Jon Kabat-Zinn — On Meditation


Several years ago, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., created the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, where severely ill patients are treated, patients with. AIDS, cancer, heart disease, chronic pain, etc., all referred by mainstream physicians. The clinic’s cornerstone healing technique is mindfulness meditation, and the results of its healing power are laid out in Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s first book, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness (Delta, 1991).

For many, the discipline of meditation is a daunting idea. Besides the rigors of daily practice, the staggering variety of techniques and philosophies surrounding meditation can be bewildering and overwhelming. In Wherever You Go, There You Are, (Hyperion, 1994), Dr. Kabat-Zinn uses clear, lyrical language to illuminate and answer the whys and hows of an effective method of meditation. In doing so, he makes the idea and the experience of meditation, with all its many benefits for wholeness, accessible to all. With gentle, poetic urgings, he leads the reluctant and fearful into a clear understanding of the possible.

The title of your new book is inviting — the words slide off the tongue and brain in easy cadence, and carry a simple wisdom. Is it a phrase from some tradition?
Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn: Ten or 15 years ago I saw the movie Buckaroo Bonzai. A phrase was spoken that stuck with me, “No matter where I go, there I am.” The words seemed to capture the wisdom of meditation, and so this second book is titled Wherever You Go, There You Are, in order to convey that simple essence of mindfulness.

How do you define mindfulness?
JKZ: The mind has a life of its own, and is usually only partially conscious. In fact, our ordinary waking state could be described as severely sub-optimal. It’s obvious you would do better if you had 100 percent of your marbles as opposed to 80 percent or 60 percent. So we can practice the focus and challenge of mindfulness all day long-the more you practice, the better you get. And the more you practice rushing around and thinking about the future, the better you get at that. Mindfulness is the reverse of that — turning it on its head. If you want to cultivate presence of mind moment to moment (mindfulness), you have to practice that the same way you’re practicing non-presence of mind the rest of the time.

What are the essential elements of mindfulness meditation practice?
JKZ: There are two elements. One is formal, where you carve out some time each day that would be a space for you to be in meditation, whether it’s three minutes or two hours. And there are various guidelines or methods or techniques that you might use to dwell in that stretch of time, but really they are just ways to encourage you to be present. There is a technology or topology to it. Certain people are drawn to certain aspects — like lying down is different from sitting. Sometimes it’s really better to lie down to meditate and other times better to sit.

Then, there is informal practice, which is bringing meditation into every aspect of your life, and that’s a good deal of what this book is about. It’s about bringing awareness to your every action and interaction throughout the day. There are few waking activities that would not be more vivid and deep if they were held in mindfulness-in moment to moment awareness.

Your book expresses in a simple and eloquent way the idea that one’s entire life is a meditation.
JKZ: Exactly. This moment is all you ever get, and you’d best make it count, if you’re hoping that in the future things will be better, well, this is yesterday’s future. Much of the time we’re not really experiencing life, we are kind of half dead. What mindfulness is about is being fully alive, fully there, right in your life. This is a way of being that is a life’s work. It’s like a canvas, and you just work on it your whole life.

What question are you most asked by your students and patients?
JKZ: “Can anybody meditate?” People suspect they cannot, while everybody else can. When people say “1 cannot meditate,” they are basing that on some experience of what they think meditation should be — some experience they didn’t get from meditation. So they think they’re failures, or meditation is no good, or maybe some people cannot do it. But as far as I know, anybody who is not brain damaged can pay attention in the way we are talking about.

Also, many people think meditation is relaxation, and that if you feel good or relaxed during meditating or afterward, then that is right, that is good, that’s what successful meditation is about. It isn’t true at all. Meditation is going nose to nose with the full range of human experience. That is what I meant by the full catastrophe — the good, the bad, the ugly, the humiliating, everything that comes up in the mind and body and social interaction.

In your book, several characteristics and principles of mindfulness meditation are set forth, including patience, non-doing, letting go, non-judging, generosity, trust, voluntary simplicity, vision, and behaving ethically. What do you mean by behaving ethically?
JKZ: I once heard a definition on the radio of ethical behavior — adherence or commitment to the unenforceable. What that means is how you are behaving when nobody’s looking. What are your inner motives, and are you really ethical for inner reasons or only for appearance? It has to do with honoring boundaries, usually other people’s. It’s an ongoing commitment to what the Buddha would call “right action.” In Sanskrit it’s called ahimsa, harmlessness, non-harming. It’s a beautiful principle to live by, and if you adopt non-harming, you’re going to live fairly ethically. It’s not a bad idea to take ourselves on as the first object for non-harming since we can be so self-destructive.

What about the concept of voluntary simplicity?
JKZ: That is a continual challenge for me. We live very complex lives, and then get totally stressed out by them. It’s like getting exponentially more frenetic right on into our graves. There is real value in taking the perspective that there’s limited energy – how should it be conserved, and what kinds of things are beyond my limits at this point in time? How do I honor those limits, what is most important, what are the priorities in my life?

Voluntary simplicity is akin to “small is beautiful,” and that things should be in harmony. This inner equanimity should be reflected in some way in one’s life and life choices. So, rather that doing a thousand things in a day, maybe you should think about doing 500 or 100. This is difficult, and requires a willingness to watch how much we fill up our days with stuff.

What advice or suggestion would you give to those caught in non-mindfulness?
JKZ: Wake Up! You have nothing to lose but your pain. If you want happiness, you must start contemplating that it is right here, right now. Cultivate wisdom. Appreciate the beauty of the present moment. Make this moment count, and then watch what happens when you live your life that way.

For all who have tried meditation and felt failure, for all who avoid meditation for fear or lack of understanding, for all who are experts at meditation, for all who cannot decipher sometimes convoluted and culturally obtuse meditation instructions, and for all who would be whole, Wherever You Go, There You Are clears away all the veils, and does so with deceptively simple, evocative language, and a sheer practicality that propels the reader to the proper meditation corner post-haste. “Take your seat,” and begin.

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Jan Thatcher Adams
Jan Thatcher Adams, M.D., has been in active Family Practice at Sundance Clinic in Shakopee for 20 years. In addition, she is Clinical Professor in the Department of Family Practice, University of Minnesota Medical School.


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