Donna Quesada: Jon, I would like to formally thank you for joining us. On a personal level, I’ve been following your work for years and on the platform of Awaken,
I know that our community will appreciate your time, and will love what you have to share with us today.
Jon Kabat-Zinn: Well, thank you for those kind words and I’m really touched to be on your show.
DONNA: We have a tradition and I’d like to start in the deep end, if you will, and I’d like to ask you, what does it mean to awaken?
JON: What it means is to live the life that is yours to live while you have a chance to do it. And very often, we are in some sense, sleep walking. Our lives are on auto-pilot, or, contracted around certain thoughts or emotions that restrict the full dimensionality of our being. And we can get into a kind of prison… that kind of narrative around ourselves. And unfortunately, live for decades like that. Your children will be happy to tell you all about it because very often they or your partner, spouse, or anyone else, can see the places that you might be caught—habitual patterns that actually don’t serve you… some of which influence your health, either emotional health, or physical health, or both. And so, what my work has been about for the last 40 plus years, is to try to introduce people to the possibilities of awakening to the actuality of their own beauty… to their own deep genius and the biological possibilities of well-being. And then, of course, beyond the biological, the psychological, and social, and everything else. But it all really hinges around waking up. And that is actually easy to say, but not so easy to do.
DONNA: Yes, you were talking about patterns. I’m interested in exploring this a little more. What do you mean by “patterns” that we set up for ourselves… that keep us trapped in the way that you describe? Are they psychological, or are they stories that we tell ourselves?
JON: All of the above. People that suffer from anxiety and depression, for instance. We have a whole litany of stories that we tell ourselves about how inadequate we are. Too old or too young. Or, too this or, too that. Not enough this. If only…And these are all just thoughts, but they turn into narratives and then turn into imprisoning.
JON: Exactly. As long we believe them. If we don’t believe them then we can look at these thoughts as sort of weather patterns in the mind. Old habitual type of things. When you see them as weather patterns… If you are the sky that holds all these weather patterns, rather than, you are the storm and the clouds and the turbulence, itself. Once you see that the turbulence is not you, then you can ask, “then who am I?… If I’m not the turbulence?”
DONNA: That’s a nice metaphor. I like that. Weather patterns.
JON: And then, who you are. It almost comes automatically. You’re the one that knows the turbulence.
DONNA: So, it’s to become conscious of those patterns? To see those patterns?
JON: They are not you. And then, who would you be? You would be more akin to that which knows all these patterns. And that is a function that we are all born with. So, it’s not anything you have to get. It’s called awareness. It doesn’t get much air time but awareness is actually incredibly powerful. And it may be be what I like to call, in evolutionary terms, the final common pathway of what makes us human. So, when we cultivate access to our own awareness, then we have another whole dimension of life in which to reside. And then, navigate through life and its ups and downs, and challenges, and disappointments, and victories, and so forth. In a way that really is free. It really is a kind of a full flowering of your potential personal agency. But, inter-connected with the whole rest of the world.
DONNA: And so, to play the skeptic for a moment… If there is someone watching, saying, “you mean, becoming aware of the stories I tell myself in my head can set me free? That can heal me?” Is that what healing is?
JON: That’s exactly what I’m saying. And now there is all sorts of neuro-science looking at the brain that suggests, in fact, that there are different regions of the brain that are responsible for different kinds of activity. So, when we are in this kind of narrative mode, where we are just thinking all the time… If they put you in an FRI scanner and tell you “don’t do anything… just lie there.” What we default to is thinking about today and tomorrow and what I have to do on my to do list, anything that didn’t go well, and of course, our favorite subjects are the future and the past. Worrying and obsessing and planning. Or, blaming, or trying to figure out why it’s this way and not some other way.
DONNA: All close personal friends… blame and worry.
JON: Exactly. And this light up… this mid-line region, called “The Default Mode Network” in our brain, which is the same network… just like in the scanner. Your mind is wandering because you don’t have anything particular to do. And when people are trained in mindfulness stress reduction… There is a study out of the University of Toronto, I’m talking about… describing… If you train eight weeks in MBSR. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction… Another area of the brain lights up when you go into the scanner. And this central mid-line area tends to attenuate. And if you inquire, what are people doing when this brain region lights up? They are breathing. They are just being in the scanner without reading all those narratives. Or, if they are generating those narratives—because it’s almost impossible not to—then, at least, they are not getting caught up in the I, me, mine. You know the story… I’m the center of the universe.
DONNA: This is really exciting… and I love metaphors… and I’m envisioning a kind of gas and clutch scenario, where the more mindfulness or awareness I apply, the more my mind lets go and relaxes.
JON: You are modulating a certain kind of capacity to rest in awareness. Just take up residency there. Full awareness. We don’t have really good language for this. Full awareness of being in your body. It’s kind of mysterious. Who’s in your body? When you say, “me and my body”… is the me separate from my body? We have a very dualistic language for this. Is my mind separate from my body? And who the hell is this me that is claiming all this? So, when you cultivate mindfulness. You are basically able to hold all of this in awareness without generating one more story about it. And that gives us a sort of intrinsic or intuitive unification that comes about because awareness isn’t caught up in thinking. So, it’s not necessarily attached to whatever stories you generate. So, you can just be whoever you are without having to name it, or claim it, or write a book about it, or be better than somebody… Or, be inadequate in a million different ways, that no one else will know, that makes you feel bad. And therefore, in this moment, at least… when you are resting in awareness, like I’m suggesting, you are free. You are already free. You don’t need anything to complete yourself.
DONNA: That awareness is an act of healing.
JON: What healing is. What my working definition is. It’s coming to terms with things as they are. It’s not fixing. It’s not curing. It’s not like an auto-mechanic’s vision of well-being… where you go in and fix what’s broken and mend and repair. You recognize that, in fact, the body and the mind… your life is sort of a unified whole. Self-healing. And when you tilt things in the direction of self-healing, by not compounding the anxiety, the depression, the worry, the obsessive thinking… then, you recognize that the only thing that is going to come out of this moment is the next moment and therefore, the future.
DONNA: That disengages the baggage…
JON: You will never be more whole than you are this minute. No matter what’s quote unquote wrong with you. Which is why we say to people in the stress reduction clinic, who come to MBSR, referred by their doctors, with virtually every conceivable diagnosis imaginable, on the medical side, and many on the psychological side… We say to them, “from our perspective, as long as you are breathing, there is more right with you than wrong with you. No matter what’s wrong with you. What we are going to do during these eight weeks of training… the muscle of mindfulness, so to speak, is to pour energy, in the form of attention, into what is right with you. Let the whole rest of the medical center and your health team take care of what is wrong and just see what happens.”
DONNA: See what happens.
JON: Start from where you are at. It’s an experiment. Let’s see what happens. And the laboratories, not just NBSR, which is in the form of a clinic, but the laboratory is really your life.
DONNA: That should be a t-shirt or a bumper sticker. Let’s just see what happens.
JON: Yeah. Exactly.
DONNA: For those watching and for myself too… I am sitting across from the person who has popularized the term mindfulness, which has become a buzz word now. And I’ve even witnessed arguments about what it is. So now, as I sit across from the man who coined the term, or helped coin the term, how would you describe or define what mindfulness is?
JON: Well, first of all, I didn’t exactly coin the term. It goes back at least to the Buddha. 2600 years. But the Buddha gives the most refined articulation of mindfulness on the planet. And to this day. That remains the case. So, mindfulness is basically a synonym for awareness. And the way I define it, is an operational definition. It’ s not a scholarly, definitive definition because everybody has their one particular angle on what mindfulness is.
But my working definition is that it’s the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally… to whatever arises. And if you want a reason… and the reason is not part of my definition… People say, “well, why would I ever want to do that?” The reason, or the subtext, would be in reclaiming your life. Deep wisdom. Understanding.To interconnectedness and of love.
And in fact, I often talk about the formal meditation practice as a radical act of love and sanity because if you are running around on auto-pilot most of the time, and basically caught up in your thinking, then that is actually the opposite of mindfulness. It’s mindlessness. And that has major consequences on every level. From the individual, to spiritual, to family, to society, to politics and economics.
DONNA: How is it love?
JON: Because life is short. Life is really short. And if you are always waiting for the best moment to come along, so you can be happy, you are going to die before it happens. Thoreau is famous for saying things like that. He said, “I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately… to confront only those facts of life and see if I could not learn what they have to teach, and not when I came to die. I hadn’t lived.”
So, love of life, in the sense of… the only time we get for seeing, hearing, smelling, touching, tasting, connecting, loving, expressing feelings… is this moment. And yet, most of the time, we are blasting through the moment to get to some better moment. Or to get away from what we don’t like in this moment. And if you do that over a lifetime, you might miss the whole thing. And what meditation practice is… is the dropping in. It’s nothing fancy. It’s the dropping in to the present moment, as it is. The only way we can reside or drop in on the present moment, is by waking up to it. Which is what awareness already brings. There’s no place to go.
What is says in the great Mahayana teachings, the Heart Sutra… there is no place to go. This is the first thing people misunderstand about meditation. Now, I have to sit down and experience something cool. Something found. Something transcendent. Healing… that is better than my ordinary this moment, which is so boring and stressful. And of course, that is getting off absolutely on the wrong foot. It’s not about getting somewhere else. It’s actually allowing yourself to be where you already are.
So, you say, “what’s so special about where I already am?” Nothing, except everything. Do your eyes work? What’s so special about that? Are you breathing? What’s so special about that? Can you think and feel? What’s so special about that? Only everything. So, we take everything for granted, until we lose it. Until our eyes don’t work. Or we can’t catch our breath. Or, it feels like life is falling apart. Or, the body is falling apart.
DONNA: I love that metaphor. It’s almost like, dropping in is turning our whole body and mind into a big sensory organ, like the eyes.
JON: Which it is. The whole body is. There are far more than five senses, by the way. When someone says, “how are you?” in an elevator, and you say, “fine,” how do you know? That’s a sense. We can reflect on how we are doing, by tuning into intraception. We know how we are doing. And if we have a tummy ache, for instance. You know that and it doesn’t feel good. Or a headache. The other sense that people don’t know much about is proprioception, which is, where the body is in time and space. We take that for granted. But, it’s a remarkable wisdom. For instance, If I hold my hand up, I can’t see my hand. You can see it. But it’s behind my head and out of my field of vision. But I know exactly where every finger is. And that awareness is propriosensory awareness. Do it again. It’s awareness. A different door into it.
DONNA: So, to sort of sum up… it’s taking the conditions out of life. We interviewed Byron Katie recently. She has a book called Loving What Is. She was so wonderful. When I remove those conditions, I am able to love what is.
JON: When you are not caught up in causes and conditions, then you are already free. She has her own beautiful way of talking about this kind of thing… helping people to recognize that freedom and how much thinking gets in the way. She’s a master of teasing apart people’s thoughts and inquiry. Going into an inquiry process, where finally you feel completely undone because everything you are telling yourself is basically non-sense. Once you recognize that, you are free. And it’s the same with cultivating mindfulness. Moment by moment, is that it’s never the objects of attention that you are paying attention to, that are important. Let’s say if you were breathing and you were going to pay attention to the breath… the breathing is important, of course, but it’s not the object of attention. What’s most important is the attending, itself.
DONNA: And what I tell myself about the event.
JON: Yeah. But, maybe you don’t have to tell yourself anything about the event. Maybe you could just let the event be or unfold without any story.
Read and Watch Part II Here: Awaken Interviews Jon Kabat-Zinn Pt 2 – The Capacity To Simply Be
Read and Watch Part III Here: Awaken Interviews Jon Kabat-Zinn Pt 3 – Restoring Natural Balance