The topic of mindfulness is everywhere these days. And Jon Kabat-Zinn, author of Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World, is an expert when it comes to exploring 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 explains what it means to be mindful and why it’s becoming increasingly relevant in our modern world.
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. (joking)
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.
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.
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.
Jon Kabat Zinn
mindfulness based stress reduction