I’m back in Rome again for the first international conference on Mindfulnes, in may 8th to 12th.There is a spectacular list of speakers invited, selected not only from the immediate entourage of Kabat Zinn but also from the wider panorama of researchers and thinkers on awareness. Honor goes to the organizers for such breadth of vision.
The term “mindfulness” in western psychology today means the dried and simplified version that Kabat Zinn popularized, but the same term in Buddhist literature indicates a much broader notion of awareness related to meditation.
This double meaning makes life difficult, because many researchers and mindfulness meditators consider the mindfulness of Kabat Zinn one of the possible ways to teach wisdom to westerners, though it should not be favored over other traditional versions, such as Vipassana or Zen.
The first day I attended an exciting lesson given by Ajhan Amaro during the morning’s guided meditation. He is a true master in the tradition of monks of the forest.
The highlight of the second day is Kabat Zinn in person, and he holds the audience for 90 minutes in positive tension, demonstrating once again his human qualities. For him, mindfulness is a path leading to illumination The pleasure of listening to an innovative genius is accompanied by the pleasure of being close to a special person.
Taking place earlier was the symposium on Meditation practice in non-communicable diseases, specifically non-communicable diseases such as cancer and diabetes. Daniela Rabellino from my group presented our data on cardiac patients. The symposium turned out well, with a lot of discussion between competent researchers.
The third day the Oxford scientists take the floor, led by Mark Williams, a top-notch researcher and a great actor of the English school, David Niven style. They applied MBCT to suicidally-depressed patients, and used very clear theoretical hypotheses, impeccable experimentation, and reached cogent results correlated with the severity of the patients, especially those who had suffered childhood trauma.
In the afternoon we are illuminated by Paul Grossman, from Basel, with a lecture on the ethics of experimentation applied to research on mindfulness. With measured irony he destroys the scales used to measure mindfulness, really hammering away at the frequently invoked MAAS, showing that it doesn’t really measure anything, and – as if we were all actually followers of Popper – that it should be cast into oblivion. The clinical results of MBSR and MBCT are also reviewed critically, and now appear far less spectacular. Moreover, the mere fact that clinicians are in good faith cannot replace rigorous experimental procedures; any confusion between subjective and inter-subjective valuations must not survive at this conference.
Next days, the interventions during the plenary sessions continue to be big-time, and the speakers manage to hold the audience’s attention for 90 minutes. On Saturday, Henk Barendregt of the University of Nijmegen, a famous logician and famous master of meditation, delivered a learned and unpretentious talk on the different concepts of mindfulness, addressing the crucial issue of whether mindfulness according to KZ is equivalent to wisdom, or a substantially impoverished version.
In the Buddhist tradition, mindfulness is associated with wisdom and ethics in life, which aspects are inevitably eliminated in MBSR and MBCT training. According to him, however, the substance remains the same, though he warns us to keep away from unacceptable simplifications. His speech is given quietly and in a conciliatory tone, a sincere attempt to enrich our collective understanding in a very complex field. In essence we are all on a journey, scientists and practitioners of meditation, and as long as we do not try to take shortcuts, the twenty-first century will be quite interesting.
The climate of the conference is one of great intellectual honesty, and different points of view are compared without acrimony – everyone pays respectful attention even to what is in contrast with their own opinion.
A second edition of the conference is scheduled two years from now.