Last year, I fortuitously stumbled across the Mindfulness in America Summit held in New York City in October. I could not attend in person due to the distance, but they had a wonderfully inexpensive option to join via live broadcast. It was a wonderful day-and-a-half program with a number of leading experts in the field of mindfulness. I had hoped to attend in person this year, but alas, had to opt for the virtual ticket again. Nevertheless, it was another amazing experience with more excellent speakers. I thought I would share some of the highlights and the incredible ways that mindfulness is being applied in so many different arenas.
The conference opened with the father of modern-day mindfulness himself, Jon Kabat-Zinn. He led participants in a sitting meditation but made the point that every moment is the meditation. The message: yes, our daily mindfulness practice is important to build the skill, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that living our lives with awareness from moment to moment is what mindfulness is really about.
- Mindfulness and Politics: I was so excited to hear from Congressman Tim Ryan (D-OH), author of “A Mindful Nation: How a Simple Practice Can Help Us Reduce Stress, Improve Performance, and Recapture the American Spirit.” He was asked how mindfulness can help individuals deal with the current divisiveness present in our country these days. He emphasized the need for all of us to return to civility and understand that those with differing opinions are not stupid. He also shared an update on three key pieces of legislation related to mindfulness:
- Federal education funds designated for use on social and emotional learning in schools, including programs to teach students mindfulness.
- The creation of grants to help modify VFW facilities to include rooms for mind-body practices such as meditation.
- The creation of a wellness program on Capitol Hill, to include mental health counselors trained in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction techniques as well as designated rooms in congressional buildings for meditation and similar practices.
- The New Face of Mindfulness: There was a panel at the end of the day with three leaders representing the “new faces of mindfulness”: Jesse Israel (of The Big Quiet), Gabrielle Prisco (Executive Director of the Lineage Project) and Diego Perez (a writer known as Yung Pueblo). All three of them spoke openly about challenging circumstances in their own lives that led to their personal mindfulness practices as well as the work they are currently doing in that arena. I was most inspired by Ms. Prisco, who had previously worked as a lawyer in the family court system. She spoke of the toxic culture inherent in that system, for all parties involved (clients and staff) and the absence of the word “love” throughout the system and process. Her organization brings mindfulness programs to vulnerable youth to help them manage stress, build inner strength, and cultivate compassion. They also train youth-serving organizations in the development of mindful practices. She envisions a youth justice system built on love with workers pledging a Hippocratic-like oath to “first do no harm.”
The second day was jam-packed with top-notch speakers representing areas as diverse as law, healthcare, the military and professional sports. For the sake of space and time, I have selected just a few of the sessions I found most meaningful:
- Mindfulness in the Military: Anderson Cooper interviewed neuroscientist Amishi Jha, PhD and Major General Walter Piatt about mindfulness training for active duty soldiers. There has been quite a bit of research done using mindfulness in the post-deployment arena, particularly for soldiers diagnosed with PTSD. However, Dr. Jha recognized the need for such training both pre-deployment and in the field. She found a willing participant in Major General Piatt and has received grant funding to study the impact of Mindfulness Based Attention Training for soldiers, which is an adaptation of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program. Major General Piatt argued that all military personnel need “mental toughness” training much like the physical training (PT) that is required every day.
- Mindfulness in Healing and Healthcare: Dan Harris (ABC Nightline co-anchor and author of “10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress without Losing My Edge and Found Self-Help That Actually Works”) interviewed Mark Bertolini, the CEO of Aetna. Mr. Bertolini was in a very serious skiing accident in 2004 and turned to yoga and mindfulness to help manage his pain after finding little relief from multiple pain medications. His personal experience and recovery were so remarkable that he suggested offering yoga and mindfulness to Aetna employees to help deal with stress. They did a pilot study in order to convince the skeptical Chief Medical Officer at Aetna and had incredible results: they reduced stress by 33%, increased productivity by 62 minutes/month and saved the lives of two employees who admitted that they had been on the brink of suicide due to the pressures at work. The program has since been rolled out to all employees and expanded to include other practices such as pet therapy and PTO banks (where employees can give their paid time off to other employees in need).
I was even more excited to hear Mr. Bertolini’s rationale behind Aetna’s decision to merge with CVS, which is grounded in the desire to address social determinants of health. In the United States, your zip code often plays a larger role in determining your longevity than your genetic code. The leaders at Aetna realized that an organization like CVS, with pharmacies/clinics in almost every community, would be better equipped to help reduce local barriers to health and wellbeing. Mr. Bertolini sounded like a health coach when he said, “We need to ask, ‘What is it about your health that gets in the way of the life you want to lead?’” He used the analogy of “TripTiks®” for health – similar to those highlighted road maps that AAA used to provide to members when they traveled, we need to help individuals map out the road to better health.
- A Mindful Approach to Race and Social Justice in the US: I am not sure my summary can accurately reflect just how powerful this session was. Once again, I was awestruck by Rhonda Magee, a Professor of Law at the University of San Francisco, who also teaches mindfulness-based stress reduction interventions for lawyers, law students, and for minimizing social-identity-based bias. She, Jon Kabat-Zinn and Anderson Cooper had a moving discussion about the current “woundedness” in society and how the next two to three generations need to address it to help us all heal. They talked about using mindfulness and compassion to explore who we are in relation to each other and to help recognize our own biases. Professor Magee challenged us to begin conversations with people who we don’t think we have anything in common with and be willing to sustain that dialogue. That is not an easy ask in today’s world where it seems we become more divided every day, but as she noted, we need to turn the lens of awareness to where the pain is in order to begin the process of healing.
If you missed the summit but want to attend next year, click here to visit Wisdom 2.0, the organization that presents the summit. You can sign up for their e-mail list to stay abreast of this and other mindfulness events.