Jon Kabat-Zinn Presents an Introduction to Mindfulness (and Explains Why Our Lives Just Might Depend on It)

The prac­tice of cul­ti­vat­ing mind­ful­ness through med­i­ta­tion first took root in Europe and the U.S. in the 1960s, when Bud­dhist teach­ers from Japan, Tibet, Viet­nam, and else­where left home, often under great duress, and taught West­ern stu­dents hun­gry for alter­na­tive forms of spir­i­tu­al­i­ty. Though pop­u­lar­ized by coun­ter­cul­tur­al fig­ures like Alan Watts and Allen Gins­berg, the prac­tice did­n’t seem at first like it might reach those who seemed to need it most — stressed out denizens of the cor­po­rate world and mil­i­tary indus­tri­al com­plex who had­n’t changed their con­scious­ness with mind-alter­ing drugs, or left the cul­ture to become monas­tics.

Then pro­fes­sor of med­i­cine Jon Kabat-Zinn came along, stripped away reli­gious and new age con­texts, and began redesign­ing mind­ful­ness for the mass­es in 1979 with his mind­ful­ness-based stress reduc­tion (MBSR) pro­gram. Now every­one knows, or thinks they know, what mind­ful­ness is. As med­i­ta­tion teacher Lokad­hi Lloyd tells The Guardian, Kabat-Zinn is “Mr Mind­ful­ness in rela­tion to our sec­u­lar strand. With­out him, I don’t think mind­ful­ness would have risen to the promi­nence it has.”

His sec­u­lar­iza­tion of mind­ful­ness, how­ev­er, has not, in prac­ti­cal terms, tak­en it very far from its roots, which explains why Kabat-Zin­n’s ground­break­ing 1990 book Full Cat­a­stro­phe Liv­ing receives high praise from Bud­dhist teach­ers like Joseph Gold­stein, Sharon Salzburg, and Kabat-Zin­n’s own for­mer Zen teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh.

While Kabat-Zinn says he him­self is not (or is no longer) a Bud­dhist, his def­i­n­i­tions of mind­ful­ness might sound just close enough to those who study and prac­tice the reli­gion. As he says in the short seg­ment at the top: “It’s pay­ing atten­tion, on pur­pose, in the present moment, non-judg­men­tal­ly.” And then, “some­times,” he says, “I like to add, as if your life depend­ed on it.” The qual­i­ty of our lives, the clar­i­ty of our lives, and the depth and rich­ness of our lives depend on our abil­i­ty to be aware of what’s hap­pen­ing around and inside us. This abil­i­ty, Kabat-Zinn insists, is the inher­i­tance of all human beings. It can be found in spir­i­tu­al prac­tices around the world. No one owns a patent on aware­ness.

Nev­er­the­less, Kabat-Zinn is par­tic­u­lar­ly leery of what he calls McMind­ful­ness, the com­mod­i­ty-dri­ven indus­try sell­ing col­or­ing books, apps, puz­zles, t‑shirts, and nov­el­ties tout­ing mind­ful ben­e­fits. Mind­ful­ness based stress reduc­tion is “not a trick,” he says. It isn’t some­thing we buy and try out here and there. “MBSR is exceed­ing­ly chal­leng­ing,” Kabat-Zinn writes in Full Cat­a­stro­phe Liv­ing. “In many ways, being in the present moment with a spa­cious ori­en­ta­tion toward what is hap­pen­ing may real­ly be the hard­est work in the world for us humans. At the same time, it is also infi­nite­ly doable.” It can also be high­ly unpleas­ant, forc­ing us to sit with the things we’d rather ignore about our­selves. Why should we do it? We might con­sid­er the alter­na­tives.

MBSR began (“in the base­ment of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Mass­a­chu­setts Med­ical Cen­ter,” notes NPR) help­ing patients with chron­ic pain recov­er. It proved so effec­tive, Kabat-Zinn applied the insight more glob­al­ly — “using the wis­dom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and ill­ness.” This is not a cure-all, but a way of liv­ing that reduces unnec­es­sary suf­fer­ing caused by over­ac­tive dis­cur­sive think­ing, which traps us in pat­terns of blame, shame, fear, regret, judg­ment, and self-crit­i­cism (illus­trat­ed in Scot­tish psy­chol­o­gist R.D. Laing’s book of neu­rot­ic nar­ra­tives, Knots) — traps us, that is, in sto­ries about the past and future, which affect our phys­i­cal and men­tal health, our work, and our rela­tion­ships.

The med­ical evi­dence for mind­ful­ness has only begun to catch up with Kabat-Zin­n’s work, yet it weighs heav­i­ly on the side of the out­comes he has seen for over 40 years. MBSR also comes high­ly rec­om­mend­ed by Har­vard neu­ro­sci­en­tist Sara Lazar and trau­ma expert Bessel Van Der Kok, among so many oth­ers who have done the research. The evi­dence is why, as you can see in the longer pre­sen­ta­tions above at Dart­mouth and Google, Kabat-Zinn has become some­thing of an evan­ge­list for mind­ful­ness. “If this is anoth­er fad, I don’t want to have any part of it,” he says. “If in the past 50 years I had found some­thing more mean­ing­ful, more heal­ing, more trans­for­ma­tive and with more poten­tial social impact, I would be doing that.”

As Kabat-Zin­n’s 2005 book, Wher­ev­er You Go, There You Are, shows, we can bring what hap­pens in med­i­ta­tion into our every­day life, let­ting assump­tions go, and “let­ting life become both the med­i­ta­tion teacher and the prac­tice, moment by moment, no mat­ter what aris­es,” he tells Mind­ful mag­a­zine. This isn’t about escap­ing into blissed out moments of Zen. It’s fos­ter­ing “deep con­nec­tions,” over and over again, with our­selves, fam­i­lies, friends, com­mu­ni­ties, the plan­et we live on, and, in turn, “the future that we’re bequeath­ing to our future gen­er­a­tions.”

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Dai­ly Med­i­ta­tion Boosts & Revi­tal­izes the Brain and Reduces Stress, Har­vard Study Finds

How Mind­ful­ness Makes Us Hap­pi­er & Bet­ter Able to Meet Life’s Chal­lenges: Two Ani­mat­ed Primers Explain

De-Mys­ti­fy­ing Mind­ful­ness: A Free Online Course by Lei­den Uni­ver­si­ty 

Stream 18 Hours of Free Guid­ed Med­i­ta­tions

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.