Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn: Bringing Mindfulness to the Mainstream

jon kabat zinn

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Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn was selected for 2023's Verywell Mind 25 awards for going above and beyond to help move mental health forward. He was among the first researchers to recognize the medical potential of meditation and yoga, and is the man we have to thank for the mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) framework that many mental health professionals still incorporate into treatment plans today.

His pioneering work began in 1979 with his creation of the eight-week MBSR program that involved intensive mindfulness training, including meditation, body scanning, and basic yoga postures. The goal was to teach patients how to use these techniques to cope with depression, anxiety, pain, or just the general stresses that we all face in life.

Since introducing mindfulness into medical settings, a growing body of research continues to uncover its benefits as a treatment for anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses.

How Dr. Kabat-Zinn Brought Mindfulness into the Mainstream

Back in the 1970s, when Dr. Kabat-Zinn began studying meditation and yoga under Zen Buddhist teachers, the two practices were still largely limited to religious or spiritual communities. To encourage wider acceptance, especially within the medical community, he developed a secular, scientific framework of those Buddhist teachings.

That framework became the MBSR program that he launched at the University of Massachusetts Medical School where he was a professor. Having previously studied molecular biology at MIT followed by years of working in academia, Dr. Kabat-Zinn knew that rigorous documentation of the results of this new mindfulness program would be needed if it was going to catch on.

“With no data, it's like people hear it. They believe it. They tell stories about it, but it doesn't go anywhere,” the MSBR founder said in the mindfulness MasterClass he launched in 2021. So he continued to document the method in a series of scientific papers.

That dedication to scientific research paid off by providing a solid base of peer-reviewed data that convinced more and more medical professionals to try mindfulness-based treatments. In the decades since he first developed that eight-week program, his mindfulness-based approach has been expanded and adapted into countless other treatments and also forms the basis of many of the mobile mindfulness apps and online guided meditation programs you find today.

Science Continues to Uncover New Benefits Mindfulness

In the MasterClass, Dr. Kabat-Zinn defines mindfulness as “the awareness that arises from paying attention on purpose in the present moment and nonjudgmentally.” That simplified and concrete definition is a great framework for understanding what the practice actually involves.

It’s not about “emptying” your mind like some assume you’re supposed to during meditation. Instead, it’s about intentionally taking the time to observe your current situation, including your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations without judging or reacting to any of it.

That might involve trying to quiet some of the thoughts about the past, future, or other distractions that tend to cloud your mind, but you’re doing that by redirecting your focus to your present moment, not by trying to achieve complete blankness.

It sounds deceptively simple, but if you’ve ever tried meditation or any other mindfulness exercise, you likely experienced just how challenging it can be to intentionally pay full attention to your thoughts and feelings without judging, avoiding, or reacting to them. For many of us, the instinct is to avoid difficult thoughts and emotions by trying to ignore them. And when we can’t do that, we tend to just let them completely overwhelm us.

If Dr. Kabat-Zinn hadn’t had the foresight to measure and document its benefits via scientific research, you might struggle to understand why you should even bother to keep trying something that goes against those instincts. But today, more and more studies confirm the benefits of the kind of awareness that a mindfulness-based practice cultivates. That includes substantial evidence that it can help manage the following conditions:

  • Depression. A comprehensive review found that MBSR and other mindfulness-based treatments were consistently shown to alleviate depressive symptoms and lower the risk of relapse in patients with recurring depression.
  • Chronic pain. A review of chronic pain studies showed that physical function significantly improved after eight weeks of an MBSR program that included walking mindfulness, body scan meditation, and seated mindfulness. In studies that did follow-ups, patients that kept up the practice still showed improved physical function as much as two years later. Another review found that MBSR programs also reduced subjective pain levels in patients with chronic lower back pain.
  • Anxiety. A systematic review of studies involving anxiety patients showed that as little as four weeks of an MBSR program could significantly reduce both physical and mental anxiety symptoms including muscle tension, palpitations, low self-esteem, worry, and stress. Another review found that it also significantly reduced ruminative thinking, especially in women.
  • Insomnia. A meta-analysis of insomnia studies showed that an eight-week MBSR program significantly improved sleep quality while also decreasing depression and anxiety symptoms in people suffering from insomnia.
  • ADHD. A systematic review of studies on ADHD found that mindfulness-based training reduced inattention symptoms by around 30% in adults. Another systematic review found that, in the long term, it could also improve executive function, decrease comorbid anxiety symptoms, and improve overall quality of life.

Even in people without any diagnosed illness, research has found that MBSR can drastically reduce stress, decrease the risk of burnout, and generally improve overall quality of life.

The reason it’s able to accomplish all of this, according to a study published in Clinical Psychology Review, is because it decreases cognitive and emotional reactivity, which is when the brain activates negative emotional or thought patterns in response to stressors. Similarly, it can increase psychological flexibility, which is your ability to experience thoughts and feelings without fighting them or letting them negatively impact your behavior.

In other words, MBSR gives people the skills to stay calm under stress—or, to paraphrase Dr. Kabat-Zinn in the “Mindfulness and Stress” episode of his MasterClass, mindfulness doesn’t remove stress from your life, but it changes your relationship with it so that it no longer overpowers you.

When you minimize that reactivity and practice awareness, you make it possible to observe your situation and consider your range of options. You can consciously decide how you want to deal with the stress in your life rather than just being consumed by the worry, anger, or upset that it causes.

Bringing Mindfulness to an Even Wider Audience

Dr. Kabat-Zinn created a new MasterClass course to teach students the why and how of incorporating mindfulness into their everyday lives. The 20-part course breaks down the science behind mindfulness, explains the basic framework of a meditation practice, and then offers a series of guided meditations, ranging from about 10 minutes to 50 minutes each.

The course’s goal is to demystify mindfulness and meditation while giving students guided meditations they can use to start practicing mindfulness along with the foundation and tools they need to develop their own personalized practice when they’re ready.

It’s the latest example of the mindfulness expert’s impressive effort to make mindfulness accessible and practical to as wide an audience as possible. Over the past 50 or so years, he’s transformed mindfulness from a once esoteric and religious practice into a mainstream, widely-accepted technique that can benefit people from all walks of life. 

10 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Rachael Green
Rachael is a New York-based writer and freelance writer for Verywell Mind, where she leverages her decades of personal experience with and research on mental illness—particularly ADHD and depression—to help readers better understand how their mind works and how to manage their mental health.