Mindfulness meditation with Jon Kabat-Zinn

Author and meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn introduced the idea of mindfulness to a whole generation. As founder of the world-famous Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic, he supports patients with chronic pain and shares the value of staying in the here and now.

‘The only time we ever have is the present moment'

Lobsang Tseten meditates and practices breathing exercises alone to maintain social distancing at a playground in March of 2020 in New York. (John Minchillo/Associated Press)

If you've struggled to stay in a long mediation session, mindfulness meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn wants you to know there's still value to be found in brief meditative moments. 

"It's not about the length of time that you practice, but how willing you are to drop in on the present moment," Kabat-Zinn told Tapestry in 2005. 

"Because, in a sense, the present moment is outside of time. It's just ongoing. So even three or four minutes by the clock or even a few seconds if that's all you can do, in any particular situation, unbelievably important and powerful."

Kabat-Zinn is the founder of the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic, and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Through the clinic, Kabat-Zinn supported patients with chronic pain and illness using mindfulness and meditative practices. 

Kabat-Zinn is also the author of several books including Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness and Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life

Here is part of his conversation with Tapestry host Mary Hynes, originally recorded in 2005.

What does mindfulness mean to you? When you say the word, what are you talking about?

So mindfulness, I define it as moment to moment non-judgmental awareness, which is cultivated by systematically paying attention. So let's unpack that for a moment. First of all, when I say that it really has to do with awareness and attention, it's obvious from the start that it's totally universal, that it doesn't have to do with one 'ism' or another. And even though its most elaborate and sophisticated articulation comes out of the Buddhist tradition, where mindfulness is spoken of as the heart of Buddhist meditation in all the different Buddhist traditions, there's nothing particularly Buddhist about either paying attention or resting in awareness. And it's something that's actually part of all meditative traditions. 

If it's about paying attention on purpose in the present moment, non-judgmentally. Well, why, in the present moment? When else could we possibly pay attention? There is no other moment that we're alive in except this one. So the present moment is important, because it's the only time we can ever perceive anything, learn anything, grow as a result of that learning, heal, or transform. The only time we ever have is the present moment. 

So the present moment is really the arena in which our lives unfold. But when you watch where the mind hangs out, most of the time, it's not in the present moment at all. It's in the future. And most of it is preoccupied with either worrying or planning. And when it's not doing that it's reminiscing or obsessing about why it's like this now and who's to blame for it and how much better it was then or anything like that. So the present moment tends to get very, very, very severely squeezed. 

But if I'm in intractable pain, if I'm in a bad way, if I'm in times of trouble, in some ways, the present moment is the last place I want to be. I don't want to inhabit the here and now, I want to flee.

Where did you get the idea that people in pain, for instance, would be well served by moving into the present moment and feeling it, and being with it, and concentrating on it? It seems counterintuitive.

Yes, well, it is. But anybody who's sat a long meditation retreat will have experienced the huge amount of pain. And so it actually came to me on an intensive 10-day retreat, which was like Marine boot camp. I mean, it was like being at Parris Island for me. And we were actually sitting in a freezing cold girls camp in Massachusetts in the late winter, with no insulation and no heating. And this was not what most people do when they meditate, but we were waking up at like four in the morning, and sitting wrapped up in sleeping bags, and so forth, and taking vows to not engage in any voluntary movement for periods of up to two hours. So just the pain in your knees after a while, the pain in your back or whatever, can be quite enormous. So I started to actually open to the pain and cultivate intimacy with it, as opposed to just getting up, shifting my posture or fleeing because I made a vow not to move. 

It became very clear to me in experiencing pain myself, that there are thousands of different ways to become intimate with the pain that are actually liberating of that very pain, without having to make it go away, or fix it. When I realized that, I realized, well, my God, this would be incredibly useful for people where if they get up from the posture, it doesn't matter. That they can't shift and make it go away, or even taking drugs, it doesn't go away. But if they learned how to, in some way or another, become intimate with the full range of capacities that the mind has for befriending experience, then you could actually transform your relationship to the pain — even if the pain didn't change.

But very often, when you transform your relationship to the pain, actually, all sorts of things change, including the pain sensations themselves. And finally, and most importantly, the degree of suffering that is associated with all of that.

The way you put this, "The world itself is weeping." You talk about Rwanda, East Timor, Chechnya, and the world begs for us to bring an entirely different level of attention to its suffering.

Tell me how you see the link between one person sitting quietly in a room practicing awareness and the suffering of the world.

Well, much of the suffering in the world actually comes out of the human mind, and what the Buddhists like to refer to as greed, hatred, and ignorance. Which we are all in great possession of, but like to think, 'Well, not me, I'm not greedy, I'm not angry or hateful. And I'm certainly not deluded or ignorant. But all those other people are, whoever they are. Not my friends, of course, and my family." So we start splitting things between us and them. And then we dehumanize them, because they're not us. And if we brought awareness to that, and realized "us" is "them," as everybody knows anyway. It's an inter-embedded world, a totally interconnected planet. And if we throw our garbage over the fence, ultimately it's coming back in the form of our children, in the form of a gene pool, in the form of all sorts of things. 

We know this now, not just through science, but through every aspect of human activity. Now we've reached a certain level of intelligence where we know that actually, the world is a very small place, not a very big place. And it hangs in completely empty space. It's like an insignificant rock going around an insignificant star in an insignificant corner of an unimaginably large universe. And we seem to be the only ones here. And we're here mostly figuring out better ways to kill each other. That's pretty amazing. And on the side, creating Mozart and Beethoven in the Sistine Chapel and all sorts of beauty.

We know this now, not just through science, but through every aspect of human activity. Now we've reached a certain level of intelligence where we know that actually, the world is a very small place, not a very big place.- Jon Kabat-Zin

So what is it about the human mind that just has to convulse into madness and violence while it's creating all this insane beauty? And of course, we call ourselves as a species, quite arrogantly, Homo sapiens sapiens, which means, it's from the Latin superior, which means, since we're talking about the senses, to taste, or to know. And the Buddhists see this direct, non-conceptual knowing as a sixth sense. It's what we would call awareness is also a sense, because if you're not aware, then you can see but not see hear, but not hear. Eat without tasting, touch without feeling. We experience that all the time.

There's a phrase I've always loved from Full Catastrophe Living. You're explaining your affection for Zorba the Greek and his exuberant line, of course, "I've been married, wife, house, kids, everything, the full catastrophe." But you go on to say that what catastrophe means here is "the poignant enormity of our life experience." Tell me what that means to you?

What it's really referring to is the human condition. We take so much for granted. So let's say — because he was talking about wife, house, kids, the full catastrophe — a lot of the time we're in these wonderful relationships that we come to out of love and out of caring, often, and appreciation for the other. Five, 10, 15 years down the road, it seems a lot more mundane, pedestrian, boring, and we've lost touch with the poignant, enormity of it. But the poignant enormity is always here. And we fall into bad habits around it.

Written by McKenna Hadley-Burke. Interview produced by Susan Mahoney and Marieke Mayer. Q&A edited for length and clarity.