In the shadow of Parliament, a moment of peace
Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn has authored books, coached CEOs and treated chronic pain patients in the basement of a U.S. hospital. But he has never before guided nearly 1,000 people in a mass meditation
Jon Kabat-Zinn, the scientist credited with making mindfulness mainstream, is walking up to Parliament Hill at noon on Thursday, when a secret to his stillness suddenly becomes clear. For five hours, he has not once checked his iPhone. No yanking it out to e-mail. No racing through Twitter. No tap-dancing thumbs. The phone is tucked away in his knapsack, as if he never even thought of it. "I love my phone," he says. "But I don't want it run my life." And why would he check it? He is occupied by this moment, not the next one. "I have a full now."
What is happening now is that a crowd eagerly awaits him on the lawn of the Peace Tower in steamy sunshine, for what is Ottawa's first mass meditation. These group gatherings have become a trend in the mindfulness community – Vancouver had one in April – but it's also a first for Dr. Kabat-Zinn, who has written numerous bestselling books, coached Silicon Valley executives and led the mindfulness initiative in British Parliament.
If you have ever mindfully eaten a raisin, it's because of him. His groundbreaking work treating patients with chronic pain, while a biology professor at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in 1979, helped mindfulness move from a spiritual discipline to a science-based stress-reduction treatment.
Still, Dr. Kabat-Zinn has never directed nearly 1,000 people, including children and babies, in guided meditation – the location, in the shadow of Canada's Parliament Buildings, was so intriguing he flew in at his own expense. "I have no idea what I am getting into," he says, unfazed. The moment, in other words, brings what it brings.
All morning, Dr. Kabat-Zinn has been hustled to meetings with politicians and business leaders by a former public servant named Scheherzade van Aarle, who turned to meditation to deal with post-concussion symptoms following a boogie-board accident.
The founder of InnerSpace Mindfulness, a group that wants to make mindfulness a regular practice in public space and among the country's leaders, Ms. van Aarle is the one who invited Dr. Kabat-Zinn to Ottawa for the International Day of Peace, a day dedicated by the United Nations to educating about peace. "What we need," she says, "is to collectively approach the affairs of the world from a different perspective."
Adding mindfulness to public policy-making – as Britain has tried to do – or teaching it to schoolchildren are positive trends, Dr. Kabat-Zinn says. "What you are really doing is befriending your mind, but we never get any training in that."
He expresses real doubts, however, about mindfully raised chickens, and mindful jewellery and mindfulness sold as a get-ahead-on-Wall Street strategy. "I am going on faith," he says, "that mindfulness will find a way to preserve itself in the face of all this dumbing down."
And even with the scientific evidence growing, Ms. Van Aarle says, "You don't want to come across as too woo-hoo."
On Parliament Hill, Dr. Kabat-Zinn, silver-haired at 73, comes across as a star. People line up to shake his hand or get a selfie, to tell him how they meditate every day to the sound of his voice, or how he changed their lives. He has a way of speaking to each one of them – looking into their eyes, holding their hands, asking their name – as if he has all the time in the world.
Barbara Brunzell, a marketing consultant, standing with her 10-year-old son, Logan, chokes up, while describing to Dr. Kabat-Zinn what his work has meant to her family. She and Logan listen to a meditation every morning before work and school. "It is something to start the day out," she says. "It teaches you how to be present every day, how to relieve the pressure to show up to life perfect. We just want to show up to life."
Angela Perez, wearing a Mexican soccer shirt, tells him she has come to help express her sorrow for the people lost in the earthquakes. "It will help me," she says, "and maybe it will help all of us."
Dr. Kabat-Zinn is about to to begin his meditation when he hears the protesters. He walks over, unhurried, in his bare feet. "I was just wondering what all the shouting was about?" he asks.
It turns out they are a pro-Myanmar contingent, chanting against the "fake news" coverage of what many are calling the ethnic cleansing of Muslims in that country. His brow furrows slightly, but he keeps his voice soft. He has a crowd waiting and he needs a deal negotiated. Can they compromise? The protesters agree to keep it down during his meditation, but decline an invitation.
Satisfied, he returns to his mat and sits cross-legged. The people gathered take up various yoga poses, under sun hats or umbrellas, or just stretch out on the grass.
He speaks to them in a slow, soothing voice about the importance of not feeling the need to be perfect, about trying to find the silence under the soundscape of life, and noticing when their mind wanders and "escorting it back." He calls mindfulness "nurturing openheartedness."
Earlier that morning, he'd explained that when people are first trying meditation, "they say to me, 'I am not feeling anything special.' What is special is actually feeling something in the first place."
The Myanmar protesters keep their promise, and stillness falls on the lawn. After 30 minutes, Dr. Kabat-Zinn urges the people gathered to open their eyes and look at each other. "If someone stumbled out of a war zone or an earthquake zone, and came up on us sitting here," he tells the crowd, "they would say, 'This is what peace looks like.'"
For this moment, at least. Then people pack up their yoga mats and drift away, called back to regular life, their smartphones beckoning. And across the walkway, on the stairs leading to Parliament Hill, a new group of protesters arrive, to fill what's left of the stillness.