SOMETIMES THE MOST IMPORTANT MOMENTS in our lives take place when we’re not even present. For George Mumford, a Newton-based mindfulness teacher, one such moment took place in 1993, at the Omega Institute, a holistic learning center in Rhinebeck, New York.
The center was hosting a retreat devoted to mindfulness meditation, the clear-your-head habit in which participants sit quietly and focus on their breathing. Leading the session: meditation megastar Jon Kabat-Zinn. Originally trained as a molecular biologist at MIT, Kabat-Zinn had gone on to revolutionize the meditation world in the 1970s by creating a more secularized version of the practice, one focused less on Buddhism and more on stress reduction and other health benefits.
After dinner one night, Kabat-Zinn was giving a talk about his work, clicking through a slide show to give the audience something to look at. At one point he displayed a slide of Mumford. Mumford had been a star high school basketball player who’d subsequently hit hard times as a heroin addict, Kabat-Zinn explained. By the early 1980s, however, he’d embraced meditation and gotten sober. Now Mumford taught meditation to prison inmates and other unlikely students. Kabat-Zinn explained how they were able to relate to Mumford because of his tough upbringing, his openness about his addiction — and because, like many inmates, he’s African-American.
Kabat-Zinn’s description of Mumford didn’t seem to affect most Omega visitors, but one participant immediately took notice: June Jackson, whose husband had just coached the Chicago Bulls to their third consecutive NBA championship. Phil Jackson had spent years studying Buddhism and Native American spirituality and was a devoted meditator. Yet his efforts to get Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, and their teammates to embrace mindfulness was meeting with only limited success. “June took one look at George and said, ‘He could totally connect with Phil’s players,’ ” Kabat-Zinn recalls. So he provided an introduction.
Soon Mumford was in Chicago, gathering some of the world’s most famous athletes in a darkened room and telling them to focus on their breathing. Mumford spent the next five years working with the Bulls, frequently sitting behind the bench, as they won three more championships. In 1999 Mumford followed Phil Jackson to the Los Angeles Lakers, where he helped turn Kobe Bryant into an outspoken adherent of meditation. Last year, as Jackson began rebuilding the moribund New York Knicks as president, Mumford signed on for a third tour of duty. He won’t speak about the specific work he’s doing in New York, but it surely involves helping a new team adjust to Jackson’s sensibilities, his controversial triangle offense, and the particular stress that comes with compiling the worst record in the NBA. Continue reading >>