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Beyond Descartes: The Mindfulness Revolution Lands In France

The meditation-driven movement focusing on the present is spreading around the world. In France, mindfulness must battle national tendencies toward cynicism and overthinking everything.

Beyond Descartes: The Mindfulness Revolution Lands In France
Yoanna Sultan-R'bibo

PARIS — On a recent evening at the Folies Bergère, the normally raucous Parisian music hall was nearly silent. In its old red seats, 1,700 people sat with their eyes closed, guided by a soothing voice.

"We take the time to focus on the breathing, our breath that comes and goes..." There was no sniggering or eye-rolling. The crowd seemed to be engrossed by the spry man with graying hair leading the meditation.

His name is Jon Kabat-Zinn, a 71-year-old American who for the last 30 years has been the leading spokesman for "mindfulness," known in France as pleine conscience. A bestselling author and researcher in molecular biology at MIT, Kabat-Zinn founded a groundbreaking clinic for stress reduction at the University of Massachusetts medical school in 1979, and later a center for mindfulness in medicine. His research is the foundation of an eight-week program offered around the world that intends to help people overcome anxiety, suffering and illness.

The week before the course in Paris, Kabat-Zinn had been in Brussels; the week before that, the Netherlands. In January, he offered a workshop to 100 businesspeople in Davos during the World Economic Forum.

"Ask yourself," he told crowd in Paris, "Where is my mind now, really? Never in the present moment! Always reassessing the past or thinking about what's next."

France on board

On the sidewalk of rue Richer before his presentation, people were elbowing their way into line for the Folies Bergère. "It's the first time one of our conferences was booked up in just a few days," says Arnaud de Saint-Simon, director of the magazine Psychologies and the event's organizer.

The audience included many women, mostly aged 30 to 60, as well as some couples. Many were experienced in meditation.

"My psychiatrist recommended I be hospitalized after a "burnout" diagnosis," one says. Overwork is frequently what attracts people to meditation. Others say that it helps them escape negative thoughts, to be patient with their children and even to manage chronic pain.

Doctors and psychologists often recommend meditation. Many others learn about the practice from books. Kabat-Zinn's 2010 title Arriving at Your Own Door: 108 Lessons of Mindfulness sold more than 50,000 copies in French, and popular French psychologist Christophe André sold more than 350,000 copes of his book Méditer, jour après jour (Meditate, day after day).

"The figures have surprised us," says Catherine Meyer, who heads the psychology division of the publishing house L'Iconoclaste. "With the addition of audiobooks, sales really took off."

The smartphone app for Psychologies, created with Christophe André, is among the 20 most downloaded in France. The eight-week "mindfulness-based stress reduction" classes offered throughout France tend to be fully booked. There are now more than 180 "mindfulness" teachers of in France.

Validated by science

But how can the lightning success of mindfulness be explained while other stress-reduction practices such as yoga took years to catch on?

"Daily life looks like a list of tasks to cross out, one after the other," Kabat-Zinn explains. "And afterward you go home and collapse in order to be ready to do it all again the next day." It isn't shocking that the idea of calming one's mind appeals to people.

And mediation doesn't require a gym membership, a special room or a certain outfit. "Tomorrow you'll wake up 10 minutes earlier and take the time to be with yourself," says Kabat-Zinn. "You can even just do this in bed."

Guided meditations can be accessed on smartphones. It's possible to meditate at lunch, in the park, even on the Metro. What's essential is that the practice becomes a regular part of the day. "The mind is like a muscle," Kabat-Zinn says. "You have to work it out in order to cultivate your innate sense of mindfulness."

Was the promise of a new-age carpe diem all that it took to seduce the French? No, in fact Kabat-Zinn says the country of Descartes was one of the last to translate his books. The French have begun paying attention to mindfulness because the practice has been scientifically validated. Initially circumspect, the world of research has recently gone bananas over the subject: More than 700 mindfulness studies were conducted last year alone.

One study published in The Lancetsuggests that mindfulness meditation could be as effective as antidepressants in treating depression. What's more, meditating seems to initiate deep neurological changes, according to studies at the University of Wisconsin and the Max-Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany. The practice activates zones linked to goodwill and empathy, creating positive sensations, and deactivates other zones linked to fear and aggression.

"Without science, we wouldn't be here today," Kabat-Zinn says. But he admits that mindfulness proponents haven't invented anything new. "The practice of mindfulness has been around for 3,000 years," he says. "We attribute it to Buddha." Kabat-Zinn and his approach, however, are not meant to be Buddhist in nature. In fact, approaching mindfulness in a secular way, without spiritual engagement, has made the practice more accessible.

It involves a knowing mixture of ancient wisdom, science and philosophy sprinkled with promises of personal development. A bit of a catchall, the magic mindfulness recipe is capable of attracting an enormous public.

"Mindfulness deals with happiness, self-realization and the search for meaning," says Nadia Garnoussi, a sociologist at the University of Lille. "This is a space left vacant by most classical religions." Its other leg-up on religion is that mindfulness promises well-being here and now rather than safety after death.

At the end of the conference, the crowd huddled around the bookstand. More than 100 books have been published on the subject since 2012, with titles offering advice about how to practice mindfulness in eating, sending business emails, and even being pregnant. Three is even a book and CD for children, Sitting Still Like A Frog, which has sold more than 100,000 copies in French.

As a first step for the newcomers, Kabat-Zinn proposes a simple project. "When you're in the shower, try to just be in the shower, not already in a meeting talking to your boss!"

The next day, I tried to just be in the shower, doing nothing but showering. But in the end I could only think of one thing — finding a kicker for this article.

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