The Reluctant Guru

Staying in the Moment with Jon Kabat-Zinn

Magazine Issue
January/February 2015
A man sits cross-legged amongst a crowd

On the 10th anniversary of the publication of Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World, Jon Kabat-Zinn will be the keynote speaker at the 2015 Networker Symposium this March in Washington, DC. He’ll explore the connection between the intensely private experience of living a meditative life and responding to the vast deluge of global and social problems we collectively face. In the interview below, he shares how he manages to balance the demands of both the personal and public domains in his own life.

The topic of mindfulness is everywhere these days. You’ve been as responsible for bringing mindfulness into the cultural mainstream as anyone. What’s it like for you watch all this mushrooming fascination with mindfulness practice?

Jon Kabat-Zinn: I only want to take credit for the good stuff. The nonsense I completely abjure.

When something achieves the kind of cultural currency mindfulness has reached, the definition often becomes a bit blurry. A few years ago, one of our Networker authors described mindfulness as nothing more or less than another form of self-hypnosis. In fact, he even included a transcript of a talk you once gave for Google as an example of an extremely gifted clinical hypnotist at work. What’s the difference between mindfulness and self-hypnosis?

Kabat-Zinn: Mindfulness is often compared to lots of other things with sexier names, but I think to call it just another form of self-hypnosis is just utter nonsense. To be sure, mindfulness isn’t something that just got invented, certainly not by me. It goes back thousands of years in virtually all cultural traditions. But for me, the most precise articulation is in the Buddhist tradition and the development of practices to cultivate wakefulness, kindness, and compassion. And by cultivating it, I mean living and embodying it. But these days, more and more people are getting the notion that mindfulness is just another concept that they have to familiarize themselves with.

It’s hard to actually describe what mindfulness is and, of course, there are plenty of different definitions of it. Early on, I realized that it’s just a can of worms to try to give mindfulness a precise definition. I prefer to approach it not as a concept, but as an experience, a way of being, a doorway into oneself. Whatever else we might say, I think we can all agree that mindfulness and awareness are the same thing. That said, we have to acknowledge that when we use the term awareness in common parlance, we’re usually not entirely sure of what we’re talking about. And so it can be helpful to try to look more closely at what it means to inhabit this space that we call awareness.

Back in 1979, when I started Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, I came up with an operational definition of mindfulness that still serves as well as anything else: mindfulness is the awareness that arises from paying attention on purpose in the present moment nonjudgmentally. That doesn’t mean you won’t have any judgments. In fact, when we start paying attention, we realize that we almost have nothing but judgments going through our heads. Just about every thought has reactive emotions associated with it: liking, disliking, wanting, rejecting, greed, aversion, and with plenty of delusion thrown in to leaven the pot. So mindfulness is about getting access to our own awareness with equanimity and without falling into a stream of conceptual thinking that goes on and on and on.

You could say that mindfulness is about cultivating a relationship of intimacy with oneself. But what does that mean? The body is really a big part of this because most of the time, except under very specialized circumstances, we tend to tune out the body completely. We’re in our heads most of the time because it’s challenging to stay in touch with the body. So a good place to start as a focus of attention is the breath. After all, as they used to say, you can’t leave home without it. And we’re always one breath away from not being alive.

The challenge is actually just experiencing one breath in and one breath out. And that means not thinking about the breath or patting ourselves on the back for how wonderfully we breathe or anything like that. It’s just the direct knowing of breathing. But breathing is just the object of attention. Mindfulness isn’t about the object: what it’s really about is the attending itself.

Since this interview is intended for an audience of therapists and we’ve been talking about the importance of relationship in mindfulness, might I ask you how this experience of our back-and-forth is shifting your awareness in this moment?

Kabat-Zinn: I’m hearing your questions and, as with any human being, there’s a tendency to filter. So I’m probably hearing what I want to hear, rather than the whole of what you’re communicating to me. It seems you’re trying to draw me out on certain subjects that you’d like to have in the magazine, and you’re holding what I’m saying in awareness and probably going through some kind of fine-tuning yourself, such as, “How long can this guy talk about these things? How do I get in there to redirect the conversation?”

What keen therapeutic intuition you have!

Kabat-Zinn: We’re engaged in a complex, nonlinear relationality. It’s a dance, so to speak, and there are a lot of different elements to it. As with any human communication, when we’re truly attending to the whole, rather than just the points we want to get across, we can actually begin to dialogue in a way that brings forth something that might not have been apparent before. What mindfulness does is reveal aspects of the experience that we haven’t been aware of because we’re too busy zoning out on autopilot.

So as we call attention to what’s going on between us, does that shift anything for you in this exchange? Do you feel any more aware, more present?

Kabat-Zinn: I think what you’re pointing to is how what we’re doing is as much a meditation practice as sitting up straight in a chair, putting your hands in a particular configuration, and closing your eyes—or whatever it is that you do to drop into the present moment.

This is the present moment. I’m still breathing, and I presume you’re still breathing, even though we’re talking. It’s just more complex because I’m moving my tongue and moving the air out through my lips and forming words and hoping that those words resonate not just with you, but with your audience. This form of embodied conversation might actually be described as a love affair. In other words, when you’re not in love with your tongue wagging but with some sense of making an effort to communicate about something that you love dearly, then in a certain way, this becomes a big love affair, with the potential for growth and revealing the relationality present in this moment.

When you talk about mindfulness, for me it sounds like both the most natural thing in the world and one of the hardest things to achieve. You make it sound like an invitation to come home to ourselves, as opposed to what our culture tells us we’re supposed to do with our attention. In that sense, it’s quite countercultural.

Kabat-Zinn: I think the invitational aspect is very real, but I hope it’s not countercultural.

I don’t mean to say that it’s oppositional, just that it’s at odds with the direction of the culture.

Kabat-Zinn: I want to emphasize that we’re not trying create another New Age movement, with the idea that somehow people who meditate are special or have a deeper insight than everybody else. There’s a hubris to that kind of attitude that’s ultimately ignorant, not only of our own process, but also that of others. And it doesn’t mean that there aren’t institutions and people in this world that are causing enormous amounts of harm, but all that harm is coming out of the human mind when it doesn’t know itself.

The message of mindfulness is an invitation to everybody to wake up to the true dimensionality of who we all are, and to move in a direction of maximizing the good that comes from our activities and minimizing the harm both to ourselves and others. And that could be done on a corporate level, on a national level, on an international level.

I think the reason we’re seeing so much interest now in mindfulness is that, as a species, we’re starving for authentic experience. But the impulse is to make mindfulness into a kind of catechism, in which some inner circle understands what mindfulness really is and everybody else is deluded. Instead, I think of mindfulness as a big umbrella. The difference between various traditions are unimportant as long as the focus is on creating greater well-being and minimizing harm.

Would you agree that part of the invitation of mindfulness, as you’ve described it, is to let go of our preoccupation with the usual stories of who we think we are?

Kabat-Zinn: Letting go of the story means not necessarily rejecting the stories, but realizing that the stories are limited. When they begin mindfulness practice, most people find out it’s almost impossible for them to do it for even five minutes without intrusive thoughts coming in. You begin to realize, “Oh, I was telling myself a story of how concentrated I am, but I can hardly focus at all.” If you start to watch your use of the personal pronouns, you can’t help noticing that we’re like the center of the universe, each one of us. It’s all about me and my success or my failure or my future or my past or my children or my grandchildren. And it’s like, yeah, you’re the center of the universe, but so is everybody else.

So what about the changes in your own story? You’ve been meditating since 1966 and have become a public figure and something of a cultural icon. How would you describe your sense of your own story at this stage of your journey?

Kabat-Zinn: Well, as you know, I was somewhat reluctant to even do this interview because I’m getting asked to do so many interviews and be in a lot of films these days, since suddenly this mindfulness stuff is so hot. But that just means it’s even more important for me to stay true to the practice and to life itself.

I mean, just because we get older doesn’t necessarily mean we stop growing, so there are always new adventures to face, new challenges, new opportunities. But in a sense, there’s a continuity between the young Jon first studying meditation and the older Jon. In fact, the love affair is exactly the same, with the potential for human beings to wake up in the deepest of ways and live life on the planet individually and collectively as if it really mattered. To some people, that may sound like pie-in-the-sky idealism, but I don’t think so.

You certainly sound determined not to be seduced by this very public role you have in the development of the mindfulness movement. But beyond that, where do you see the growing edges for yourself in your own evolution as a person?

Kabat-Zinn: I’m 70 years old now, and I started the Stress Reduction Clinic when I was 35. Before that, I had 10 years of asking myself, What’s my Job on the planet, with a capital J? I defined that as work that I’d love so much I’d pay to do it. So now, 35 years later, this great interest in mindfulness is the flowering of that. It’s touched many, many people, all of whom are bringing their own creativity to it. So in terms of where my growing edges are, they’re where they’ve always been: right at the growing edge.

I’m a grandfather now, and that’s a new opportunity. I’m learning to be with my family in new ways at this particular stage of life and not miss the essence of what’s most important, because there’s a tendency to get seduced by the fact that everybody wants a piece of you or wants to put you on their pedestal, or knock you off the one they think you’re on. I’m trying to learn how to be in a wise relationship to all of this, realizing that—like every other wave of interest in a new thing—at a certain point, the interest in mindfulness is likely to decline.

But there’s one thing that really needs to be said, especially since the word mindfulness is becoming so popular and overused these days. In Asian languages, the word for mind and the word for heart tend to be the same word. So if you’re not hearing the word heartfulness when you’re hearing the word mindfulness, you’re really not understanding what it’s all about. You’re going into thought, and you’re going into your concept of mindfulness, but mindfulness is pointing at something beyond words, underneath words, underneath thinking.


Photo © Joshua Lutz

Rich Simon

Richard Simon, PhD, founded Psychotherapy Networker and served as the editor for more than 40 years. He received every major magazine industry honor, including the National Magazine Award. Rich passed away November 2020, and we honor his memory and contributions to the field every day.