Mindfulness In the Modern World: An Interview With Jon Kabat-Zinn
Stephan: The Stress Reduction Clinic, which you founded in 1979, recently celebrated its 30th anniversary. Since that time, we’ve seen incredible changes in the fields of health and healing, including the introduction of mindfulness into mainstream medicine and culture. What drew you to devote yourself to this teaching?
Jon: That’s one of those questions that has an impossibly long answer, but my one word answer is karma. I was curious and interested in big questions since I was young. My father was a world-class scientist and my mother was a prolific painter. I could see that my parents had completely different ways of knowing and understanding the world, and relating to it. My father approached things through scientific inquiry and exploration, while my mother experienced things through her emotions and senses.
I loved science, and when I discovered Buddhist meditative practices and martial arts, I was able to bridge those ways of knowing the world into my own unique way. From that grew the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, which became my karmic assignment.
Stephan: Was one of your intentions in creating MBSR to help people learn in new ways?
Jon: Too much of the education system orients students toward becoming better thinkers, but there is almost no focus on our capacity to pay attention and cultivate awareness. Mindfulness is a way to rebalance ourselves. Instead of being lost in thought, or caught up in emotional upheaval, we can tip the scale in the direction of greater equanimity, clarity, wisdom, and self-compassion by actually learning how to inhabit that other dimension of our being.
Stephan: Not just education, but modern science also tends to look at just numbers and data, which only gives part of the picture.
Jon: Yes, that’s often true, but any really good scientist is as much an artist as a scientist. All the interesting stuff is found on the edge between knowing and not knowing. I know that sounds like a meditation teacher speaking, but when you’re in the laboratory, or you’re theorizing about physics, you need to know what you know, but if you can’t get out from under that, you won’t be able to make that insightful, first-time connection that nobody else has seen before.
Stephan: About 30 years ago, Hans Selye spoke at Omega. He was the first scientist to use the word stress as it relates to the human condition, rather than as an engineering term. MBSR seems to be the next phase of studying stress.
Jon: I thought it was a stroke of genius that Selye used the word stress, because it’s true that if you don’t know how to be in wise relationship to life, certain health consequences are bound to happen. If you stand up 12 hours a day on an assembly line, or constantly tell yourself life is not worth living, the body will respond in certain somewhat predictable ways.
MBSR basically says that you can look inside and self-regulate. You can bring together the body’s various systems to fine tune the body and mind in order to navigate life’s ups and downs in a way that minimizes stress and maximizes well-being and satisfaction.
Stephan: How did you know you wanted to pursue studying mindfulness as a way to reduce stress?
Jon: The whole thing actually came to me in about 10 seconds while on retreat in 1978. In a flash, I saw what I had to do in quite some detail—I know this sounds weird—but it almost seems like it’s a dream fulfilling itself and I don’t have much to do with it except as a kind of instrument in making it happen. On the other hand, of course, there was a very strong intention and huge amount of work on my part—something like this doesn’t just happen.
Stephan: Did you know that mindfulness would help reduce stress when you started your research in 1979?
Jon: No, there was no indication it would work or that people would be willing to engage in something that, frankly, looked a lot like nothing. Paying attention to obvious things like your breath, or the sensations in your body, probably seemed like a waste of time. But, as it turns out, science is now documenting that it’s not the objects of meditation that are important, it’s the process of paying attention to them—the attending—that actually influences the organism in a whole range of different ways. The brain changes significantly enough to impact thought, emotion, and other biological functions. Today, people recognize that they’re not going to find well-being from the outside, or from a pill; they’re going to find it by looking inside. All the suffering, stress, and addiction comes from not realizing you already are what you are looking for.
Stephan: The MBSR training you teach with Saki Santorelli at Omega is one of our most popular programs. After decades of teaching, how do you manage to keep the work fresh?
Jon: We experience it as fresh when we’re teaching because it’s coming out of present moment experience. We’re not getting out our notes from 30 years ago or even 30 minutes ago. We’re feeling our way moment by moment through what is needed when we sit in front of the group. In that way, we model what we teach. We don’t even have any notes, so we couldn’t do it that way if we wanted.
Stephan: In the fall of 2011, you spent several weeks in China talking about MBSR. What was it like to reintroduce a tradition that originated there but they haven’t had since the cultural revolution of the 1970s?
Jon: It felt like the closing of a certain kind of karmic circle. It was extraordinary how much they were interested in secular mindfulness. I kept asking myself what it would be like if China got back in touch with its deep wisdom roots—the Taoist and Chan Buddhist traditions—as it plays an increasing leadership role in the world over the next hundred years. It’s sad how much of their tradition has been lost, but exciting to see their interest in it. I encouraged them to not just adopt MBSR, but to look deeply into their own roots and see how they can inform the way healthcare, industry, environment, and society are being treated.
Stephan: So mindfulness can help us act with a sense of morals or ethics?
Jon: Mindfulness is about love and loving life. When you cultivate this love, it gives you clarity and compassion for life, and your actions happen in accordance with that. All ethics and morality, and a sense of interconnectedness, come out of the act of paying attention.
Stephan: Where is your personal growth edge right now? What excites you about your work?
Jon: I’ve just become a grandfather for the first time, so I’ve been looking at how I spend my time and how I balance the demands of my life. There’s an overwhelming need for bringing more mindfulness into society, but I have to say no to about 99 percent of the speaking and teaching requests or I won’t be walking my talk, and that’s hard.
The other edge is trying to maintain a fidelity to the practice—to embody it, articulate the mysteries of it, and not fall into the trap of thinking I have arrived. Given the state of the world, I find it challenging to take what one Zen teacher called “the thousand year view.” The crises of today will sort themselves out over the next three, four, or five generations, and all I can do is strive to have as much integrity with what I’m doing in this brief moment.
Stephan: That’s interesting how mindfulness is about being in the present moment and yet it includes the long view.
Jon: Yes, it’s what helps people realize this is a way of being that not only has a long view into the future, but a history as well. Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Tibetan, or other historical traditions, are all different streams in the same river, different currents in the same ocean. With the long view, we can trust that the seeds that we’re planting are transforming the world.
That’s what Omega is doing. Yes, it needs to be a successful business, but why are you doing it? The real reason is transformation, and societal transformation isn’t going to happen in one month, one year, or even one lifetime. But we see it happen person by person in front of us, and we don’t have to worry about the future if we’re taking care of the present. In some sense, that’s the best insurance policy we can have.