How Mindfulness Can Shape Our Collective Future

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Mindfulness can make you less stressed, but that's not the end game. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a pioneer in bringing mindfulness practice to the West, explains how it's also a way for us to recognize our humanity and create a better future for everyone.

Omega: How do you introduce mindfulness to those new to the concept?

Jon: When reporters ask me what mindfulness is, and they want a one-word answer, I give them two words: awareness and relationality. What we're really talking about is a way of living your life as if it really matters. It’s about being present for the moments that are yours to live, instead of being lost in thought, caught up in endless emotional reactivity, or being led around by the nose of your own likes and dislikes. As soon as you drop into awareness, you can see that a lot of what you're going through is just a reactive pursuit driven by thoughts and emotions.

Omega: Why is it so important to be in the present moment?

Jon: When you ground yourself in the present moment, you can see what's required, what's most called for in that moment. We only have the present moment. Everything else is an illusion. The only real leverage we have to transform the future is to take care of this moment, which guarantees that if we show up fully embodied and aware now, the next moment is going to be different because we've made that choice.

Omega: Why is it difficult for us to be present?

Jon: Mindfulness seems really simple—get into the present moment, be a little less reactive and judgmental, and everything will be so much better, so much calmer, and meaningful. But it turns out that because of our conditioning, our genetic predispositions, and the way the brain works, being present is one of the most difficult things for us human beings at this point in time. Maybe it was different when we were hunters and gatherers, but in the complex world that we're living in now, we're perpetually self-distracting and being distracted by others, and our minds and choices are shaped to a larger and larger extent by our devices.

Omega: How can we approach getting present despite all the distractions of our modern lives?

Jon: Mindfulness is a simple but not easy way of dropping back into who you actually are as opposed to who you think you are in your imagination. You can anchor your attention on anything—the sensations associated with breathing is a common choice—and just return your attention to the breath over and over again when it wanders. It’s like exercising a muscle—you come back to the present moment over and over and over again—this moment, present, this moment, present, this moment, present.

Over time you realize it's not about the attention. It's about the awareness that comes out of the attention. That awareness is caring, affectionate, and human. It’s not all about getting into some stress-free, relaxed state where you don’t care what’s going on in the world and you’re just happy taking care of yourself. It's about a deeper understanding of what being a human being means. When you engage in mindfulness this way, it liberates you from your patterns and habits of mind that are so imprisoning. That has deep and profound social and environmental consequences.

Omega: What advice do you have for those new to mindfulness practice?

Jon: First you don’t want to get too caught up in trying to attain some special something—a special feeling or special state. That’s going in the wrong direction. You don’t want to set yourself up to be a “great meditator.” That’s a prescription for disaster and more "selfing"—more of creating a narrative about yourself.

Dropping into the present is like stepping out of time. Pretend this moment is timeless. You’re just sitting here. You’re breathing. There is seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, proprioception, and interoception. Can you simply be aware of all that? It’ll pass by quickly, but then there’s another moment. We do give people objects to pay attention to, but it's never about the objects. People often misunderstand this. It’s never about the breath. It’s about the capacity to feel something in your body.

Omega: How is mindfulness practice relational?

Jon: When you go beyond thinking about mindfulness as being about stress reduction or about just your body or your health, you see it’s about how to live appropriately in a world that's continually changing and where there are forces like greed and hatred that can subvert your mind and heart. Life itself becomes the ultimate teacher, because with everything that arises, you have the opportunity to ask, “How am I going to be in relationship to this, especially when it terrifies me and brings up anger, disregard, or ugliness in me?”

To not be imprisoned by that reactivity is an art form. Of course, most of us are imprisoned by it most of the time, but mindfulness can liberate us from those kinds of tendencies by inquiring deeply into what it means to be human, and especially, how to be human in the form of you, beyond the tiny "little you" that you usually restrict yourself to.

In this interview you and I are gazing at each other. Our brains are constructing each other and decoding each other through our seeing. We are in relationship via these transactions. At the same time, we are also attending to each other through sounds and hearing. I’m wagging my tongue and moving my lips and air is coming out of my lungs and everything is coming out in a grammatically correct sentence that is being decoded and understood by you in real time as the air vibrates your eardrum. That’s miraculous! Every one of our senses is revealing something absolutely amazing, and usually we take it all for granted. We don't have to.

When I say, “Know that you’re breathing,” everybody says, “Of course I know that I’m breathing.” But that’s thinking. I’m talking about a knowing that’s more akin to sensing or feeling. This sensing doesn’t stop with breathing, seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, or touching—I can sense you. I can sense the micromovements of your eyes and your head when it nods. This is what humans do when we connect. We decode the landscape moment by moment.

When you’re simply present, that rich data, all that information, can help us attune to each other or to a circumstance, especially if there is some kind of animosity between us. This is what the future of humanity needs to do—to learn what it really means to be human—before we wind up destroying ourselves. Our species is called Homo sapiens sapiens—the species that knows and that knows it knows. That’s where the wisdom lies. That’s where the creativity lies. That’s where the new openings lie—in the awareness of our own awareness.