Mindfulness Meditation Is Rediscovered

Illustration by Jason Lee

in July 2008, I retired from my job as editor in chief of O, the Oprah Magazine , a move that mystified a lot of people. Editors tend not to exit willingly. They’re usually ripped out of their magazines, like pages. Their sales go south, and so do they. A media reporter wasn’t buying my “retired” line. He called to get the real story. “You can tell me,” he said. “Are you being pushed out?” The truth, I told him, was that I’d been doing Buddhist meditation for years and ached to dive into practice. My job was getting in the way of my life.

That answer didn’t explain anything to a business friend. “What is so compelling,” she asked, “that you would leave all this?”

“All this” encompassed powers and perks universally acknowledged to be worth killing yourself for. The magazine was a big hit. We were putting good ideas and good writing into the culture. We respected each other, we won awards, and we were paid well enough. I couldn’t have been happier.

And then things changed, as things do.

After decades of the monthly magazine cycle, the thrill of spotting a fresh idea, shaping it for our audience, commissioning the right writer.?.?.?that thrill had subsided to a small tickle. Instead I was finding challenge, purpose, and meaning offsite, in mindfulness meditation, the Buddha’s prescription to end suffering. He discovered that if you pay attention to what’s going on, moment to moment—without trying to hold onto what feels good or push away what feels bad—your relationship to pain changes.

The key shift is in turning toward pain, when all your life you’ve turned away from it. You give it your full attention—you yield to it—and, paradoxically, its hold on you diminishes. (The majority of chronic-pain patients in an eight-week meditation course are able to reduce their medications and become more active.) You open to emotional pain as well. As you meditate, the grip of your history loosens and you get a little saner, lighter, less entangled.

The formal structure for intense practice is a silent retreat, which can last anywhere from one morning to three years. No talking, no reading, no writing, no eye contact. You’re stranded on the island of your mind. You’re sitting peacefully, or impatiently, or hungrily, when a thought suddenly jerks through your head and your inner world breaks into a riot—heart racing, muscles gripping, adrenaline pouring, breath speeding.

You bring your attention to the explosion: what is this? Ah, this time it’s anger…and it feels lousy. You notice that it’s causing you pain—you, not X, the object of your anger. Focusing on the sensations of the emotion, you stop telling yourself the story of how X did you wrong. Without the story, the anger runs out of fuel. Relief. Non-anger feels so good. You come to be less and less afraid of your own interior storms.

These treks through the mind became my idea of adventure travel, and I’d take off for a week a few times a year. But after a while, my return to “all this” no longer felt satisfying. In fact, it was dissatisfying. “All this” whips up your appetites. As much as you have, others have more…or less. That one-down feeling is a bitch, but so is that one-up feeling—you just don’t see how it isolates you, leaves you constantly, if subliminally, threatened.

My contract was coming up for renewal. I’d been working since a week after I graduated from college. Forty-five years. I had saved some money, I’d paid off my mortgage, and freedom was looking like the ultimate luxury good. Why not drop out now? I could read purely for pleasure, put people first rather than last, and wallow in practice.

So I dropped, and as I was landing, I found a new occupation—studying and teaching something called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Designed in 1979 by molecular biologist Jon Kabat-Zinn, MBSR is an eight-week course that delivers the benefits of mindfulness meditation to people who may have no interest in Buddhism. They’re often busy, ambitious people willing to commit a few hours a week to learning a new set of skills widely reported to be good for them.

The burgeoning field of neuroscience emits a fairly constant stream of evidence for meditation’s positive impact on immune response, cardiovascular functioning, the brain itself. Meditation can change the brain—measurably. Scientists can see a thickening of the cortex areas where memory and empathy reside. In one famous study, subjects who meditated showed less activity in an area associated with negative emotions like anger, depression, and anxiety, and more activity in the area associated with buoyancy, optimism, and confidence. They also had a stronger immune reaction to flu vaccine than did those in control groups. And all these differences show up in eight weeks.

Kabat-Zinn’s work has inspired a host of mindfulness-based therapies, with offshoots focusing on depression, addiction, eating and sleep disorders, and chronic pain. Mindfulness itself is being applied in psychotherapy—for treating cancer survivors, PTSD, sexual dysfunction—and is now so legit it’s taught around the world in medical centers, hospitals, schools (from primary school to medical school), prisons, and corporations. Teacher-training courses draw doctors, nurses, psychologists, psychotherapists, and the occasional odd duck devoted to meditation, which is where I came in.

Last winter I ended a course by asking the 23 participants to single out an idea or change of behavior they wanted to take away with them. One man said his staff was telling him he was being more patient. A woman noticed she was doing everyday things mindfully—walking to the bus, cutting an apple—and was surprised at how much pleasure these ordinary activities gave her. A woman who got angry when people littered on subway platforms, or when her boss showed up a few minutes late for meetings, now turned her attention to the anger itself and felt it dissipate.

Listening to them go around, I thought: I never teared up like this at a magazine award.

This meditation business is potent stuff. Mindfulness meditation has been around for more than 2,500 years, and I’m grateful to have stumbled on it. As a veteran magazine editor who spent 24/7 alert to trends, to the waves that move us, that make masses of us hunger for this and not that, I have no doubt that mindfulness meditation is an idea whose time has come—again.

Join the Discussion