Haverford brings a meditation giant, one of its own, back to campus

Jon Kabat-Zinn, who pioneered a stress-reduction technique, leads a meditation workshop during a visit to his alma mater, Haverford College. He later suggested to college leaders they “teach students the dualism of success and failure.”

Jon Kabat-Zinn took off his jacket and shoes, rolled up his sleeves, and struck a Buddha pose. Sitting mountain like, he called it.

"I'm sure you're waiting for what's next. The answer is nothing," Kabat-Zinn told 300 people in the Haverford College auditorium.

They had come to hear Kabat-Zinn, 71, the internationally renowned guru of "mindfulness-based stress reduction," a meditative practice that the molecular biologist pioneered in 1979 as a way to help people with chronic illness.

Mindfulness, Kabat-Zinn said, is simply awareness and access to it through attention, which brings greater balance and peace of mind. It has become increasingly popular over the last decade as a way to improve health and overall well-being, with professional sports teams, Fortune 500 companies and now college campuses partaking.

Haverford had been trying to lure Kabat-Zinn, a 1964 alum, to the campus for years when a chance meeting with the college's director of gift planning at a Massachusetts restaurant finally made it happen.

Kabat-Zinn turns down 99 percent of invitations to speak. But he said he embraced the chance to return to his alma mater last week - free of charge - for two days of lectures, guided meditations, and discussion on how the highly selective liberal arts college could integrate mindfulness into campus life.

"Kids on campus today, as well as the rest of us, are so stressed out," said Cynthia Whitehead, widow of former Haverford board member and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State John C. Whitehead. "It's really shocking. A lot of them are hurting because of it."

Upon her husband's death last year, she asked that, in lieu of flowers, people donate to a fund for mindfulness initiatives on campus. Bringing in Kabat-Zinn was the first.

"It's a rare treat that we have him here in the Philadelphia area right now," said Pat Croce, the former 76ers owner turned meditation fan who attended the lecture. "He's the one who Americanized mindfulness."

Others who came included psychology and biology students, therapists and health professionals and a Haverford neighbor who saw signs.

"I wanted to be exposed to this to start my own journey," said Amanda Fleming, 22, a senior biology major from Chestnut Hill.

She participated in one of Kabat-Zinn's guided meditations.

"Ride on the waves of your own breath, in and out," Kabat-Zinn directed.

Atop a pillow on the floor, Fleming tried to reach the awareness that Kabat-Zinn touted.

"The more I tried to force myself not to focus on anything, the more it backfired," she told him.

"Did you hear me tell you to force yourself," he asked her.

Things got better, she said, when she focused on her breathing. When the mind wanders, bring it back, he said, equating it to weightlifting.

"You need the actual resistance," he said, "to build the muscle."

Katrina Kostro, 25, a Bryn Mawr College student who will enter medical school at Columbia in the fall, asked how she could achieve the peace she feels during her 12 minutes of daily meditation all the time.

"You already know the answer," he told her.

"Just being?" she asked.

"It's not even words," he said, closing his eyes.

Later, he sat with health and wellness professionals and student affairs leaders from Haverford, Swarthmore and Bryn Mawr Colleges and the University of Pennsylvania. They described seeing more stressed students with heavy workloads, not sleeping, not eating properly and unable to focus.

"Maybe there should be an academic course in failure, how to really fail," he suggested.

Some laughed.

"I'm not kidding," he insisted. "We're doing a disservice if we don't teach students the dualism of success and failure."

Kabat-Zinn, a New York City native and son of a biomedical scientist and a painter, entered Haverford at 16. He got his degree in chemistry at 19. Even then he was an early riser, completing his homework from 4 a.m. to 8 a.m.

He got his doctorate in molecular biology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he first encountered "the Three Pillars of Zen." Kabat-Zinn built his practice at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where thousands have since gotten help.

"When you become a doctor," he said, "the most important thing is to be present with your patients and not identify them as a diagnosis."

When he started, there was little interest and only a couple academic papers a year on the topic. That started to change in 2002-03, he said. Last year, there were 674 papers.

The surge, he said, is indicative of "the levels of stress and despair people are feeling."

Jia-Ling Tuan, 19, a Haverford sophomore from Short Hills, N.J., wanted the experience, given her career choice, psychology.

"This is probably a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," she said.

Kelly Wilcox, associate dean at Haverford and event leader, said last week was the beginning.

"We plan to build on the momentum," she said.