Mindful communication begins with self-awareness and extends to a deeper awareness of others. When people from diverse cultures interact with each other, mindfulness is invaluable.

That’s why the keynote presentation, “The Present State of Mindfulness,” will launch the annual conference of the New Jersey Association for Multicultural Counseling and the New Jersey Association for Specialists in Group Work on Friday, October 7, at 8 a.m. at the Mercer County Community College Conference Center. Cost: $99. For more information, and to view the itinerary, visit www.njamc.org or E-mail kathryn.nyce@verizon.net.

Presented by Corinne Zupko, coach and trainer at Inner Balance Life Coaching in Monmouth County, the program is based on the work of Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the originator of the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction program and founder of the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

Kabat-Zinn describes mindfulness as a process of tuning in. As he puts it, a person attempting to communicate without awareness would be like the philharmonic orchestra attempting to play Beethoven without tuning first. They are, in Kabat-Zinn’s words, “among the greatest musicians with the greatest instruments in the world, and they still tune first, to themselves, and to each other. Meditation is like tuning your instrument before you take it out on the road.”

In the spirit of this mindfulness practice, Zupko will guide attendees through a tuning-in process. Attendees will experience the practice of resting their awareness in the present moment without judgment. “This practice is about giving ourselves a break from judgment,” says Zupko. “From judging ourselves, from judging our experience. When we practice not judging ourselves, we can easily learn how to refrain from judging others.”

Although some people are just discovering the practice of mindfulness, the process has been around for more than 2,000 years and has its roots in Buddhism. But you don’t have to be Buddhist to practice this type of meditation.

“I like to call mindfulness the ‘anti-mediator’s meditation’ because so many people who say ‘I can’t meditate’ say that this practice ‘works’ for them,” says Zupko. “You can’t fail at mindfulness if you are just willing to bring your attention back to the present moment, again and again, each time it wanders. And since many of us have minds that jump from one thing to another, we might be bringing that wandering attention back to the present quite often.”

Living in a multicultural world, mindfulness connects us to each other, Zupko says. “We usually see others through our own concepts and judgments and often take this for reality. This can lead to stereotypes, or any of the –isms, racism, ageism, etc.” With mindful awareness, we are able to create a space, like a little breathing room, between our judgments and our behaviors. Mindfulness encourages thoughtful responses, rather than knee-jerk reactions.

“One scientific finding very relevant to multiculturalism is that practicing mindfulness increases empathy,” Zupko says. “Empathy helps us connect. If we can learn to be present with our own internal states, we can better appreciate the internal states of other people.”

Empathy, Zupko says, even helps us heal. Studies show that when a doctor is empathetic and caring, patients heal faster. In a counseling setting, the most important agent of change is the presence of the therapist, she says. “Therapeutic techniques are helpful to a degree, but when the therapist is fully present and empathic, he can really connect with the internal experience of the client, and that is the real agent of change.”

“As a society, we’re hurting,” says Zupko. “There is conflict out there — like violence, crime, discrimination — but there is also conflict within many of us. Many people in our country struggle with anxiety, depression, stress-related disorders, or just feel an overall sense of dissatisfaction with life. We often try to fill the void by staying busy, staying distracted, buying something new.”

But there is an awakening happening, she says. Many people are realizing that the happiness we’ve been looking for is in ourselves. “We live in a very exciting time. Once considered alternative medicine, mindfulness is now being accepted as mainstream.”

Mindfulness programs are offered in hospitals, prisons, schools, and at companies such as Google and Starbucks. Studies show that mindfulness training helps lower anxiety, increases immune functioning, creates positive changes in brain structure, decreases pain, lowers stress levels, increases empathy, and adds satisfaction in life.

Zupko’s personal experience supports these studies. Her parents owned a pet products business and moved the family from the Florida Keys to Monmouth County, New Jersey, when she was in high school. “I attended College of New Jersey, and during my sophomore year, I started suffering from debilitating anxiety and panic attacks,” she says.

“ It was then that I began a spiritual journey and immersed myself in ways of finding and maintaining inner peace. I began a meditation practice, and found much relief through my meditation practice. I then dedicated my career path to helping others find and maintain their sense of inner peace, thus leading me into the counseling field, teaching field, and life coaching field.”

Zupko holds degrees in counseling and psychology and has a private consulting practice in Monmouth County. She teaches Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction classes at a yoga studio in Marlboro and mindfulness and wellness courses at the College of New Jersey.

Many of Zupko’s students have written to her sharing how mindfulness training has helped them, including: preparing for surgery; resolving personal problems rather than being stuck in “internal knots”; improving competitive diving performance; being more productive in college studies; and feeling more positive about life.

“My goal,” says Zupko, “is that my students will integrate what they’ve learned into their lives and their chosen careers, medicine, education, business, etc., thus creating a more mindful society.”

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