MBSR was developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn, who established a stress reduction clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in 1979. Trained in the Vipassana tradition of Buddhist meditation, he believed that meditation could help patients relate to their condition differently and thus, suffer less. “The idea was to actually train these medical patients in Buddhist meditative practices, but without the Buddhism,” Kabat-Zinn told NPR in 2007. He asked doctors to refer patients to his clinic for whom medication hadn’t worked. At the time, mindfulness as a health practice was new to Western medicine. In a 1993 PBS special with Bill Moyers, Kabat-Zinn spends much of his screen time demystifying meditation for an audience that might view it as “un-American, Eastern, Buddhist” (as Moyers suggested).
Today, MBSR is offered at hundreds of hospitals and other locations across the United States. I found one program at an integrative medicine center a thirty-minute bus ride from my apartment. As a patient, I fit the profile. I was on my seventh headache medication. Though I committed to taking the course, I was skeptical of MBSR because skepticism is part of my nature.
But when you have a chronic health condition, you learn not to attach any emotion or expectation to possible solutions. People will tell you about the friend of a friend who discovered that oranges caused their migraines. Or about the $1,000 LED light therapy device that healed their mom. They’ll send you links to articles about the latest drugs, links to podcasts about medical mysteries solved. When people tell me these things, I file them into a “maybe” folder in my mind. I might try them, but cautiously.
There are many ways to feel awkward and unattractive while growing up. I’m certain I would have even without the shoe contraptions and leg braces I wore for the first eight or nine years of my life. Ours was the rare Asian family in a white neighborhood, and we had to drive half an hour to Chinatown or to church to find other families that looked like us. Though I eventually befriended two other Asian American girls in middle school, we were a nervous bunch. There was no reflection of us in media or wider society, no affirmations of our existence. I never wanted to be white, but I disliked the way I looked and found fault in certain parts of my body: my nose was too wide and flat; my legs stumpy and their skin patchy.
Throughout my life, I have found this business of living in a body strange and uncomfortable, even alienating.
My anxieties were confirmed when a boy told me it was pointless for me to keep a mirror on my locker door because I was ugly. I felt uncoordinated and weak, too, as if I was not quite settled in my body and didn’t know how to fully operate it. Perhaps I would have regarded my body differently, learned a kind of confidence, had I played sports. Perhaps I should have taken dance classes. Even now, I envy those who seem grounded in their bodies; the way former dancers carry themselves with good posture. But I didn’t dance or play sports, and I dreaded everything about P.E.: the gym shorts, the running, having balls thrown at me (which I missed, usually, because I was too afraid to catch them). In group exercises, I flailed my limbs in the general direction the class was facing.
Throughout my life, I have found this business of living in a body strange and uncomfortable, even alienating. Much time and money has been spent trying to correct it, from my in-turned feet to years of shoulder muscle pain to my ongoing, unrelenting headache.
Even my body’s basic functions perplex me. Its demands—to eat, to pee—are not merely inconvenient, but often feel out of my control. I am one of those people who deteriorates to hangriness, who even feels shaky when hungry. So I carry snacks on me at all times, sit in the aisle seat on airplanes, do whatever I can to anticipate and placate the demands this body makes of me.
When people find out you are taking a meditation class, they often tell you it will change your life. In my lifetime, meditation has gone from being regarded as weird and “un-American” to commonplace and mainstream, practiced in schools, on sports teams, even in some workplaces.
But this is not a miracle story. Meditation did not change my life. I did not turn into a person who wakes up and meditates first thing in the morning. I do it sporadically. I’m still in pain. And yet, it shifted something in me.
The body scan was one of the first meditations we learned. It turned out to be my favorite. When I close my eyes and start this mental tour of my body, I feel like I am saying hello to all my parts, everything my body is. Hello my feet, for so long trapped in metal. Hello my belly, forever round. Hello my shoulders and its aches. Hello my arms and head.
At the end of the body scan, after tuning in to your different parts, you take in your body as a whole. You imagine that you are breathing in through the top of your head, carrying that breath down through the bottom of your feet. Then, you reverse directions, breathing from the bottom of your feet and exhaling at the top of your head.
In practicing the body scan, I started to feel a new tenderness toward my body, a welcome surprise after years of discomfort. This tenderness dovetailed with a general feeling of increased kindness toward myself, which I was only able to cultivate in the aftermath of becoming chronically unwell.
I started to feel a new tenderness toward my body, a welcome surprise after years of discomfort.
I had measured my life in terms of accomplishments: the grades I earned, the things I created, how I was regarded at work. My worth had been tied up in my productivity. When I wasn’t productive, I felt bad about myself.
But now I was too fatigued, my energy and ability to concentrate sabotaged by pain. The small organization I led at work was at a critical juncture, under threat, and I was not in good shape to protect it. I realized that the best I could do was replace myself and go on leave. I realized that I was doing my best. And so I tried to be kind to myself. How sad that I couldn’t regard myself with more kindness before, but how necessary it felt now that I was in constant pain.
In MBSR there is this notion of “clock-time,” the mode of doing things. I had lived most of my life on clock-time. To meditate is to step out of clock-time and just be. You consider the fact of being alive in this very moment, look on it as a good thing. “As long as you are breathing, there is more right with your body than wrong with you, no matter what is wrong,” writes Kabat-Zinn. And so I concentrate on breathing in, breathing out. As my breath rises and falls, it feels like a wave in the ocean of my body, just as my pain feels like a wave, sometimes. I close my eyes and greet myself.
Melissa Hung is a writer and journalist. Her essays and reported stories have appeared in NPR, Vogue, Longreads, Pacific Standard, and Body Language (Catapult 2022). She is the founding editor of Hyphen magazine. She grew up in Texas, the eldest child of immigrants. Find her on Twitter and Instagram @melissahungtx and at melissahung.xyz.