
mindfulness training affects stress among other populations, including undergraduates facing
exams and accountants slogging through tax season.
Educators are turning to mindfulness with increasing frequency–perhaps a good thing,
considering how digital technology is splitting kids’ attention spans too. (The average American
teen sends and receives more than 3,000 text messages a month.) A Bay Area–based program
called Mindful Schools offers online mindfulness training to teachers, instructing them in how to
equip children to concentrate in classrooms and deal with stress. Launched in 2010, the group
has reached more than 300,000 pupils, and educators in 43 countries and 48 states have taken its
“It was always my intention that mindfulness move into the mainstream,” says Kabat-Zinn,
whose MBSR bible, Full Catastrophe Living, first published in 1990, was just reissued. Lately,
the professor has also been spreading the gospel abroad. On a November trip to Beijing, he
helped lead a mindfulness retreat for about 250 Chinese students, monks and scientists. “This is
something that people are now finding compelling in many countries and many cultures, and the
reason is the science,” he says.
LISTENING TO LIFE
The MBSR class I took consisted of 21 hours of class time, but there was homework. One week,
we were assigned to eat a snack mindfully and “remember to inhale/exhale regularly (and with
awareness!),” according to a handout. Since we were New Yorkers, another week’s assignment
was to count fellow passengers on a subway train. One student in my class said he had a
mindfulness breakthrough when he stopped listening to music and playing games on his phone
while riding to work. Instead, he observed the people around him, which he said helped him be
more present when he arrived at his office.
After eight weeks, we gathered one Saturday for a final exercise, a five-hour retreat. We brought
our lunches, and after meditating and doing yoga, we ate together silently in a second-floor room
overlooking a park. After the meal, Paulette led us into the park and told us to walk around for
30 minutes in a meditation practice known as aimless wandering. No phones and no talking. Just
be present, she said.
As I looked across a vast lawn, I easily spotted my fellow MBSR students. They looked like
zombies weaving and wandering alone through groups of friends and families lounging on picnic
blankets or talking and barbecuing. I saw a group of 20-something men playing Frisbee, young
kids riding bikes and a pair of women tanning in the sun.
I had lived close to this park for three years and spent hundreds of hours exploring it, but what
struck me as different on the day of the retreat were the sounds. I noticed the clap, clap of a
jogger’s sneakers going by on a paved path. I saw a group playing volleyball on the lawn, and for
the first time, I heard the game. The ball thudded when it hit the grass and whapped when it was
being served. The players grunted when they made contact. Thud, whap, grunt. Whap, whap,
thud. I heard a soft jingling, and I knew just what it was. A dog with metal ID tags came up
behind me and passed by. Jingle, jingle.
After the prescribed half hour, we returned to our meeting room with Paulette. We had a brief
group discussion about how we could continue our mindfulness training through other classes,
and then we folded our chairs and put them away in a closet. Silently, we eased down a set of
stairs and out the front door. I made it all the way home before I turned on my phones.
In the months since, I haven’t meditated much, yet the course has had a small–but profound–
impact on my life. I’ve started wearing a watch, which has cut in half the number of times a day I
look at my iPhone and risk getting sucked into checking email or the web. On a tip from one of
my MBSR classmates, when I’m at a restaurant and a dining companion gets up to take a call or
use the bathroom, I now resist the urge to read the news or check Facebook on my phone.
Instead, I usually just sit and watch the people around me. And when I walk outside, I find
myself smelling the air and listening to the soundtrack of the city. The notes and rhythms were
always there, of course. But these days they seem richer and more important.