RICHMOND -- An all-day conference on March 8 at the Craneway Pavilion sought to prove the veracity of an improbable claim: Something that looks like nothing is really ... something.
Seeking to deepen human relationships and promote an enriched life, the UC Berkeley-based Greater Good Science Center and a new magazine, Mindful, invited experts and practitioners of mindful research and application to bring an eager audience stories from the field and rock solid science at "Practicing Mindfulness and Compassion" conference.
A sellout crowd of 500 attendees, with a waiting list and 200 people signed up for the live webcast, were a first indication that mindful, compassionate meditations and connections are not only something, they are fast becoming everything.
"The underlying goal of the event is to support a large and growing movement around mindfulness and compassion--a movement we want to fuel with science," is how organizers promoted the conference.
Ann Shulman, the Berkeley center's executive director, said "movement building" was the day's objective and making "amazing science useful" was the responsibility of speakers such as keynote presenter Jon Kabat-Zinn.
Kabat-Zinn, a molecular biologist, author and emeritus professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, is widely known for founding the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction clinic. Like a guru grandfather, his principles and practices are influencing generations of mindfulness practitioners.
San Francisco's Mary Nenning, a 68-year-old retired nurse, signed up for the conference because she admired Kabat-Zinn's ability to "show the science in virtue."
John Berner, a 33-year old clinical psychologist from Arnold, planned to learn more about the meditation techniques he said are "close to miraculous" in treating panic disorder in his patients.
In opening comments, Kabat-Zinn said the world is starving: looking everywhere for interconnectedness. He argued that self-centered thinking and meditating for oneself are misguided forms of violence, not a groundswell of enlightened living.
"Unless we can hold (life) with compassion, no ancient texts will guide us. We're on our own," he warned. "It's time for us to grow up, or grow down into inter-connectedness."
"Growing down" means recognizing our nothingness in a vast universe. Silence and "awareness of the now," Kabat-Zinn suggested, allow the dual waves of mindfulness and compassion to reverberate harmoniously.
"We're losing ourselves," he said. "I joke that I have to call myself and say, 'Jon, are you here? At all?' If we drop in and retune, we can navigate and remember who we are."
Kabat-Zinn's inspirational presentation was followed by scientific and clinical perspectives grounded in real life applications.
UC Berkeley psychology professor Dacher Keltner introduced the day's featured speakers as "individuals taking the wisdom of ancient traditions and pushing them forward."
GGSC science director Emiliana Simon-Thomas laid out the biological brainscape of the day's subjects. Referring to the vagal nerve and the calming function it has when operating efficiently, she mapped the science of breathing.
"There are parasympathetic impulses onto your heart system. It slows down your heart, when you focus on your breath system," she said.
Mapping systems throughout the body's terrain, Simon-Thomas showed images that have become a familiar part of today's lexicon: brilliantly colored brain areas, lit up in response to emotional images or social scenarios.
Shauna Shapiro, associate professor of counseling psychology at Santa Clara University, invited attendees to join her in closing their eyes.
"Attention is present-moment awareness and seeing clearly," she said. "Our monkey mind swings from thought to thought. With practice, we learn to stabilize."
Intention and attitude, two additional components Shapiro said her present research proves can be cultivated through practice, lead to openness, curiosity, patience and kindness. Shapiro is bringing her "slow down, see connectedness" mechanisms into therapies for military personnel suffering post-traumatic stress disorder.
Quoting a poem by Galway Kinnell, she said, "Sometimes it is necessary to reteach a thing its loveliness." She then demonstrated the value of humor in the life of the compassionate mind, finishing with a borrowed joke: "If you can sit quietly after difficult news, have no jealousy, love everyone equally, and find contentment just where you are, you are probably ... a dog."
Kabat-Zinn's opening remarks summarized the day's events best: "While mindfulness looks like much ado about nothing, I like to say it's much ado about almost nothing, which turns out to really be something, to be everything."