In 1992, physician Michael Baime founded the Penn Program for Mindfulness to help critically ill patients cope with their pain and stress.
The program has evolved as scientific research on the benefits of mindfulness has grown. Today, more than 15,000 people have participated. Most are not critically ill patients, but urban professionals looking to reconnect with what matters. The traditional techniques have been adapted with the idea of making them more practical and relevant to modern life.
Baime still directs the program and is a clinical associate professor of medicine at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a type of meditation. It is a way of training the mind to be more fully present. It strengthens and stabilizes attention.
That may sound like the most boring thing in the world. People go to the gym to strengthen their biceps. Who gives a hoot about attention? But, as it turns out, that ability has enormous significance in the way we experience ourselves and our world.
Anyone you meet, anything you touch, anything you taste, any love you feel, or for that matter stress you feel, comes to you through this doorway of attention. If you don't pay attention to something, it's not real.
When we are stressed, our attention tends to get hijacked by loops of thought that tell us what a disaster we're headed for. If you could watch your mind, you would find it's ping-ponging all over the place. If you notice how you feel when you are not stressed, the attention is steady and stable and fully present. With a little bit of practice, we can realize that steadiness is part of what we are, and we can connect with it even as everything else is crazy.
How do you do it?
The basic practice is simple: You sit down, close your eyes, and focus - often on breath or the sensations of the body. As you focus on your breath, you leave the reactivity and you reconnect with this inner stillness. You rest there.
As you're doing that, you find that everything else comes up. You can get upset or frustrated at the thoughts that come, or you can take a different approach and let the thoughts and feelings be what they are and learn to hold steady.
The experience of sitting down and practicing this isn't about banishing difficult or unpleasant experiences. It's more about learning to find a balance that allows you to hold steady even when you're having those experiences.
Why is the breath so important?
The breath is just a convenient focus. Wherever you go and whatever you do, it's always there. When you focus on it, it brings you back to yourself and your present moment of experience.
As people get better, we ask them to bring that into movement, into ordinary behavior - washing the dishes, whatever - and then using that as a way of deepening an experience with another person. The way they listen and express themselves is different. It isn't at all about finding this peaceful bubble you retreat to. It's finding your basic inherent balance and taking that with you into the world.
Penn's course is eight weeks and costs upwards of $500. Why?
I just described how to do it. That's simple. But it's like learning to play the piano. I could give you a book, and you could memorize it, but it wouldn't help you when you sat down at the piano.
The actual practice of mindfulness is quite a bit more challenging than you might expect. It requires practice. In fact, your mind has a mind of its own. It's all over the place. At first, people get upset about that. They have to learn to not fight with themselves and continue to notice exactly what happens. That's mindfulness.
Ultimately, what can people gain?
This is an antidote to something that ails us all. The way that our culture has evolved takes us away from ourselves, away from community, away from what matters most. It leads most of us to live a life that's just on the surface. While we manage to pay the bills, feed the kids, walk the dog, and turn out the lights at night, most people also begin to have a sense that something that really matters isn't quite there in the way that it used to be.
We know from both what people report, from how people behave, and also from the neuroscience of meditation that emotional balance is improved by practicing mindfulness.
Mindfulness also changes the intensity with which we feel everything, the way in which we experience the world around us - the beauty of the world, the tragedy of the world, and other people who share the world with us.
Why people say it has so fundamentally changed their lives is not that they're not stressed, but that they have a deepening of meaning in the world. It's as if our calling in life has been rekindled.
At the heart of mindfulness is the way it creates change by bringing awareness more fully into the life you have. You realize you have choices you didn't notice, there's a richness you overlooked, and you find the confidence to deal with adversity instead of ignoring it.