Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Jon Kabat-Zinn. Jon is the founder and director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center and Associate Director of Medicine in the Division of Preventative and Behavioral Medicine. He’s the author of Wherever You Go, There You Are; Full Catastrophy Living: Using Your Body and Mind to Face Stress; and a new book and accompanying CD of guided practice called Mindfulness for Beginners from Sounds True. Additionally with Sounds True, Jon has released a four-CD guided practice called Guided Mindfulness Meditation, along with a two-session audio on Mindfulness Meditation for Pain Relief, as well as a program with three other authors on The Mindful Way Through Depression.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Jon and I spoke about his work as a pioneer of mindfulness-based stress reduction and the introduction of meditation to a mainstream audience. We also talked about the important distinction that people need to make between awareness and the thinking mind, and what Jon calls an "orthogonal" or 180-degree rotation that allows us to rest in awareness instead of identifying with our thoughts. We also talked about the role of science in validating the practice of mindfulness, and the potential renaissance in the world that can come from a mindfulness revolution. Here’s my conversation with Jon Kabat-Zinn.
Jon, first of all, it’s a delight to have this time with you. Thank you so much for making yourself available.
Jon Kabat-Zinn: My pleasure, Tami. It’s always great to be in conversation with you.
TS: I wanted to start with understanding your view of how we are now in what could be called "the age of mindfulness." And I say that in that there is a public acceptance of mindfulness that is really emerging. You and I were both recently at a conference where we saw reports from people in so many different fields of endeavors—people bringing mindfulness into the education system, into healthcare, into the military. So what’s your view? How is it now that we’re in the age of mindfulness?
JKZ: Well, first of all, I love to hear you even propose that that might be the case, and as you know, there’s a book that came out recently of edited newspaper and magazine articles called The Mindfulness Revolution. For me to just hear these kind of things is just deeply heart-warming, because whether it’s true or not, at least we’re having this conversation, and people are listening to it. I think that goes a long way to actually making it a reality, because certainly no one would have proposed anything like that 20 or 30 years ago.
So there is something going on on the planet that I feel is leading people to yearn for a certain kind of authenticity that I think we’re beginning to realize cannot be find outside of ourselves. This is a very ancient way of understanding certain elements of the mind and personal satisfaction and happiness and wisdom. The fact that we can think we might be moving into an age in which this is becoming a distributive understanding that people can actually engage in and make real in their lives is just phenomenal. Especially so for me, because this has been a dream for me for over 35 or 40 years—since, you know, I was first touched by Buddhist meditation practice in the first place.
I kind of realized intuitively what profound implications this could have—not just for my own individual life, but in the world—if we were to recognize that element of understanding that some of these ancient traditions have been cultivating and developing for millennia and bring it into the mainstream. And in short, it has the potential to ignite a universal or global renaissance on this planet that would put even the European and Italian Renaissance into the shade in ways that I think are not just uplifting from the point of view of art, [or] in the sense of deep well-being of individuals, but that may actually be the only promise the species and the planet have for making it through the next couple hundred years.
TS: So tell me how you see that renaissance when you say that—a renaissance that would outdo previous renaissances in history. What is it that you are seeing as a potential?
JKZ: Well, I’m not sure. I mean, it’s not totally clear, but certainly part of it is the marriage or confluence of different forms of knowing or different epistemologies that are now coming together on the planet for the first time. One of which is, of course, the scientific way of interrogating and understanding the nature of reality and the nature of our own minds, and who is asking the kinds of question that we ask about the nature of the world and the mind and matter and energy and so forth. So that’s one stream. And the other stream is the deep meditative disciplines coming out of yoga and Buddhism and all of the wisdom traditions.
There is somehow now a deep dialogue and even collaborative research with science to actually understand something in a deep way about what our potential is as a species and who we are as human beings and how we cannot be so imprisoned—I guess would be the right word—by some of our more sort of shadowy, genetic impulses and tribal kind of conditioning where, if we’re not careful, we can cause enormous amounts of harm and violence and mayhem. And that has been a steady stream through human history.
On the other hand, we’re capable of, you know, filling the Louvre and the other great art museums of the world with these magnificent and transcendent expressions of another aspect of human capacity and understanding and delight. It’s not like we can never suppress that shadow side that causes harm, but if we can come to understand it in a deeper way, then I think there is a potential for a true shift in the way we conduct our economies, the way we govern ourselves, the way we conduct national and super-national negotiations and so forth, and finally come to a condition on the planet where we elevate what is most beautiful and good about all human beings and human culture. And we recognize our own shadow side or destructive or inflictive emotions to the point where we structure society and also conduct our lives in a way that will have—their potential negative effects would be far more minimal than they are nowadays, just in terms of the personal violence or in terms of national policy. There is so much harm caused in the world by the same human mind that is so capable of creating beauty.
TS: Now Jon, when I first asked you this question—what you think might be at the root of the mainstream acceptance of mindfulness—you used the words "our yearning for authenticity." And I’d love it if you could speak about how the practice of mindfulness addresses this yearning that we have for authenticity.
JKZ: Yes. Well, thanks for remembering that. I think that the fundamental question we all face as human beings is who are we, and what are we doing here? And what, if anything is the meaning or the purpose or the calling for an embodied life lived? It doesn’t get lived for all that long. You know, a brief 70, 80, or 90 years and it’s over, and how do we relate to it?
I think that these meditative traditions—and in particular, mindfulness, which is what we’re talking about—[are] really something fundamental. It’s not just a kind of one more thing among many different thing. There is something about mindfulness that is absolutely core to our humanity and what I often call "the final common pathway" of what makes us human. And that is our capacity for awareness itself, for open-hearted awareness itself, [which] is just part of the human repertoire and part of our genetic inheritance. It has only been refined very recently in our monastic settings or in isolated artistic settings or in isolated lives, where it’s often seen as sort of unusual and very much a characteristic of individual genius, as opposed to something that is a part of the human repertoire and that we’re all capable of cultivating.
So I should probably say at this point, for people who are listening, that what we’re talking about when we use the word "mindfulness" is a particular way of being or a way of paying attention that leads to a much more robust capacity to live inside of our awareness, as opposed to being completely caught up in discursive thinking and everything that that carries with it. [This includes] a lot of emotional reactivity that is often blinding or that leads to a great deal of suffering and a sense of being lost or confused or out of touch with what is most fundamental.
Our work over the past 32 years in the field of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction [MBSR] and in medicine and in psychology and so forth is really demonstrating that regular people—you know, across the entire lifespan, and really, across all cultures—are capable of training in this kind of intentional cultivation, to the point where they really, in a short period of time, transform the way they actually are in relationship to their internal and external experience to their bodies, to their minds, to their hearts, to the people they love and to the people they work with, and so forth.
That was not known 30 years ago. Mainstream Americans, for instance, would actually take to meditation as anything beyond the lunatic fringe—cultural, creative types and so forth. And now, if there is an age of mindfulness, what it means is that, as you started out saying, it really is everywhere. And people are being drawn to it not for the usual kinds of "gee whiz" desires to be like other people and to be part of the fashionistas, but because this is satisfying a deep, deep longing we have to belong, to feel whole, to feel connected, and to feel that we’re the authors of our own life. We can only do that out of awareness, and when we are taking responsibility for the authorship of our lives, then that’s, in a sense, what authenticity really means. [It means] that we are fully present and able to deal with what Zorba the Greek called the "full catastrophe" of the human condition. And to site another movie title, you know, taking the full spectrum of "the good, the bad, and the ugly" in such a way that we don’t get caught in any of it, but instead can use all of those energies to really further what’s deepest, and best, and most beautiful in ourselves, both as individuals and as a species.
TS: Now, you’ve introduced this word "awareness," and it seems to me—and I’d love to have you comment on this—that when people are introduced to mindfulness training, or through other experiences in their life as they are growing and changing, there is this discovery that there’s awareness and that there’s thinking, and [the fact that] they’re different is one of the big breakthroughs that happens for people.
JKZ: Right, absolutely. And you know, it’s kind of a big surprise, because awareness is not something that people have never heard of. You know, it’s like, "Oh, awareness, what’s the big deal? I’m aware. I’m aware that I’m miserable, or I’m aware that I’m walking down the street, or I’m aware that it is Wednesday," or whatever it is.
But that’s, in a sense, not really grasping how profound what we’re talking about is. Yes, it’s true that that is what we’re talking about. We’re talking about awareness, and I like to say that to a first approximation there is only one awareness, so it’s not like I’m talking about some special awareness that you don’t have. It’s the same awareness [as the awareness] that it’s Wednesday, and that you have a body, and that you are 35 or 85 years old. But we’ve never really spent any time inhabiting that awareness and feeling our way into its fullness and its power and its boundlessness.
So when I’m giving PowerPoint presentations to medical audiences or the like, I often include a slide with an image of a balance. In one pan of the balance is thinking, and on the other side of the balance is awareness. We are brought up, as your question implies, so involved in thinking, and so much of our educational system is aimed at getting us to [become] discriminative, discerning, conceptual thinkers, that we have just put all of our eggs on that side of the balance, in that basket, and have no training in awareness. But awareness can trump thought in a sense that, for any thought that you might have, we could bring awareness to it—no matter how big, no matter how profound, how important, we can bring awareness to that thought. And, therefore, supply a whole new dimension to how we would actually be in relationship to that thought, to that emotion, that often goes along with so many of our thoughts.
That gives us what I call "new degrees of freedom," for actually being able to make better use of our creativity and imagination and powerful, positive thought processes. But at the same time, not become prisoners or slaves to unexamined, tacit assumptions, strings of thoughts that we don’t actually realize are even thoughts, but that we just view as "the way it is," that this is reality, without ever questioning it. And that’s where I think a lot of—that itself is an act of self-harm, an act of violence. I think [that ignorance] often leads directly to much more wide-spread acts of harm and violence.
TS: I’m curious, Jon, how you relate to thoughts. And what I mean by that is here you have, of course, all kinds of thoughts, and some of them might be quite inspired! How do you know, "Oh, that’s a thought that I want to actually take seriously, and that’s a thought to forget"?
JKZ: Well, you know, I should say that a lot of this—if there is an age of mindfulness, hopefully it involves a huge amount of people actually sitting down and practicing non-doing, which is not the same as nothing. But you know, it is a meditative practice, and meditation involved a certain kind of arduous and rigorous discipline. So it means hanging out with yourself without filling up the time. As you do that, you realize, of course, that you are filling up the time, because your mind is just completely inundated with thoughts going here, there, and everywhere else—completely outrageous, unbelievable thoughts, many of them, and some of them that you wouldn’t want to admit are your own! So you might think, "I don’t know where these thoughts come from, but they’re certainly not mine."
So there you have it. In my own life, I’m no different from anybody else. There’s a huge amount of thoughts, and maybe some are inspiring, but most of them are about as important as what I had for dinner three nights ago or something like that. And a lot of them are really highly, highly conditioned by my own personal preferences—what I like verses what I don’t like, what I think is good verses what I think is bad. All of this is totally normal, of course, and very very conventional, but where mindfulness comes in is to actually just let that all happen without believing any of it and without operationalizing any of it. To just, if you will, rest in awareness.
The image I sometimes use is, "Imagine your thoughts were like a cascading waterfall just going over a cliff. Just never ending." If you are able to sort of sit behind it in a little depression in the rock face—so you weren’t completely inundated or drenched by the water falling, but you did get a lot of spray—you could just sit back there and just listen to the sounds and the energy of the thought-stream expressing itself. You would have an entirely different relationships to creativity, to imagination, to negative thoughts, to anger, to sadness to anxiety, and that’s what we’re really talking about is rotating in consciousness.
[This is] what I call an "orthogonal rotation," a 90-degree rotation in consciousness where all of this stuff is still happening. It’s all the same. You’re the same person you always were, except for one thing, and that is you are resting in this non-conceptual knowing that is every one of our birth right, namely awareness. And that seems to give us a whole new way of being in relationship to inner and outer experience. And therefore, making much more discerning, wiser, more skillful, less harmful, more wholesome, as they sometimes say, choices that can lead to—well, let’s just put it this way—a lot less self-generated suffering and a lot greater ways of contributing to well-being in the world. Not simply your own [well-being,] but even more noteworthy, the capacity to actually be of some use in alleviating the suffering and illuminating the beauty of other people.
TS: Now, you mentioned creativity, and previously you talked about the potential new renaissance that mindfulness could be a part of. Here we are, we’re watching thoughts, emotions, everything. That creative impulse, it may come as an idea or a thought. But I’m curious: you’re such an innovative person, and you seem to often know what’s needed next in terms of articulating something for the culture. So I’m curious how that works in you. Does it appear differently in your body or something when it’s a creative impulse than just discursive thinking?
JKZ: Well, first of all, I think that if a thought is really, truly innovative and creative, you won’t have it once and never remember it. So a lot of people might think, "Well, if I’m meditating, I better sit with a pen and a pad of paper to capture any of these fantastic, great, wonderful, Nobel Prize-winning, breakthrough thoughts that I might have." But I don’t do that. In fact, I don’t recommend that anybody do that, because then you’re just busy writing down your discursive thoughts in the hope that you’ll put them to work at some later time.
What is really happening is in the whole process, you’re being transformed by the willingness to be with the cascading mind in this way, and to, as is often spoken of, simply rest in awareness. And that’s a skill. I mean, that’s something where, if you hear the words "rest in awareness," somebody might say, "What are you talking about?" But when you actually learn to drop in on yourself, in a way that’s really wakeful—I’m not talking about resting [or] going to sleep, but actually falling awake—then your relationship to that generative creativity within yourself (which I don’t think is any less in anybody than in anybody else).
We’re all geniuses of one kind or another, and I think part of it is that we don’t recognize it, and other people never recognize it, and we often don’t get a chance to put it into any kind of play—our own unique aspect of genius. But when you’re watching your mind in this kind of way, it rapidly becomes apparent because things recur. So interesting thoughts come back over and over and over again, which is one reason you don’t need to write them down or remember them because they have a way of nurturing you in a certain way.
I take an enormous amount of pleasure in actually not trying to get anywhere. And this is really fundamental to—if it is really mindfulness, this is an element of it. It’s not like we’re trying to get to some great state. It’s not like mindfulness is a state. It’s not like, "Oh yeah! All you need to do is to get into the mindful state and then creativity will flourish and your imagination will flourish and you’ll be such a more warm-hearted person!" No. What it’s saying is—and it’s a little bit akin to this sort of Zen understanding of Buddha nature—that you are already Buddha. The reason that it’s hard for a realized being or a kind of "awakened" [being, is because] that’s your true nature. The reason that it is hard to realize that or make it real or live in that way is that we are completely giving ourselves over to the thought domain, particularly the thought that, "Oh, I’ll be a better person when I get this! I’ll be a better person when I understand that—when I become a Buddha." And if you already are a Buddha, then of course, you’re getting in your own way by taking that kind of approach.
So the heart sutra, which is one of my favorite texts in the Zen tradition—aside from throwing out the Four Noble Truths and The Eight-Fold Path and all of that. By negating it—meaning, not that it is not true but that any attachment to it would be a total ignorance—the Hearth Sutra said, "There’s no place to go. There’s nothing to do. And there’s nothing to attain." So when you sit in that way or when you cultivate mindfulness in everyday life in that way, it’s not like you become some kind of shirker or lazy good-for-nothing. It’s that you’re actually rotating consciousness so that you’re not caught by the usual things that will just hold us in a certain kind of conventional framework that does not allow us to be free to be who are already are.
Everyone of us will be free in a different way because we are already different and unique. So that kind of creativity that you’re talking about—how it might express and what kind of true work might be accomplished by people in the world. When that’s released at large levels throughout society, rather than a small number of special people being funded by the Pope or other patrons of the arts like the Medicis and so forth—Leonardo and Michelangelo and so forth and all of those Renaissance painters and sculptures—it could flourish anywhere in all of the different countries of the world and all of the different cultures of the world. And I actually believe that this is happening. I don’t think it’s just my dream or my craziness or imagination.
I actually feel, for various reasons—having to do with the technology and everything that humanity has been through and the fact that we’re now much more capable of destroying the planet and polluting the planet and nuclear weapons—that we’re waking up to just what we need to know (I hope) in order to become what the species name says we are: Homo sapiens sapiens, which means in Latin, "the species that knows and knows that it knows," or awareness of awareness. It would be nice if we could live our way into that name before we wind up doing things that we don’t even want to talk about, in terms of the amount of harm that a small number of people are actually capable of causing on the planet to very, very large numbers of people.
TS: Now Jon, I want to make sure I understand what you mean by this "rotation in consciousness." You said, an "orthogonal"—a 90-degree rotation?
JKZ: That’s a hard one because I use the word "orthogonal" and you know—
TS: That’s OK. But what do you mean? What’s rotating?
JKZ: OK. So let me try to give an example. What I’m trying to suggest, and we’ve all had this experience as human beings, part of the experience of waking up is realizing—I mean, they often speak of "enlightenment" as realization. Whatever "enlightenment" is. But it means making real something that was not actually real or apparent before. It becomes real to you.
The orthogonal rotation—you know, when I was at MIT, I coined that term to try to catch the attention of the MIT scientific engineering community about something having to do with a change in the way we do our work and relate to society. So much of what MIT was doing was developing the next generation of laser-guided nuclear weapons and smart bombs that were being tested in Vietnam and then used in subsequent wars. So all of that technology was coming out of MIT and I was talking as a student political leader about rotating in consciousness so that we take responsibility for the social consequences of our technological prowess and discoveries are and so forth.
So here’s two examples: One is that if you take two polarized sunglass lenses, and you put one on top of the other, everybody knows that in one configuration, no light will come through. The light will be completely blocked. But if you rotate one 90 degrees over the other, it allows light in. That’s the nature of the polarization of the sunglass lenses.
But here’s a more human example (and there are many examples of this): Take an authentic apology. There are many, many instances either among nations or among people, where people actually hate each other, detest each other, resent each other—you know, like the Capulets and the Montagues, for generations, those kinds of feuds. People get murdered over them. So there can be incredible resentment and anger between two people. And then all of a sudden, one person will seize the moment, and for completely unexplainable reasons, make an authentic apology to the other person. Just the gesture of that [apology] will change something in the other person—unlock something in the other person—and in one moment, all the hatred, all the resentment sometimes built up over centuries, completely dissolves and you would give your life for this other person who, a moment before, you would kill.
That’s what I would call a rotation in consciousness. Nothing is different. The whole history is the same as it was before, except that everything is different because some little thing has shifted in the heart and mind that’s not actually little at all. And that’s what I’m calling a rotation in consciousness or an orthogonal rotation in consciousness: [a] new way of being in relationship to what was a moment before a completely conventional reality that had its own coordinate system and logic and all of a sudden, you’re thinking outside the box, everything is different, you’re capable of new degrees of freedom and new degrees of ways of being.
There are a lot of examples of that. You know, even when Nixon reached out and opened up China. [That] was an orthogonal rotation. It was like a chess move that opened up things that ran completely contrary to all of the political thinking and ideologies of the day. We need more and more of those on a mini level, on the micro level, and on the larger macro level. And they can only come about by shifts in how we see, how we hear, how we understand ourselves.
That all comes out of awareness. It doesn’t come out of—I sometimes use it as a present participle. Awareness "sings"—so we don’t turn it into a thing or a noun—as opposed to just coming out of clever thinking. Clever thinking brought us a lot of the bankrupt foreign policies of the Vietnam War, and of course Iraq and Afghanistan. And clever thinking has also brought us the banking crisis—Fanny Mae and Freddy Mac and all of that was brought on by very clever minds who thought that they could actually game the system by selling houses to people they knew couldn’t afford them and then parceling out the risk and all this stuff. This is all thought-based. But no awareness. And therefore no ethics, no morality.
TS: I’m with you.
JKZ: Is this making any sense to you?
TS: It’s making good sense, and I want to actually stay with it for a moment. It’s very interesting to me how you teach mindfulness, at least in the approach in the Sounds True program Mindfulness for Beginners, where you start by teaching people how to pay attention to something they’re eating and then to the breath, and then to the feeling in their body, and then, as we have been talking about, being aware of thoughts, emotions. There is this shift that happens in the final practice, where now we’ve learned how to be aware of something that we might put in our mouth, objects. But now we’re resting as pure awareness. And I would like to know, in your experience of teaching people, how you help people make that shift. Do people suddenly feel, "Now this is a little confusing. It was fine when I was paying attention to my breath. I got it. But now there’s a lot going on"?
JKZ: That’s a great question. Sometimes that sort of objectless attention is thought of as an advanced practice. But I don’t actually think of it as an advanced practice at all because, [like] I said at the beginning, there is only one awareness. The more comfortable we get at inhabiting it, the easier it is to see its full implications, part of which is [that] there is now the edge to awareness. There is no boundary to it. It’s infinite. And there’s no center to it. So that is something that regular people can get very very quickly. You know, they experience it, but there’s never been the vocabulary established in school or anywhere else for actually talking about this stuff. And when we do arrange a structure for talking about it, people say, "OK, well, what’s the big deal?" So I can be aware of something. I can pay attention to something. But I can also just be open to whatever might arise.
Then we use all sorts of images. And, you know, I didn’t make these up. But like the sky. Suppose the sky is awareness. If a bird flew through, then the sky would know it. And it would know whatever it needed to know about the bird. Or if a raindrop fell through, or if there was a cloud coming and going, or turbulence in the atmosphere, anything like that. A field of awareness would know whatever is moving in the field of awareness, but it has its own sort of ground condition of just being the sky, just being awareness and not the objects of awareness.
So as [you] cultivate that, you get more and more at home in not having anything have to happen. And not having to have to push anything away or pursue anything just because it comes around as nice or not nice, pleasant or unpleasant. When you do that as a sort of love affair, or as an art form, and a certain degree of discipline, then it shifts what I sometimes call our "default setting" from one of thinking and from one of a kind of never-ending narrative, the center of which is always myself. So it’s always about me and I, me, and mine (the personal pronouns) to a much more, as you were suggesting, body-centered field of awareness that doesn’t have to have a narrative or doesn’t have to believe its own narrative or take it seriously. It’s more in what you could call a domain of not-knowing.
Not knowing is a very, very beautiful way to be in relationship to things because most of what we know isn’t true anyway. It’s just our ideas and opinions. Like we might know that we don’t like somebody, but as I was saying, shift something just slightly and you might like the person. You might like them a lot.
[It] happened to me yesterday, actually. I was walking by somebody who was panhandling, and that happens a lot where I happen to be at the moment, but he wasn’t actually panhandling. He didn’t say anything. I just passed him by. But there was something about the feeling of moving passed him that I felt like I did not want to pass him by. So I went back and put some money in the cup that had there and he said, "Thank you." The way he had said "thank you" had so much dignity in it. I mean, it has so much—I felt so badly for this guy.
I mean, we’re in such a bad economic situation that people are out there on the streets in so many different degrees of depravation. And many of the people who panhandle are actually quite aggressive. But the way this person just said "thank you," it just really moved me. And my impulse was to want to be his friend and give him more money and take him home. None of which I did. But there was that moment where I really saw this guy and it was its own thing. It didn’t need another thing to happen. It was just a beautiful exchange.
I think that everybody has that beauty, but most of us live very far from it most of the time. So we’re caught off guard a lot of the time. And we’re not out best selves much of the time, and then we act in ways that betray even our own self interests and get us into more trouble or alienate other people. These are all choices that you can blame on society as much as you want. But when you live in that kind of a way—and without romanticizing it in any way, and I’m certainly not romanticizing him or myself or the practice of mindfulness. The world is instantaneously different in ways that may be infinitesimally small, but not at all insignificant. They turn out to be incredibly significant.
And with patience, you know—certainly having worked to cultivate MBSR for over 32 years—really requires a long-term perspective and a kind of systematic nurture and feeding in all the various ways that would come to anybody’s mind about how to further something in the world and bring it along more. Over time, I think that is the direction that we are moving in. And so from that sense, I certainly hope that you’re right that we’re coming into an age of mindfulness and that is beginning affect social movements. Certainly Occupy Wall Street. [Laughs] You know, there was a tent at the Occupy Oakland—a meditation tent, and the sign outside said "Occupy Yourself. Occupy Your Heart."
So you know, I think that there is a certain way in which, in terms of social movements and in terms of politics, in terms of economics, in terms of medicine, in terms of education, in terms of the military, the world is responding to this. And in part, as I said starting out, it is responding in part because we are literally starving for some kind of profound experience of authenticity and inner belonging and harmony that we’re not going to find outside ourselves.
TS: Jon, if it’s OK, I’d like to ask you a personal question about mindfulness in your life.
JKZ: I don’t know if I’ll answer it, but I’m happy to hear it.
TS: This example of the waterfall and everything that has happened—all of our thoughts, our stories, our emotions—I’m curious: in your life, what gets you caught up? What gets you out of that seat of awareness and all caught up and bundled up in what’s happening? Are there things that are triggers for you?
JKZ: Yes. I think the thing that most gets me caught up is when I say "yes" to too many things and I get too busy. The irony being that the things that I get busy [with] all have to do with mindfulness, but too much busyness is not mindful and is not a good thing. So I have to, in fact, do a certain kind of yoga [that] involves a lot of saying "no," and it involves a lot of—when I really want to say "yes," but saying "yes" to too many things is being really unfaithful to the things you’ve already said yes to. But that’s an art form that I have not developed as far as it might be developed, I’ll tell you that. And so you know, when I get too many deadlines, too many things that need to be done in too short a period of time, then luckily, one of the side effects of this kind of meditation practice is that I can be unbelievably concentrated and focused and get huge amounts of stuff done. But I do that at the expense of other aspects of things. That’s certainly one of my growing edges.
TS: One of the ways that you talk about mindfulness practice that’s so interesting to me—and so I want to make sure to have the space here to have you comment on it—is that we can take an affectionate attention. And here in our conversation, you have talked about a mindfulness practice as a love affair, and I wonder if you can talk some about that—this affectionate attention?
JKZ: Yes. Well thanks for pointing that out, because it’s very important to me and I think to most people who practice. Mindfulness is—you know, the way I define it operationally, is "the awareness that arises by paying attention on purpose in the present moment and non-judgmentally." And the "non-judgmentally" is the real kicker, because we have judgments and ideas and opinion about just about everything. But that’s where the affectionate attending comes in. It’s not some kind of cold clinical perspective [where] we’re taking on things as you would if you were just thinking about things. It’s actually experiencing a sense of being in relationship to everything that is being experienced because the reality is all relational.
I mean, you can’t touch without being touched, and by extension, all the senses are in some way relational. If you don’t think that when you see that you’re being seen by the world—well, you may not feel that way if you’re living in New York City where everybody averts eye contact. But if you tried to spend the night in the rainforest in the Amazon, say, you’ll have the feeling that you’re being seen, not just that you’re seeing. That you’re being heard, that you’re not just hearing. And you’re being smelled and it’s not just you smelling. And you could very well be being tasted, too, by small creatures, as well as potentially [be] lunch for big creatures.
So there is a way in which we have, in the past couple of hundred years, drifted away from recognizing the reciprocity of all of the senses and all of all our various ways of knowing. But once you realize that we are completely embedded in an interconnected world, in that and every other way, then the only real response is a sense of profound appreciation or affection for the fact that we are not separate. And what we most dread, I think, as human beings, is feeling alone and separate. Alone, of course, doesn’t have to be separate. Alone could be not lonely. But usually, alone means lonely, unless you’ve done a huge amount of work on yourself. And then you realize that there’s no being alone because you’re part of this warp and woof of life that doesn’t end at the boundaries of our skin.
So I’ve come—over the 45 years of that I’ve been practicing meditation myself—to actually feel that every time I formally take my seat on my meditation cushion, it’s a radical act of love. It’s a radical act of sanity. And it’s also a radical act of self-compassion, because you know, it’s like giving myself a break. It’s not about how much I get done in the next 10 minutes or 24 hours. It’s about now. It’s always about this timeless moment. And I really do feel that that is a love affair with life, and with the preciousness of our moments. Most of us, very often, when we’re in our default thinking mode, we’re blasting through our moments to get to better moments, and then [we’re] realizing when we die, if we’re lucky, that we haven’t lived. That we’ve "missed the boat," so to speak.
So an affectionate attention is really the complete opposite of that. It’s actually recognizing that, "I could die in this moment and it would be just fine." And in fact, if you died to the future and you died to the past in that moment—which in yoga is what the corpse pose is all about. It’s not maudlin. It’s about really dying to those aspects of our being that we’re so attached to. So we die to the attachment, including to the attachment of me being special and me being the center of the universe. Then it’s actually an experience of profound opening and connectedness that just is love.
I mean, I don’t know any other way to express it. And it’s objectless, too, just like awareness. It’s not love for any particular somebody, although it can express that way. But it’s what the Tibetans sometimes call "non-referential compassion." It doesn’t need objects to help it along or make it more specific. It’s just the nature of the human heart.
But it’s not a state. It’s not like I want people to say, "Oh yes. Now I’ve got to get to that in my meditation practice." There’s no "getting to" anything. That’s simply the kind of—how should I put it? That is simply how we already are, and it’s more a question of getting out of our own way and allowing it to wash through and over us in the same way as the breath is washing through us and washing over us. We just have no more awareness of that than we have of how beautiful life is and how deeply connected we are to all of it.
TS: You’ve done this tremendous work in helping introduce meditation, calling it mindfulness to a mainstream audience. And I think one of the things that you pointed out was this question: Could everyday people—not people who were dedicated monastics or going on retreat—learn to rest in awareness? You found the answer to be yes, everyday people can. But what kind of commitment is required for this to become real in people’s lives?
You know, I think one of the hurdles that people [often] talk about is, "How can I really introduce mindfulness in a deep way, where people are really resting in awareness, if people want everything spontaneously?" You know, McFastfood-like?
JKZ: Right. McMeditation. McMindfulness. And it’s all a big danger—that’s true.
Well, I’m not sure exactly how to answer that except, you know, I work with hundreds, I would say thousands of colleagues around the world now who teach MBSR and the vast majority of them—you know, you can’t teach it Jon Kabat-Zinn’s way. You have to teach it your way. So everybody in some sense is actually manifesting their own being in training people in the curriculum of MBSR. And the curriculum is fairly straight-forward and it is quite demanding—I’ve used the word "discipline" several times.
But one of the things that we’ve discovered over time is that mainstream Americans will take to this like ducks to water. It’s no more demanding than going out and working at a job that you don’t like to put food on the table for your children. I mean, there are so many things that we all do and don’t recognize that we do in a disciplined way. So this is actually giving yourself a great gift, and it’s not like you have to practice for a certain number of minutes every day or the same time every day. I mean, those are all nice and helpful supports, but the real meditation practice is how you live your life from moment to moment.
When people understand that, then life itself becomes both the meditation teacher and the meditation practice. And you can’t imitate anybody else. You have to find your own way, and life being the teacher will show you every time you get caught, every time you get hung up, every time you get attached. All of the things that we most think might be failures are actually just lessons—just the way, I think, Thomas Edison said, after his thousandth try resulted in the light bulb, but [he had] 999 failures, he said, "Those weren’t failures at all. I had 999 ways of knowing how not to make a light bulb." And so, in that sense, that again is a kind of generous way of looking at it.
I think that we gave ourselves the right names of species—Homo sapiens sapiens—and that it’s not just [me] that feels like mindfulness is a sort of love affair with what’s beautiful and what’s deepest in life and also what’s possible. You know, hundreds and thousands if not millions of people are tasting this and actually going the distance with it. I mean, it’s not like some popular fad that has come and gone already. It has got sustaining power and it’s growing.
And not only that: I just got back from China where I was teaching for two weeks and had the privilege of actually going to a Zen monastery that is about 800 years old. The monks, the Zen masters there are all interested in how we’re teaching mindfulness. This is their tradition. They have a 1500-year tradition of it, and yet they are inspired by how it’s manifesting in the West. That is so totally mind-blowing to me! They are doing remarkable things with their own meditation practice in China that would have been unthinkable even a few years ago. And they want to have these kinds of conversations with Western scientists and breathe, in a sense, new life into their own dharma practice. And to me, it’s staggering.
TS: What do you mean? What are they doing that is innovative?
JKZ: One thing that they’re doing is that they have been in conversation with a number of Chinese psychologists about how to actually have the monks (and it is monks because it is a monastery—it’s not a nunnery) man a 24/7 hotline that they call a Quan Yin Hotline, for people who are in despair in China and want to kill themselves or whatever it is. And there are many, many of them, because Chinese society is no utopia. And so you have these monks who ordinarily might be thought of [as] separating themselves from the world and meditating in caves or sort of monastic settings, and they are actually making themselves available by telephone and on the web to actually be in contact with people who are suffering, who have no interest, maybe in Jon or Buddhism or anything like that. But they are suffering and the monks are trying to find modern ways of taking their practice and bringing it out into the world that would be of benefit.
And they want to know about the science of it, and how it changes the brain and all of that kind of stuff, which we haven’t really talked about, but which is a huge part of why it’s moved so fast into the mainstream. I realize that from the very beginning—in part because of my scientific background—that this had to be grounded in science for it to stand the test of time. And now the science of mindfulness is just a field unto itself. As you know, it is just having gigantic repercussions including enlivening all the meditation traditions because now they actually have a new way of speaking about the benefits of their thousands-of-years-old practice or practices.
TS: If you were able to just say the one or two discoveries from science that you think have made the biggest difference in terms of impressing people about the power of mindfulness, what would it be—just the biggest highlights?
JKZ: It may be too early to tell because I’ve trained as a hardcore scientist. I don’t like to make brash proclamations about what’s true because probably we will need another 30, 40 or 100 years to sort it all out, if not more. But to just say from a very personal point of view, one study that I did that is being replicated now hopefully in a couple of places, showed (and I haven’t used the word very much at all in our conversation, if at all) healing is a big part of this. And I use the word "healing" to mean not curing, but a coming to terms with things as they are. That’s my working definition of healing.
But I did a study a number of years ago with people with the skin disease psoriasis, showing that if they meditated while they were receiving ultraviolet light treatment for their psoriasis, that their skin healed four times as fast as if they were just getting the ultraviolet light by itself. So ultraviolet light isn’t a cure, but it does make the skin clear. But if you’re meditating while you’re receiving the ultraviolet light, your skin clears four times as fast. The implications of that are enormous because it means that the mind can actually influence a healing process that you can see and photograph and measure down to the level of what has to be gene expression and cell replication. This has implication for skin cancer and all sorts of things like that, because there are genes that are related between psoriasis and basal-cell carcinoma. So that’s one.
The other, I would say, is all this brain research that’s coming out that’s showing not only changes in the activity of the very important regions of the brain that have to do with learning, that have to do with memory, that have to do with executive function and decision-making and emotion regulation. [They’re] not only finding changes in activation of various regions of the brain and the direction of what you might call great cognitive control or greater executive functioning and great emotional intelligence, but they are actually now seeing structural changes in many of these regions of both the neo-cortex and limbic system—the emotional domain of the brain.
So in eight weeks, in MBSR, they’re seeing thickening in various regions of the hippocampus and certain regions of the insula and the neocortex, and then the thinning of the amygdala. If these results turn out to be true, it is really demonstrating (and the irony is that it’s through meditation research) that the human brain is really an organ of experience and it responds to experience by changing its own structure. And its structure is the most complex structure in the known universe, and consists of over a hundred billion neurons, and neurons are only half the population of the human brain. [Those] hundred billion neurons [have] so many connections that, for our purposes, the number of synaptic connections is infinite.
That is sitting inside each one of our skulls. I mean, on the days that we feel depressed or out of sorts, I think we need to really remember that we’re miraculous beings. No matter what the science ends up finding, there is far more right with us than wrong with us, and we really need to seize the moments that we have, which is always and only this one. And make maximal use of it without blaming our own circumstances or other people for why we’re not living up to our own potential or whatever.
I think that we can really help each other in this regard, rather than this being about self-improvement or anything like that. There’s no improvement on the self because whatever we think the self is, it’s not. I got into that in great detail in the book you mentioned, Mindfulness for Beginners. We are, in some sense, identifying with ourselves in far too small a way as human beings, and we do need to recognize our own individual and unique genius and then nurture it. A large part of that nurturing is by nurturing each other and not being self-preoccupied and self-involved.
TS: OK, Jon, just two final questions. I’m trying to narrow it down. In talking about the scientific research, because I know that you’re in there working directly with scientists, do you see any discovery that we may be on the verge of that would really shift our appreciation of the power of mindfulness even further? Something we might be very close to discovering?
JKZ: I’m really not the person to answer that question. I’m not that privy to the absolute cutting-edge latest stuff that still hasn’t been published. But I think that if I were to guess, I would say that it was going to come in the area of the developing brain and in the whole field of early-childhood and childhood education and learning.
Here you have got [that idea] that it takes almost [until] adulthood for the brain to completely wire itself. If it’s wiring itself on the basis of the experiences that children are having, both in school, in the family, and out wherever they are, that by recognizing this profound capacity of the brain to shape itself in early life—it also does it through life, but it’s most active in that reshaping in the early life—then there is the potential to actually shape the way we educate our children and ourselves in ways that would enhance learning and couple it with—in some sense, reap the deepest benefits of the analog world. You know, the world before the digital age. The world before computers. And really nurture those different forms of intelligence and genius that all children have.
At the same time, because there’s no denying that we’re now in a digital age, make use of the technology in age-appropriate ways that don’t lose the beauty of the analogue. We make use of, without becoming slaves to or addicts of, the digital world, and then that is where I think the generator lies for this renaissance that I was talking about.
TS: And then one final question, Jon. I’m curious: How does it feel to you to see a dream of yours—at least a big part of a dream, which is mindfulness to be introduced successfully into health care and into all these different fields—how does it feel to you as a pioneer? Do you feel fulfilled?
JKZ: [Laughs] I feel like a grandfather with a very big family and a very big smile on my face. You know, just a profound sense of awe, humble humility gratitude and satisfaction. And also mystery, because, you know (and I wrote about this in a paper about the origins of MBSR) it’s really funny because everybody points to me and says, "That’s where it started." And it’s true, but it’s also vastly mysterious, and everybody who has been involved has played an important role in it. So the unfolding of this kind of thing is a distributive phenomenon that doesn’t really have a leader or leadership. It’s kind of leading from within and a healing from within and transforming from within. Only what we’re realizing is that there is no within and without. So everybody, in some sense, is contributing to this unfolding.
That said, I’m not trying to shirk responsibility for, you know, my sort of personal role in it, so to speak. The only way I can answer that question is to say that it I feel tremendous gratitude and privilege. And, to some degree, responsibility to keep trying to emphasize what mindfulness is and what mindfulness isn’t so that it doesn’t get so dumbed down or turned into a concept so that people then think, "Oh, OK, everyone is into mindfulness now so I have to be into mindfulness." It just means being a little more in the present moment and a little bit less judgmental. Well, that’s a nice thing to say, and it’s not untrue, but it’s only the hardest thing in the world to be a little bit more in the present moment and a little bit less judgmental.
So actually, it requires this kind of commitment to the love affair over an extended period of time, because otherwise, it’s just conceptualizing a new, wonderful thing that you have to get hold of and you’re missing and that when you get it, you’ll be a better person. That is so antithetical to what mindfulness is really about. That kind of thinking, if it becomes very prevalent—because mindfulness gets more and more popular—could actually eviscerate it and take the heart, and what I call the "dharma heart," out of this precious energy in the world that we really (to come back to what I said in the first sentence basically) are starving for.
TS: Jon, thank you so much. Thank you so much for such an honest and helpful conversation. I really appreciate it.
JKZ: Well, thank you. I can’t have this conversation without your heart and your mind and the sort of care and attention that you’ve given to the questions and helping me want to respond to them in the ways that I have.
TS: I’ve been speaking with Jon Kabat-Zinn. He’s the author of a new book with an accompanying CD of guided practices called Mindfulness for Beginners. Mindfulness for Beginners is also available as a two-CD instructional audio. Through Sounds True, Jon Kabat-Zinn has also created a program, Mindfulness Meditation for Pain Relief, specifically guided practices with people working with chronic pain. Sounds True also distributes a four-CD guided mindfulness meditation practice program as well as a program featuring Jon Kabat-Zinn, along with three other authors: Mark Williams, John Teasdale, and Zindel Segal—The Mindful Way Through Depression.
Again, Jon, thank you for being with us. SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey.