Authors & Thought Leaders

Jon Kabat-Zinn on Cultivating a Life of Mindfulness

Published on March 25, 2017

Article by Jon Kabat-Zinn

Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, came to Bodhi Tree in January 1994 to discuss his best-selling book Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life, which speaks to both those learning to meditate for the first time and to longtime practitioners. The author of 10 books on mindfulness, Kabat-Zinn is the recipient of many awards for his pioneering work in integrative medicine. Here, he talks about living in the present, and bringing the essence of Buddhist meditative training into mainstream Western medicine and health care.

Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Story

After Jon Kabat-Zinn received his PhD in molecular biology from MIT in 1971, his research between 1979 and 2002 focused on the effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) on the brain, body and immune system. In 1979, he became founding executive director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and directed its world-renown Stress Reduction Clinic, which was featured in the PBS series Healing and the Mind, with Bill Moyers (1993).

A student of Buddhist teachers such as Thich Nhat Hanh and Zen Master Seung Sahn and a founding member of Cambridge Zen Center, Kabat-Zinn began integrating mindfulness teachings—“The awareness that arises through paying attention on purpose in the present moment, and non-judgmentally”—with science to create MBSR, which is offered by medical centers, hospitals, corporations, prisons, schools, professional sports and health-maintenance organizations. More than 250 medical centers and clinics nationwide and abroad now use the MBSR model. Among other fellowships and board positions, he is on the board of the Mind and Life Institute, a group that organizes dialogues between the Dalai Lama and Western scientists to promote deeper understanding of different ways of knowing and probing the nature of mind, emotions, and reality. —Justine Amodeo

“Meditation is the only intentional, systematic human activity which at bottom is about not trying to improve yourself or get anywhere else, but simply to realize where you already are.” —Jon Kabat-Zinn

The following is an edited version of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s 1994 Bodhi Tree Bookstore presentation.

Jon Kabat-Zinn: My work involves running something called The Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. My goal at the Center is to bring the essence of Buddhist meditative training into the mainstream of Western medicine and health care. Since hospitals are the places where people are either taken or find themselves when their level of suffering becomes too great, there is something to be said for those same hospitals taking on a certain responsibility for teaching people the basics of how to deal with pain and suffering. In that regard, the Buddhists have a good deal to say. Unfortunately, there was no facile way to make a connection so that the kind of wisdom that has been available through meditative training for millennia would be accessible in a Western context, without all of the trappings that very often leave people recoiling from even the potential benefits that such a course might take.

Making Zen Buddhism Accessible to the Mainstream

In 1979, based on my own practice of Zen and Vipassana Meditation, I attempted to just try to start on a very experimental level a little clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in the form of a course that would teach people how to take better care of themselves by managing their stress. The foundation of the course would be relatively intensive training in mindfulness. My problem was that I had to throw out the Buddhism to make it palatable to the Western sensibility.

About that time, I was in Japan and I found myself in a monastery in Kyoto meeting with a 70-year-old sensei, a Zen master who had the reputation for being one of these incredibly ferocious and conservative Zen masters. I explained to him the kind of work that I was interested in, namely bringing the essence of Zen practice into the mainstream of the West, and I asked him what I should do if the Buddhist terminology got in the way?

I watched his face very carefully as the translator translated my question to him and was really very interested and thrilled to see that without blinking an eye, he just said, “Throw out the Buddhism. Throw out the Zen.” Which was actually what I was expecting from my fantasy, or romantic fantasy about how a Zen master would react—somebody who was not attached to his own trip.

But, when you travel in those circles, you find that lots of people are attached to their own trips, and it turned out that he was also trying to do the same thing in Japan—desecularizing and demystifying the whole Zen trip. The Zen trip is really quite imbedded in a particular kind of mystique and culture in Japan, so much so that many of the Japanese who were my hosts there were absolutely dumbfounded that I would have the chutzpa to go talk to a Zen master in the first place. “Oh, what are you going to say to him?”

It’s kind of funny, but sometimes I found myself in the position of having the Japanese read a Western book on meditation to figure out what their own 1,200-year-old tradition is about.

So, the Zen master was trying to bring to the school children of Japan Zen practice without all of the trappings that usually make it so paradoxical and mysterious that it doesn’t make any sense. And, you’ve probably all experienced people who get enamored with the paradox of Zen or the wonderful poetic play and mind-play of Zen that looks like smoke and mirrors and is very intoxicating, but virtually no one understands it.

Watering the Seeds of Suffering … and Healing

Anyway, the Buddhist orientation says that we can bring awareness to individual mind moments or states of mind and recognize that we elect consciously or subconsciously to identify with those. As soon as we don’t, then we’re free from them in a certain way. And, although they have a very wonderful and valid energy, it’s not necessarily an energy that you need to get stuck in or driven by.

Our fundamental approach was to teach mindfulness, which means that you pay attention to your life in a certain systematic rigorous way that ordinarily we don’t. Thich Nhat Hanh says that most of the time we’re actually watering what he calls “the seeds of suffering” in our lives. If you practice getting angry every day, you get better at it. Sometimes we describe ourselves as “being in a rut” by developing habitual, reactive patterns by always dealing with things that come at you in the same way. This behavior is very often based on fear or an attempt to protect oneself and to ensure one’s own wellbeing. Unfortunately, the struggle is between oneself and the outside world by trying to hold a position of constancy in the face of continual change, which is virtually impossible to do.

The opposite to that mode of living is to water seeds of healing, or mindfulness, and the way to do that is through a disciplined, regular practice. Because we’ve conditioned ourselves to live the other way, it’s not sufficient to just say, “Yeah. I just heard that idea about mindfulness. It’s terrific. My whole life has changed and I’m going to be mindful.” No, what’s required is actually practice. With this concept in mind, we set up the clinic in the form of an eight-week-long course that was designed to teach people the basics of mindfulness and then we’d see what happened with them. That was in 1979, and we’ve been doing it ever since.

The Bloom of the Present Moment

Wherever You Go, There You Are is meant to be a manual for people who are interested in moving out of the “doing” mode all of the time and into a “being” mode. Ironically, when we learn to be grounded in “being,” then when we turn to the “doing,” it is more informed and more mindful. When we practice and become skilled at this way of living, then every moment is as valid and as important as any other, and our potential to deal with things sensibly is right here at our fingertips in every moment. Thoreau called that “the bloom of the present moment.” In this book, I go to great lengths to point out that Thoreau and other Americans deeply appreciated the importance of moment-to-moment awareness, and not being carried away by the stream of one’s thoughts to the point where one’s left no time for appreciating stillness. The fundamental lesson is that we only have this moment and if we relate to life in that way, then every moment becomes profoundly instructional. Everyday life becomes an opportunity for true emotional and spiritual growth. And, at the same time, it’s nothing special. The Zen section at Bodhi Tree must have 10 books called Nothing Special. The great irony is that the moment is both ordinary and extraordinary.

If you look carefully, you’ll see that most of the time, we don’t live in the present moment; we hang out in the future or in the past. In our heads, we’re running down some trip or other about what we like and what we don’t like and how we want things to work out. And that really puts a squeeze on this moment. If you watch the activity of your own mind in meditation, you’ll find that it’s just unbelievably active. Just watch your mind for 10 minutes—any 10 minutes—and see whether that’s true or not. Your mind is all over the place, absolutely all over the place. The mind has its own territory, not really knowing where it is a good deal of the time. This confusion catapults us into various kinds of actions, many of which are reactive, automatic and unconscious. For myself, if I’m not careful and don’t practice the mindfulness we’ve been talking about, I wind up realizing that most of the time, wherever I go, I’m not there. Do you know what I’m saying? Does this make sense to you? I’m not really fully present. I don’t have all my marbles at my disposal. I’m not really awake. And, meditation practice is about wakefulness; it’s about cultivating wakefulness in your life.

The Importance of Sitting in Meditation

So, I am a very strong advocate of getting tough with yourself—“kicking butt,” so to speak. Or, as I like to put it, “Getting your ass on the cushion.” Although it doesn’t have to be a cushion; it could be a chair or it could be hanging from your thumbs. I don’t care what posture you take. If you reach the point where your doctor has to send you to the Stress Reduction Clinic, the contract is that you’ve got to carve out 45 minutes a day, six days a week to practice non-doing. OK. We don’t care where you find that 45 minutes, but you have to make it happen. And, you don’t have to like it. You just have to do it. And at the end of the eight-week clinic, you can tell us whether it was of any use or not. But, in between, if the mind says, “This is horseshit and what am I doing this for, this isn’t going to help with anything,” well, that’s perfectly normal. All minds do that all the time about virtually anything that we take on. And, so your job is to simply note that that’s another mind moment, another thought, and just come back to what the work of meditation is, which in my vocabulary, is paying attention on purpose in the present moment. Although there are all sorts of states that describe what you will taste in this practice, it’s really much more about allowing yourself enough room to be where you actually are, which is the catalyst for any kind of profound change or insight or growth.

So, there’s a little paradox here: In order to get anywhere, you have to give up trying to get anywhere. Whereas they say in Maine, if you’ve ever stopped down Eastern Maine to ask for directions, they say in an accent that I can’t imitate, “You can’t get there from here.” And, my view is that’s the usual way that we relate to spiritual disciplines or practice. You can spend your whole life as a seeker, but you don’t want to be a spiritual seeker, you want to be a spiritual finder. And the irony is that you don’t need to find anything because you already got it. It’s real strange.

So, you can go around the world seeking for what you already have in your back pocket, or you can stay and sit on the cushion and seek for it and not know that it’s in your back pocket. And, so meditation is the only “work” that I know that really is the work of not trying to get anywhere, but trying to actually understand something about what it means to be where you already are—to deeply understand what it means to be. And that involves appreciating your own wholeness and honoring yourself as an event in the field of the universe. And also the fact of interconnectedness, or what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “inter-being.” You know that you’re whole and you’re also part of a larger whole. And it’s indisputable and you can look it right in the face. And that can be profoundly healing and help in dealing with all of these extremely uncomfortable mind-states like fear, terror, depression, hopelessness—the kinds of things that we’re seeing in epidemic proportions today.

Finding Your Own Path

It’s good to know how the mind is and to not judge it—to allow it to be that way. And in that way, what happens is, ultimately, out of the moment percolates some clarity, some seeing of interconnections that make sense and some space that allows you to chart or navigate a path through that’s your unique path and not mine or the Dalai Lama’s or Mother Teresa’s or any other authority, but really yours. And that seems to me to be the bottom line in meditation practices. It is honoring yourself in some way, as your own author or your own authority and not abusing it. But not neglecting it, either.

So, I’d like to open to some questions and then maybe we can practice a little together, if you’d like to do that. It wouldn’t be for very long, but a certain amount of just sort of sitting together, which is always a very nice thing to do collectively. So, what would you like to do?

Question: Can we do both?

A Guided Meditation

Jon Kabat-Zinn: Yeah, we can do both. We’ll do standing meditation in the back and sitting meditation in front, OK? Let me guide you a little bit just to make some suggestions for those of you who are a little rusty at it, or whatever. And, the first suggestion would be that you sit in a posture that embodies dignity. OK? And, make the observation that you already know what that means to you. When you use the word “dignity,” the body already knows where the energy resides and what the quality of that is. If you feel comfortable with it and safe, you can allow your eyes to close. Some people find that that deepens their ability to really concentrate on the present moment or some aspect of it. Other people prefer to meditate with their eyes open and with the gaze kind of unfocused in front of you. And in either case, just, when you feel like it, bringing awareness around the edges of the actuality of the breath moving in and out of your body.

Now, as I mention it, you’ll orient to the breath in a particular way, but you’ve been breathing ever since you walked into this store, I wager, and maybe even before that, and the idea here is not to modify your breathing now that you’re attending to it, but to simply tune in to the feeling of the breath moving into your body and the breath moving out of your body. And do this whether you’re standing or sitting.

And you can place your attention either down in your belly, which moves as you breathe, or the nostrils, or any other place in your body that you feel the breath predominates. And just sustaining your attention on the breath, riding the waves, the full duration of the breath in and the full duration of the breath out, as if you were lying in a rubber raft and really could feel the swelling up of each wave as it carries you up on the “in” breath and each wave as it carries you back down on the “out” breath.

Now, you’ll hear all sorts of things: cars passing in the streets and maybe you’ve been feeling some aftershocks, or the mind will certainly be going through one thing or another. There are a lot of different ways to work with these events in the field of your awareness. For now, just stay on the breath, but when you notice your mind is not on the breath anymore, just noticing where it is, what’s on your mind in this mind. It could be that your body is experiencing some discomfort or your mind is already bored. You’re starting to think about how to gracefully get out. Whatever it may be, when you notice these things and that your mind is not on the breath anymore and you remember, “Oh, yeah, I was supposed to just keep it on the breath, you just gently bring it back. And if the mind wanders 100 times, you just gently note where it goes each time and then let go and come back to your belly or to wherever.

You’re not coming back for any particular reason, to feel anything or to push away any thoughts or sensations, but merely to really simply give your full care and attention to this one aspect of your life unfolding, namely, the breath moving in and out of your body.

And if it seems a little boring after a while and you really feel like, “God, couldn’t we do something more interesting?” I’ll make a suggestion to make it a little more interesting: That is, you take your thumb and your forefinger, when this sort of feeling comes up, and you clamp them really hard over your nose and you hold your mouth closed and you see just how long it takes before the breath becomes extremely interesting. The breath is just one more thing that we completely take for granted. And in the work of mindfulness, we’re doing the exact opposite of taking things for granted. We’re getting in touch with the basics.

And before we close this out, why don’t you see if you can expand the field of your awareness now, around your breath, until it includes a sense of your whole body breathing. Again, whether you’re standing or you’re sitting, and if you’ve kind of slumped, re-establishing that posture of dignity. Whole body, sitting or standing, and just breathing. And allowing your awareness to really envelop and penetrate the entire body, so that there’s a sense of complete presence and being embodied, in touch with your whole body, breathing. And when you’re ready, you can just allow the eyes to open and gently settle out from that.

Carry the mindfulness, if you will, right into the next moment. Even with the eyes open, a sense of the body—of being in your body. Anybody have any observations about doing that just now? Any experiences you wouldn’t mind sharing or reporting? Or observations about what you saw in your mind? How many of you experienced the mind staying on the breath the whole time, without ever deflecting off it? Anybody? How many of you found that your mind wandered quite a bit?

Using Imagery in Meditation

Question: Is there something specific we should be picturing in our mind? If we’re focusing on breath, what is the image?

Kabat-Zinn: No image. There’s no particular reason to bring an image into it. Just stay with the sensations. And any images that arise, just allow them to just be there, but don’t encourage them or discourage them. Of course, there are all sorts of different ways to practice, and you can use imagery if you like. There are some images that I use in Wherever You Go, There You Are, like a mountain, lake and tree, as the sort of core of those meditation practices. But, they are in the interest of, or in the service of, cultivating mindfulness. Very often, imagery is used to actually cultivate escape, and so I like to teach it in the beginning stages without the imagery or with very particular images that emphasize presence rather than absence, like going off to a beach and having a wonderful, pleasant experience there. Because meditation is not necessarily about having wonderful and pleasant experiences. Meditation’s about having all of your experiences: the good, the bad, the ugly, the unpleasant and the pleasant. The neutral—most of our experiences are neutral—we tune them out completely. Just look at who you look at in a crowd and who you don’t look at in a crowd. Sort of become mindful of how much certain energies sort of attract you; other energies repulse you. You got a lot to say about both of those. And in most people, you just don’t see them at all.

An Exploration of Non-Doing

Question: Is there a difference between observing the mind and non-doing?

Kabat-Zinn: Not really, although there’s sort of a scaffolding in place. Sometimes to get to non-doing, it requires a certain kind of instruction that sound like it’s doing, but ultimately, non-doing, to me, means simply being present. And you can put a lot of energy into, “I am observing this stuff happening.” That’s doing, right? And then, with time, you begin to realize that you don’t need to frame it that way, and if you are, then it’s just thinking. But, it’s a particular kind of doing that we call “thinking.” But, we’re talking about simply direct contact, which I use the word “observing.” Now, observing doesn’t necessarily have to be “object/subject.” It could be there is only observing and subject and object in some way come together in that.

Question: Is meditation and non-doing the same thing?

Kabat-Zinn: In my book it is, yes.

Comment: I agree with that. I think that’s nice. I like that.

Kabat-Zinn: I want to point out that, though, and this is not criticism of you, but the fact that you think it’s good and therefore think it’s nice because you agree with it and you like it, though, is a little bit what the observing, what the stuff is that we often observe, is about. Because, we find that when we’re in agreement, we have a good feeling and we like that and is in accord with our beliefs, and then if something is in discord with our beliefs, then we don’t like it and there’s a tendency to criticize it or push it away. What the non-doing is really about is letting go of both of them. Do you see what I’m saying? So, it’s moving beyond preferences of any kind, including pleasant and unpleasant.

Comment: Well, I just see non-doing as being what it is: it’s non-doing.

Kabat-Zinn: Right. But, how do you teach that to somebody else? The paradox of it is that non-doing is just words. So, to get from your idea of non-doing to what non-doing is, even for you—and you know because you’re inside your head and I’m not—what you mean by it and whether it functions effectively in your life or not. My job is to, in some way, try to make that translation so that more people than not would understand it enough to actually be able to achieve that in some meaningful way. And, that’s just a choice that I’ve made in my life and, as I was saying, everybody needs to make their own choices about what practice means or whether it’s of any validity in the first place. But, thanks for that observation. Yes?

The Self-Fullfilling Prophecy of “I Can’t”

Question: In my personal experience, it is infinitely hard not to be judgmental, and all the talk about letting it go sort of goes past me. Do you have any comments?

Kabat-Zinn: Maybe it’s because that word, that phrase, “letting go,” is such a cliché that it’s just like, “Yeah, what’s the matter with you?” Maybe the way to look at it is much more in detail. You were on the breath and at a certain point in your mind, you went off. Was there a judging quality associated at one point or other with either the mind going off or anything else?

Comment: For the zillionth time, “I can’t do this.”

Kabat-Zinn: OK. So, the thought then comes up in the mind, “I can’t do this,” which is not only a judgment, but it’s a very strong statement of powerlessness around this thing that maybe you want to do because somebody brought your body here—I assume it was you or one of the you inside. So, there’s a you that thinks you can’t do it and another you that says you should come to Bodhi Tree, even on the day after an earthquake. So, there’s some tension there. The thought that says, “I can’t do this” is a self-fulfilling prophecy. You’ve seen that—I mean, it’s obvious that if you say, “I can’t do this,” or “I could never do that,” you’re never going to do it. It’s like locking the gate on a prison cell.

Maybe it would be best to throw out all of that stuff and when you are judging yourself in any way or other, or making that kind of a statement, to just note that that’s what’s on the mind at that point. And then what “letting go” means is letting be. OK, maybe that will help you. It doesn’t mean doing anything with that other than seeing if you can find your way back to your breathing.

So, don’t get caught up in letting go or some kind of special manipulation or “New Age” kind of thing. It’s just that simple of being aware of where is your mind. Is it judging? If it is, you just let it be, notice it, but you don’t hang out there. You just come back to the breath. It’s a little bit like lifting weights. You’re working against your own resistance. OK? And the weight is what empowers you, but you got to be willing to feel a certain amount of pain and discomfort in the process, and this work is not for everybody. It’s not necessarily fun. It’s sometimes quite painful because we’re actually advocating that you look at your discomfort.

Sleep and Wakefulness

Question: If you meditate a lot, can you go without sleep?

Kabat-Zinn: If I’m doing a lot of meditation, like hours and hours and hours, I need less sleep. However, I would say to a first approximation, if you’re tired and you want to get more energy, first you should sleep and then you should do some meditation practice.

Question: Is it good to meditate when you wake up in the morning?

Kabat-Zinn: I like to do it when I wake up in the morning, but I don’t like to prescribe it for people. In other words, I think you need to figure out when is best for you. But, I think the early morning is a fantastic time to meditate and I, myself, carve some time out of sleep time in order to practice wakefulness. Why? Well, for one, because nobody bothers me in the morning. The telephone isn’t ringing in my house at five o’clock in the morning. My kids aren’t up. It’s very quiet outside. Where I come from, it’s cold and I’ll sometimes step outside the door and just breathe the cold air and that will help me wake up. And then, another virtue that it has is, if you practice being in touch with what’s fundamental early in the morning, before you have all this doing and agendas that you have on your schedule, then it spills over into the rest of your day. Have you ever been in the shower—taking a shower—and realized that actually you’re at work? Your body’s in the shower, but you’re at work, in the middle of a meeting. Have you ever been driving down the freeway having an argument with your boss, only to find that your boss is not in the car?

Being the Athlete of Your Own Consciousness

So, a lot of the time, we are not where we are. And we think that’s extremely important because otherwise we won’t be prepared for when we’re there. But, when we’re there, we’re somewhere else, too. So, this is a way of really owning all our moments. It’s brutally simple. Not simple-minded, but brutally simple, but it’s also not easy. And I want to emphasize that it’s not easy. And it’s not for everyone. You’ve got to be willing to actually be something of an athlete of your own consciousness, so to speak. You’ve got to train. The beauty of it is that the returns on the investment are very powerful as long as you’re not looking for any returns on your investment. And if you are, it subverts the entire process.

Question: What are the returns?

Kabat-Zinn: I don’t know. You have to find them out for yourself.

Question: When you talk about facing yourself, are you talking about the process of allowing thoughts to come to your mind during the meditation process and not being bothered or judgmental?

Kabat-Zinn: Well, you’ll be bothered and you’ll be judgmental, so what to do? How many of you have found that when I asked you to move from just focusing on the breath to expanding to the whole-body breathing, you were able to do that with no problem whatsoever? Were you able to do that? You just expand the field of your awareness. So, in the same way, when you’re having thoughts of a particular kind, you can just expand the field of awareness to contain them. See what I’m saying? Without critiquing them. Without pushing them away—saying, “I don’t need these thoughts.” Just let them be. But, see into them, so to speak. So, no matter what comes up in the mind, you have the capacity to expand the field of your awareness enough to hold them. And that’s what the practice is. You can even let go of the breath and just have an awareness that’s far more expansive. But it takes a certain amount of concentration and stability of mind to actually hold that without getting sucked into powerful thoughts and negativity and so forth, so that’s why you come back to the breath. When you’re trained in that way over an extended period of time, you get stronger and more balanced and greater flexibility in terms of your capacity to attend. And that’s called “cultivating samadhi,” your concentration and mindfulness and they go hand in hand.

So, it’s like digging in a garden and you plant the seeds and you water them. It doesn’t immediately become evident that your life is any better. In fact, sometimes your life will seem a lot worse: “Wow, before I was so aware, I didn’t realize how screwed up I was. Now, I know.…” Do you know what I’m saying? It’s perfectly fine. Perfectly fine. Maybe you begin to see your problems more clearly. In the beginning, it feels like you’re going backward rather than forward, but actually that’s only sort of the beginning.

Understanding the States of Meditation

Question: Is your type of meditation basically quieting the mind?

Kabat-Zinn: The mind quiets by itself, although the way I like to describe it is the mind is like the surface of a lake, or like the ocean, and it’s in the nature of a lake to have waves sometimes. And it’s in the nature of your mind to wave sometimes. And, so the object of meditation is not to make the lake flat at all times, but to understand the nature of the mind so that when it waves, it waves, and when it’s more still, it’s more still. But, that you identify not only with the individual waves, which are our thoughts or reactions, opinions or whatever, but you identify with the entire body of the mind, or the entire body of the lake. And then, it doesn’t become a problem. But, a lot of people think of meditation as quieting the mind, like flattening it, and that’s a little bit like trying to put a glass plate over the ocean and say, “We’re not going to have this ocean wave anymore.” It’s going to create a lot of problems. It’s a very common misunderstanding of meditation, by the way. That the idea is to make your thoughts go away.

Question: Is the goal to reach a peaceful state?

Kabat-Zinn: You will come across a peaceful state in meditation, but it’s not the only state that you’ll come across and it’s not necessarily the desirable state. It is not any more desirable than any other state. True peace of mind will allow anything to happen. So, I often say to people, “We’re going to teach you how to be so relaxed that it’s OK to be tense.” And there are plenty of times in our lives when it’s totally appropriate to be tense. Today’s one of them. Do you know what I’m saying? So, if you were to go around, say, to somebody else, “Hey, relax. You made it. What’s the big deal?” So, I appreciate your question very much.

Comment: When I meditate keeping track of my breaths, I also had thoughts at the same time.

Kabat-Zinn: Well, that’s your experience and, in fact, that’s virtually a universal experience. Often when you’re paying attention to your breath, there may be a storm going on in the mind, or at least a lot of wind, perhaps very turbulent and stormy. Some of it is in the form of thoughts and some of it is in the form of body sensations. If you’re in a lot of pain, it will be a lot of body sensations, and thoughts about your body sensations. If you’re in a lot of emotional pain, it will be very strong feelings.

It may be difficult, but you stay with the breath itself. It’s a practice that’s really a lifetime’s work. It’s not like you say, “Well, I tried that meditation and mindfulness crap and, you know, it didn’t go anywhere.” It’s as if your mind was like a one-story house with windows and you open all the windows and whatever comes in—birds or wind or smoke or whatever—you let it pass through and if it lingers awhile, that’s OK, too.

Comment: So, if a person has chronic pain, a lot of their meditations would involve the breath and the pain.

Kabat-Zinn: Yes. And that would take a certain amount of intentionality to stay with that, because what do you do usually when you’re in pain? How do you relate to your pain?

Staying Present with Pain

Comment: Well, I remember what you said on the PBS show, Healing and the Mind, to not try to avoid pain, but just to relax and get into it.

Kabat-Zinn: Right. And go into it. But people don’t want to go into their pain. They want to run the other direction—“Hey, just put on a movie” or “Distract me in some way or other.” And distraction is a very effective way to dull pain, for a while. But, it’s not very effective for transforming your relationship to pain or to suffering. Why do you think we use so many drugs in this society and there’s so much alcohol abuse? It’s that we’re walking around in unbelievable levels of pain—emotional, if not physical. We’re looking for something that will give us a moment of peace, a pause that refreshes, a something or other that will give us stillness. And we’ll take it wherever we can get it, and the more of a kick it gives us the better, because the pain is so difficult to just be with. But, the irony of it is that that’s actually compounding the stress and the pain in your own life, whether you know it or not and, paradoxically, the more you’re willing to be with the pain, the more you see that, first of all, it’s not monolithic; it’s a whole universe in there and there are ways to navigate through it that actually grow you as well as heal you. And one example of that is—and this is often used in the yogic literature—that stress or pain is spinning grindstone. If you put your hand in it, you’re going to lose your hand. But, a spinning grindstone, while abrasive and dangerous, is not necessarily bad. You can make teas with it, you can make knives with it. You can sharpen scissors with it. It all depends on how you position yourself in relationship to it.

So, stress, pain, earthquakes or anything else—a lot of it we don’t have control over. Mother Nature is going to do certain things whether you build your house here or you don’t. And it’s going to happen when it happens and we don’t have any legislative control over that, but once something happens, you have a certain amount of control over how you’re going to position yourself relative to those forces in your life. And one way you’ll position yourself is so that you get chewed up alive. Another way you’ll position yourself is so far away from it that you’ll always be running from that spinning grindstone, but there are spinning grindstones all over the place, so if you’re running from one and looking backward, you’re going to run into another one. And that happens time and time again in our lives. Just think of relationships: You blow out of one relationship right into another one, and that one eats you up in the exact same way. Why? No awareness of your own impulses, your own yearnings, your own need to get something from somebody else because you’re not willing to look at what your role in these kinds of things are.

So, there’s something to be said for learning the skill of positioning yourself and using the stress or the pain or the illness or the relationship wherever you find yourself as an opportunity to grow. Often, you work with that and then if it becomes intolerable, at a certain point, you make decisions about when to cut your losses and move on, but usually we do that far before there’s any growth or transformation that’s possible.

Meditation as a Way to Clarity

Question: Watching my breath can allow me to keep my physical balance, but I’m wondering if this isn’t an ideal way to incorporate thoughts about difficult things? Is it a good way to resolve them, or is there a better way to go over these things than by meditating?

Kabat-Zinn: So, you mean to use meditation as a way of problem solving and actually directive thinking. Yes, that is a totally valid thing to do. But, it’s not what I mean by meditation; but, it’s an adjunct to it, it’s an ancillary thing. I think that will only be of value to the extent that you’ve cultivated the capacity to hold it without operating inside that field. Otherwise, the thoughts are so powerful, you just get sucked into them and you can say, “Yeah, I’m being mindful and this is all meditation and everything.” Meanwhile, it’s just the same old thing. So, I agree with you completely, it’s really a valuable thing to do. And that’s usually referred to as contemplation or rumination, where you take a problem and you just contemplate it. Scientists do that all the time, very often unconsciously. You put in all the information that you have at your disposal with a problem that’s on the cutting edge of between what’s known and what’s not known, and then you sort of feel like you’re banging your head against the wall. It doesn’t make sense, you can’t penetrate to the next level of connectedness, of clarity, of seeing, and it seems to be an intractable problem. And then one night, you go to sleep and in the middle of your sleep—because you’re not trying in a way—it all sort of comes together, you wake up, “Eureka!” and you win the Nobel Prize. That’s called insight. Sometimes you just have to create the conditions for something to appear and then be patient enough, with enough energy or heat under the pot to let it cook, and then finally something changes in the cooking and then there’s clarity. And then you say, “Why didn’t I see that—it was there all the time?” And that’s the nature of insight: once you see it’s obvious; when you don’t see it, it’s not obvious.

Well, as I said, there’s no one right way and everybody’s different. So, basically, I feel like we all need to chart a path for ourselves and it’s not like, “This is my path for the rest of my life.” We take it moment by moment and we see what develops. For myself, I haven’t found very many things that go the distance that this kind of practice does and that’s why I continue to do it and if I found something that I felt was more powerful, I’ll do that.

Comment: There was a Zen master who said that just standing and laughing from your belly for about five minutes was as good as two hours of Zen meditation.

Kabat-Zinn: Yeah, but he was lying. [Laughing] You can never trust these guys.

Comment: Try it.

Kabat-Zinn: Oh, I’ve tried it. That’s a tremendous practice, but you got to keep it up. You’ve got to do it every day. It’s no different actually than following your breath.

We have run out of time. I want to thank you for your presence and I hope that some of this has been of meaning to you. Thank you.

Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life 

By Jon Kabat-Zinn (1994 and 2004)

Mindfulness is considered the heart of Buddhist meditation, but its essence is universal and of deep practical benefit to all. Jon Kabat-Zinn, in short poetic chapters, explains how practitioners can benefit from different meditation practices that are, instead of spiritual experiences, essentially workouts for your consciousness. He offers practical suggestions and applications of mindfulness, including the importance of posture and the art of sitting, walking and standing meditation, as well as how mindfulness can reframe everyday activities such as housekeeping and parenting. The book, re-released in 2005 on its 10th anniversary with a new afterward by Kabat-Zinn, has become a nationwide best-seller, changing the lives of many readers with its simple, inspiring and insightful message.

Books by Jon Kabat-Zinn

Full Catastrophe Living: Using The Wisdom Of Your Body And Mind To Face Stress, Pain, And Illness (1991)

Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life (1994; Hyperion 2005)

The Power of Meditation and Prayer, with Sogyal Rinpoche, Larry Dossey, Michael Toms (Hay House, 1997)

Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting, with Myla Kabat-Zinn (1997)

Mindfulness Meditation for Everyday Life (2001)

Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness (2006)

The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself From Chronic Unhappiness, by J. Mark G. Williams, John D. Teasdale, Zindel V. Segal, Jon Kabat-Zinn (2007)

Arriving at Your Own Door (2008)

Letting Everything Become Your Teacher: 100 Lessons in Mindfulness (2009)

The Mind’s Own Physician: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama on the Healing Power of Meditation, co-authored with Richard Davidson (New Harbinger, 2012; based on the 13th Mind and Life Institute Dialogue in 2005).

Published on: March 25, 2017

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,