When something sad, stressful or hurtful happens, so many of us look for a way to distract ourselves from the ensuing pain and discomfort. It may seem counterintuitive, but an effective way to manage our negative reactions to life's stressors actually involves slowing down and paying very close attention, says Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR).
"The kind of awareness we're talking about is so big and so open hearted and so spacious that it sees the good, the bad and the ugly of the human condition all at once, and it doesn't get caught and imprisoned by any of it."
Kabat-Zinn started developing MBSR more than 40 years ago in the basement of the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, where he taught patients in chronic pain how to meditate. He believed that patients needed to be active participants in their own healing, and he was right. He found that those who received mindfulness meditation training had much better health outcomes.
Today, his techniques for stress reduction are used in hospitals and health clinics worldwide. I talked to Kabat-Zinn about how we can all use mindfulness to manage our reactions to stress.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Shereen Marisol Meraji: I'm going to attempt to define "mindfulness" on your terms: "It's the awareness that arises from paying attention on purpose in the present moment, nonjudgmentally." How did I do?
Jon Kabat-Zinn: Perfect. The shorthand version of mindfulness is awareness. So one could say, "No big deal," except that it turns out awareness is a very, very big deal. It gives us new degrees of freedom for dealing with the challenges that are facing us as individuals and also as a species. So it's the hardest work in the world. It's also the easiest work in the world.
You've said that people are often drawn to learning about mindfulness because they recognize something's missing in their lives. Was that true for you as well?
I really don't want to give a long autobiographical story, in part because the work of mindfulness really involves getting out from underneath your own stories.
Just suffice it to say that from very early childhood, I was interested in the whole question of "Who am I? Who are we? What does it mean to be human? What does it mean to be able to think and feel, and what kind of ways do we have to navigate our own lives, chart our own path, rather than be like a billiard ball, bounced around the table?"
Where does meditation fit into mindfulness?
Mindfulness is a form of meditation that really is the cultivation of intimacy with awareness. But we have to learn to enter the domain of awareness because so much of the time we're living in distraction. And that was true for thousands of years. We didn't have to wait for the iPhone to be distracted. But now we're distracted to an infinitely higher degree than ever before.
On average, people check their phones about 260 times a day. Just to check, not to answer the phone, just to check to see if anything interesting is happening. So in all of those 260 moments, we're distracting ourselves from what's happening in the present moment.
The more present we are, the more we are our full dimensionality of being, the more we are there for our family, for our friends and for our colleagues and for the world itself. The diagnosis of the condition of the world at this particular moment is kind of like an acute chronic disease. And so the same kinds of practices that we use for individual patients are very appropriate to apply on a global level and on the societal level.
What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about the benefits of a meditation practice?
The biggest misconception, I would say, is that you're supposed to make your mind blank and that if your mind is blank, then your stress will go away and you won't be in any emotional pain or physical pain. And that meditation is some special state and if you're doing it right, you'll just nail it, you'll just land it, and then everything will be fantastic.
Wait, it doesn't work that way?
Let me just say that that is such a crock. It really is a kind of fiction that is unfortunately very prevalent in this society. There's no place to go, there's nothing to do and there's no special state that you're supposed to attain. I trust that as listeners, you'll find your own way. It's like following a thread and at a certain point, you go in another direction and you follow that thread until you realize that all these threads are really your own heart befriending itself.
A guided mindfulness meditation practice for beginners
You can hear Kabat-Zinn explain this breath-based practice in the audio at the top of the page.
There's only one place to start, and that's in the present moment outside of time. It turns out that, interestingly enough, when we use the word "now," it has a timeless dimension to it. It's over almost before the word can come out of our mouth or move through our mind. And so it's now, now, now, now, now. And the question is, can we actually fall awake and inhabit our awareness, moment by moment by moment? Meditation is a way of being. It's not a doing.
This is an invitation to just drop in and experience the actuality of, say, the body breathing. In this moment, you can close your eyes, and one of the first things you'll notice when you drop in is that there's breath going on. This is a very powerful door into the present moment because we don't care about yesterday's breath or the next breath or the last breath. The only thing we care about is this breath.
Just experience a few breaths, one by one, moment by moment, just surfing or riding on the wave of your own breathing. Of course, there's all sorts of other things going on in your universe, sounds and thoughts and emotions and whatever is going on in your environment. And we're not trying to shut any of that out.
After not very long, the mind is going to start drifting away. It's going to have a thought — it's off someplace else, having lunch in a restaurant in LA, or reviewing something that happened a long time ago, or caught up in some emotion about being disregarded or offended. Notice what's on your mind in this moment because, you know what, it's on your mind in this moment.
As soon as you recognize, "Oh, I'm off the breath. I don't even remember the breath," guess what, you can begin again because it's always the present moment, so you don't have to worry about what's been in the past. You don't have to blame yourself for being distracted. You can just let things come and go. And every time the mind wanders off from your primary object of attention, which for now is just sitting here breathing, then you simply begin again. It's really a form of wisdom to cultivate this, this exercise, this muscle to continually recognize where the mind is.
Remember that the real "practice" is living
The real meditation practice is the 24 hours itself — it's life itself. It's not sitting on a cushion in the cross-legged posture or lying in a yoga pose called the corpse pose or anything like that. That's all fabulous. But we're cultivating that so that we get more comfortable with living out all our moments as if they really mattered and therefore being there for them — the good ones, the bad ones, the ugly ones, the stressful ones, the difficult ones, the painful ones.
The more our heart and our mind are open in awareness, the more we have new degrees of freedom that are both profoundly healthy and healing but also help us learn, grow and transform across life itself.
The audio portion of this episode was produced by Sylvie Douglis.
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