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Mindful : February 2016
“ Mumford’s journey wasn’t an easy ride. Shortly after he came back from detox, he went into withdrawal and started suffering from migraines and debilitating back pain. One of his doctors recommended a new stress man- agement program run by mind-body expert Dr. Joan Borysenko, and he started experimenting with meditation. After a while, Borysenko urged him to attend a retreat at the Insight Meditation Society’s center in Barre, Massachusetts, which was an unnerving experience. At first, he was put off by how unfriendly everyone was until it dawned on him that nobody was talking to him because it was a silent retreat. Then toward the end of the retreat the instructor asked everyone to describe their experience and George was flummoxed by the jargon they were using. But he stuck with it because, in his words, his “ass was on fire” and he was hell-bent on rein- venting his life. What he liked about meditation was that it gave him an outlet for his sensitive nature. As a kid, he’d often be sad for weeks if one of the neighboring families moved away or he encountered a wino who had passed out in the street. But he never knew what to do with those feelings. It was only when he got deep into meditation that he discovered he could use his sensitivity to hold difficult emotions in his heart with wisdom and understanding. Meditation also allowed him to become more intimate with his mind. “ When I was starting out, I had a tough time giving up the idea that I had to know everything,” he says. “I thought I had to think ‘I’m breathing ’ in and ‘I’m breathing out.’ When in actuality the thinking is just get- ting you to the breath so you can feel it. It’s about letting it happen and not interfering.” The more time he spent meditating the more he began to see that his best thinking wasn’t going to keep him from getting stoned. “I realized that maybe I should take the cotton out of my ears and just listen and learn something,” he adds. “Instead of doing it George’s way, how about trying to understand how the universe works? How about aligning myself with the way things are?” In addition to studying meditation, Mum- ford read voraciously, searching for answers—a book a week for the past 30 years, he estimates. One insight that hit home was Albert Einstein’s obser vation that “the most important decision we make is whether we believe we live in a friendly or hostile universe.” Growing up as an African-American male in a tough neighbor- hood, it wasn’t surprising that Mumford devel- oped a vision of the world as an unsafe place, which forced him to escape into fantasy. But as bathroom and recited the Serenity Prayer. He said it over and over until slowly the compulsion began to fade. “ What I realized then was that if the George who went into detox came out at the other end, I was in deep trouble,” he says. “ For- tunately, the George who came out of detox was a different George.” Thus began what Mumford calls his “joyful journey of discovery” to figure out how not only to maintain sobriety, but also, as he puts it, “ to live life on life’s terms.” That journey has taken him from grappling with his own demons to becoming the mindfulness coach for Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and the champi- onship-winning Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, as well as writing a new book, The Mind- ful Athlete: Secrets to Pure Performance. A quiet, unassuming man with a boyish smile and the calm, down-to-earth presence of a forest monk, Mumford, 64, would rather spend time musing about philosophy or the latest breakthroughs in neuroscience than promoting himself on the mindfulness circuit. He doesn’t have a slick, tweetable formula to sell. But those who know him well—superstar athletes and meditation teachers alike—often refer to him as the “real deal,” someone who not only under- stands the secrets of peak performance but also practices them in his own life. Jordan credits Mumford for making him a better leader. Shaquille O’Neal has referred to him as the Lakers’ “secret weapon.” And Phil Jackson, who has worked with George for more than 20 years on the Bulls, the Lakers, and now the New York Knicks, praises him for pioneering a new approach to sports training that’s “not just about sitting and breathing, but carrying mindfulness into action.” Previous page: George Mumford takes a long arcing outside shot on a court near Morton Street in Mattapan, MA, in the neighbor- hood where he lived when he was released from rehab. That was the life-altering moment that led him to meditation...and eventually to teaching mind-body awareness skills to athletes, busi- ness people, prisoners, and youth at risk, among others. George really lives this stuff and...he makes people say ‘I want that.’ ” Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction 48 mindful February 2016 peak performance mindful.org • newsletter • subscribe