Can We Shift Priorities Now Please ?
February 13, 2014
As we are in the middle of several Meditation Focuses related to Mother Earth/Gaia, including the next one We are the Key to the Future, I think it is appropriate to examine some of the vital signs of our beloved living planet to see how we are faring in our collective stewardship of her dazzling, abundant diversity.
As you may imagine, being generally well informed citizens of this planet, she is not doing well. The following article about a new book, authored by a dedicated woman whose life mission and passion is to keep us all informed of what we are collectively doing to our Earth-mom, depicts a dire situation which shows no sign of being on the mend - far from it. Being correctly informed is key in stirring informed decisions and actions to make a course correction, as passionately advocated by David Suzuki in a Democracy Now interview recommended after this article.
You will also find a second thread of thoughts and material to consider about the utter folly of wasting another trillion dollars (on top of the 6 to 7 trillion the nuclear arms race has already cost us all in the past 70 years). Such a situation cannot continue when the need for investing massively ! in the solutions rather than the problems is so urgent.
Then finally, you will find in a full article from Time Magazine The Mindful Revolution a hopeful trend showing that at long last the New Consciousness is going more and more mainstream with the potential to catalyze a long anticipated and inevitable shift towards a higher consciousness and Earth/Life/love-centered values and priorities that will at looooong last put us all on a path to recovery of our lost connections with the Web of Life and the Universal Cosmic Being living through us all.
"Every person in the world has a heart. Every heart has a place within that wants only to love and be loved. Let us connect with that place of love in our own heart and in the hearts of all around us. Let us take a moment now to open to the heart connection we share with all people through love."
This email is archived at http://www.earthrainbownetwork.com/LetUsShiftPriorities.htm
Without a Trace The Sixth Extinction, by Elizabeth Kolbert
By AL GORE -- February 10, 2014
Over the past decade, Elizabeth Kolbert has established herself as one of our very best science writers. She has developed a distinctive and eloquent voice of conscience on issues arising from the extraordinary assault on the ecosphere, and those who have enjoyed her previous works like Field Notes From a Catastrophe will not be disappointed by her powerful new book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History.
Kolbert, a staff writer at The New Yorker, reports from the front lines of the violent collision between civilization and our planets ecosystem: the Andes, the Amazon rain forest, the Great Barrier Reef and her backyard. In lucid prose, she examines the role of man-made climate change in causing what biologists call the sixth mass extinction the current spasm of plant and animal loss that threatens to eliminate 20 to 50 percent of all living species on earth within this century.
Extinction is a relatively new idea in the scientific community. Well into the 18th century, people found it impossible to accept the idea that species had once lived on earth but had been subsequently lost. Scientists simply could not envision a planetary force powerful enough to wipe out forms of life that were common in prior ages.
In the same way, and for many of the same reasons, many today find it inconceivable that we could possibly be responsible for destroying the integrity of our planets ecology. There are psychological barriers to even imagining that what we love so much could be lost could be destroyed forever. As a result, many of us refuse to contemplate it. Like an audience entertained by a magician, we allow ourselves to be deceived by those with a stake in persuading us to ignore reality.
For example, we continue to use the worlds atmosphere as an open sewer for the daily dumping of more than 90 million tons of gaseous waste. If trends continue, the global temperature will keep rising, triggering world-altering events, Kolbert writes. According to a conservative and unchallenged calculation by the climatologist James Hansen, the man-made pollution already in the atmosphere traps as much extra heat energy every 24 hours as would be released by the explosion of 400,000 Hiroshima-class nuclear bombs. The resulting rapid warming of both the atmosphere and the ocean, which Kolbert notes has absorbed about one-third of the carbon dioxide we have produced, is wreaking havoc on earths delicately balanced ecosystems. It threatens both the web of living species with which we share the planet and the future viability of civilization. By disrupting these systems, Kolbert writes, were putting our own survival in danger.
The earths water cycle is being dangerously disturbed, as warmer oceans evaporate more water vapor into the air. Warmer air holds more moisture (there has been an astonishing 4 percent increase in global humidity in just the last 30 years) and funnels it toward landmasses, where it is released in much larger downpours, causing larger and more frequent floods and mudslides.
The extra heat is also absorbed in the top layer of the seas, which makes ocean-based storms more destructive. Just before Hurricane Sandy, the area of the Atlantic immediately windward from New York City and New Jersey was up to nine degrees warmer than normal. And just before Typhoon Haiyan hit the Philippines, the area of the Pacific from which it drew its energy was about 5.4 degrees above average.
Our oceans, a crucial food source for billions, have become not only warmer but also more acidic than they have been in millions of years. They struggle to absorb excess heat and carbon pollution which is why, as Kolbert points out, coral reefs might be the first entire ecosystem to go extinct in the modern era.
The same extra heat pulls moisture from soil in drought-prone regions, causing deeper and longer-lasting droughts. The drying of trees and other vegetation leads also to an increase in the frequency and average size of fires.
Food crops are threatened not only by more pests and the disruption of long-predictable rainy season-dry season patterns, but also by the growing impact of heat stress itself on corn, wheat, rice and other staples.
Earths ice-covered regions are melting. The vanishing of the Arctic ice cap is changing the heat absorption at the top of the world, and may be affecting the location of the Northern Hemisphere jet stream and storm tracks and slowing down the movement of storm systems. Meanwhile, the growing loss of ice in Antarctica and Greenland is accelerating sea level rise and threatening low-lying coastal cities and regions.
Viruses, bacteria, disease-carrying species like mosquitoes and ticks, and pest species like bark beetles are now being pushed far beyond their native ranges. Everywhere the intricate interconnections crucial to sustaining life are increasingly being pulled apart.
This is the world weve made. And in her timely, meticulously researched and well-written book, Kolbert combines scientific analysis and personal narratives to explain it to us. The result is a clear and comprehensive history of earths previous mass extinctions and the species weve lost and an engaging description of the extraordinarily complex nature of life. Most important, Kolbert delivers a compelling call to action. Right now, she writes, we are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed. No other creature has ever managed this, and it will, unfortunately, be our most enduring legacy.
Kolbert expertly traces the twisting intellectual history of how weve come to understand the concept of extinction, and more recently, how weve come to recognize our role in it. When mastodon bones were first studied, in 1739, many scientists reasoned that the large and unique bones belonged to an elephant or hippopotamus. But in 1796, the French naturalist Georges Cuvier presented evidence of an entirely new theory: The bones belonged to a lost species from a world previous to ours. Cuvier collected and studied as many fossils as he could, eventually identifying dozens of extinct species, and over the next several decades, with the contributions of Charles Lyell and Charles Darwin, extinction evolved as a scientific concept.
Since the origin of life on earth 3.8 billion years ago, our planet has experienced five mass extinction events. The last of these events occurred some 66 million years ago when a six-mile-wide asteroid is thought to have collided with earth, wiping out the dinosaurs. The Cretaceous extinction event dramatically changed the composition of biodiversity on the planet: Marine ecosystems essentially collapsed, and about 75 percent of all plant and animal species disappeared.
Today, Kolbert writes, we are witnessing a similar mass extinction event happening in the geologic blink of an eye. According to E. O. Wilson, the present extinction rate in the tropics is on the order of 10,000 times greater than the naturally occurring background extinction rate and will reduce biological diversity to its lowest level since the last great extinction.
This time, however, a giant asteroid isnt to blame we are, by altering environmental conditions on our planet so swiftly and dramatically that a large proportion of other species cannot adapt. And we are risking our own future as well, by fundamentally altering the integrity of the climate balance that has persisted in more or less the same configuration since the end of the last ice age, and which has fostered the flourishing of human civilization.
As early as the 1840s, scientists noticed large gaps in the fossil record time periods in which earths biodiversity declined rapidly and could not be explained by a static system. Some scientists theorized that abrupt climate changes had caused past mass extinction events. But in the modern era, three factors have combined to radically disrupt the relationship between civilization and the earths ecosystem: the unparalleled surge in human population that has quadrupled our numbers in less than a hundred years; the development of powerful new technologies that magnify the per capita impact of all seven billion of us, soon to be nine billion or more; and the emergence of a hegemonic ideology that exalts short-term thinking and ignores the true long-term cost and consequences of the choices were making in industry, energy policy, agriculture, forestry and politics.
People change the world, Kolbert writes, and she vividly presents the science and history of the current crisis. Her extensive travels in researching this book, and her insightful treatment of both the history and the science all combine to make The Sixth Extinction an invaluable contribution to our understanding of present circumstances, just as the paradigm shift she calls for is sorely needed.
Despite the evidence that humanity is driving mass extinctions, we have been woefully slow to adopt the necessary measures to solve this global environmental challenge. Our response to the mass extinction as well as to the climate crisis is still controlled by a hopelessly outdated view of our relationship to our environment.
Fortunately, history is full of examples of our capacity to overcome even the most difficult challenges whenever a controversy is finally resolved into a choice between what is clearly right and what is clearly wrong. The anomalies Kolbert identifies are too glaring to ignore. She makes an irrefutable case that what we are doing to cause a sixth mass extinction is clearly wrong. And she makes it clear that doing what is right means accelerating our transition to a more sustainable world.
Al Gore, vice president of the United States from 1993 to 2001, is the founder and chairman of the Climate Reality Project, a co-founder and chairman of Generation Investment Management, and the author, most recently, of The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change
OK now contrasts this above which clearly calls for a massive investment in money, time, ingenuity, goodwill, creativity and loving dedication, possible only in a world not torn asunder by the threat and preparation of war and actual wars with what mainly Obama and Putin, and, to a much lesser extent, the 4 other major nuclear powers (Israel has been 'forgotten' in this article below), are doing (planning to invest a trillion dollars to 'upgrade' their nuclear arsenal and its delivery systems, while fattening ever more the bank accounts of arms merchants) and NOT doing (ridding the world of these abominations to safeguard humanity's future).
In March, 130 nations gathered in Oslo for a two-day conference on the humanitarian consequences of nuclear war. The five countries that the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) recognizes as nuclear-weapon states staged a coordinated boycott, arguing that a meeting that discussed what will actually happen if nuclear weapons are used would somehow distract them from the important initiatives they are pursuing to lower the number of nuclear weapons that they possess.
Next February, there will be a follow-up conference in Mexico to further delineate the medical effects of nuclear war as they are now understood and to consider the circumstances under which nuclear war might occur.
Far from being a distraction, these meetings are helping to create the conditions necessary for the elimination of nuclear weapons. The United States and the four other NPT nuclear-weapon states should participate in the Mexico conference and actively promote the process launched in Oslo to educate policymakers and the general public about the catastrophic humanitarian consequences of nuclear war.
This task is particularly urgent in view of the new data that have emerged over the last few years. This information indicates that even a very limited nuclear war, confined to one region of the globe, would have devastating effects worldwide.
In 2006, climatologist Alan Robock; Brian Toon, a professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences; and four colleagues examined the consequences of a potential limited nuclear war between India and Pakistan. They chose to examine the effects of this scenario because of the two countries long history of conflict and the ongoing risk of a nuclear exchange. India and Pakistan have fought three wars since they gained independence in 1947 and have come close to war twice when armed with nuclear weapons. During one crisis in the 1990s, it was reported that Pakistani planes armed with nuclear bombs were kept on the runway with their engines running 24 hours a day so they would be ready for takeoff on a few minutes notice. It is easy to imagine events, such as an increase in tension over the disputed territories in Kashmir or another terrorist attack like those at the Indian parliament in 2001 or in Mumbai in 2008, that could escalate into full-scale warfare and the use of nuclear weapons.
In their study, Robock and Toon assumed that each country used 50 nuclear bombs, each with an explosive power of 15 kilotonsthe power of the bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945against urban targets in the other country. The weapons involved represent less than one-half of the current Indian and Pakistani arsenals and less than 0.5 percent of the worlds nuclear arsenals. The local effects were devastating: 20 million dead in the first week from blast effects, burns, and acute radiation exposure. Even more disturbing were their findings concerning the far-reaching disruption to global climate conditions that this conflict would cause.
The scientists found that the firestorms generated by these nuclear explosions would loft about 5 million tons of black soot high into the atmosphere. The soot would block out sunlight, dropping surface temperatures across the planet by an average of 1.3 degrees Celsius. The cooling would be much more severe in the internal regions of the major continents, shortening the growing season in areas where much of the worlds grain is produced. In addition, the cooling would lower total precipitation worldwide as less water evaporated from the oceans to fall back as rain or snow, and there would be significant changes in precipitation patterns.
Further, by heating the upper atmosphere, the soot particles would cause a major decrease in stratospheric ozone. By allowing substantially more ultraviolet light to reach the earths surface, this would further reduce crop yields. The soot particles would be injected so high in the atmosphere that they would not be washed out by rainfall. Their effects would persist for a full decade until they gradually settled back to earth.
The climate disruption predicted by the Robock-Toon study has been independently confirmed in separate studies done by climatologists Michael Mills2 and Andrea Stenke, each of whom considered the same limited war scenario but used a different climate model.
In the last two years, a number of studies have attempted to look at the effect this climate disruption would have on food production. CLIP - Continued HERE
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, 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 exercise.
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 world-class engineering continues to go into gadgets and software that will only ratchet up our distraction level.
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 wire-rimmed 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 Buddhism-based 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 overall suffering.
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 courses online.
"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.
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