Living as If It Mattered: An Interview with Jon Kabat-Zinn

Today it’s my deep pleasure to bring to you a man who needs very little introduction, Jon Kabat-Zinn. Jon is known as the creator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) which has brought mindfulness to hundreds of thousands of people around the world and has now integrated into health care, business, education, sports and even government. MBSR has now been adapted to work with issues such as chronic pain, anxiety, depression, illness, trauma and much more. Jon is author of bestselling books such as “Wherever You Go, There You Are,” “Full Catastrophe Living,”“Coming to Our Senses,” among others. He has also authored numerous scholarly research articles in the realm of mindfulness, health and medicine.

Jon is an active proponent of service and is going to be speaking as a benefit for breast cancer at UCLA’s Royce Hall on October 6 at 7:30 p.m.. All proceeds from ticket sales, sponsorships and donations for this event will benefit the Los Angeles County Affiliate of Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

Elisha: What does a daily mindfulness practice for someone as busy as you, look like?

Jon: (Laughing) Well, what it looks like is my life. Because, basically what it all boils down to is, as I find myself saying it quite frequently, the real meditation practice is life itself. So it’s not taking periods of time and sitting in some particular way or other, although that is a very important part of it. There are many different aspects to a formal meditation practice. But the real meditation practice is how you interface with life from moment-to-moment, no matter what’s happening. Especially when you are awake, which is pretty much most of the time except for deep sleep.

So, my personal meditation practice looks like, for the most part, getting up quite early in the morning to do formal practice that I’ve basically been doing in one form or another for I think it’s 44 years now at this point. So there are certain ways in which I cultivate awareness, both through mindful yoga and taking care of my body and taking time to actually drop as deeply as possible into stillness, into whatever is unfolding in the present moment. So sometimes I do that in the basement where I’ve got things set up with yoga mats and stuff like that and various things that I use to extend the yoga. And then, I sometimes sit down there in the basement or sometimes I sit up here in my office.

And then since you mention that I am busy, and I travel a lot and I do a lot of things, I am not anti-doing, I am just more in favor of the doing coming out of being, so to speak, well then it spills out into daily life. Like walking, whether it’s just in the neighborhood or in my house or in the airport, and sitting on airplanes and being in relationship with people. Ultimately if mindfulness is really about being present, with that kind of open presence spaciousness, then when isn’t it a good time to practice being completely connected in those kinds of ways?

It does come to my mind that I should say that, and I really feel this very strongly, and I imagine that you do too, that it’s very important that people understand that there is no one right way to do it. That it’s not like, “oh, if we just find out how Jon Kabat-Zinn does it or how you do it and we just copy that, that will be the right way.” The real challenge and the adventure here is to find your own way of cultivating mindfulness and there’s thousands of different kinds of formal methods and informal methods, and so forth. But the real thread of it is living your life as if it really mattered and being as present as possible for your moments and then letting life become your teacher and it will give you plenty of lessons and especially the more we are not paying attention the more it’s going to interface with us in ways that can sometimes afford rude awakenings, but often those rude awakenings are really a gift because they remind us that this is not forever and that the law of impermanence is continually at work and that we shouldn’t develop dime store attitudes towards this kind of thing, but actually let it grow into us as a deep expression of our most profound essence of being and essence of heart and essence of mind. And that’s not some kind of idyllic romanticism. At least I don’t see it that way. I see it as just ordinary reality and being happy to be a part of it.

Elisha: One of the things that you wrote in the foreword to our book, you said “allow mindfulness to be a playful adventuring into life itself.” And that playfulness I think speaks a little bit to what you were talking about a moment ago which was this idea that there is no right way. Allow yourself to explore this in a playful way. So you find out really what works for you, because everyone’s experience is unique to themselves. And to make it a cookie cutter thing is outside of the point really.

Jon: Right. At the same time, we are not giving people license to just “make it up as to whatever the heck you think it is” and then call it mindfulness.

Elisha: Right (laughing).

Jon: So there is some kind of nice tension that I think is essential between a certain kind of methodology and ground rules that are really worth attending to for the first, let’s say, 30 or 40 years of your meditation practice, so that you’re not just going all over the place and then meanwhile developing a good conversation around how mindful you are. But at the same time, not falling into a certain kind of rigidity about that where you are really practicing in a way that doesn’t suit you or that is too narrow for the full dimensionality of what’s really being offered by a practice like mindfulness.

Elisha: Are there any new clinical trials around mindfulness going on right now that you are especially excited about or interested in?

Jon: Yea, there are a couple of papers that Richie Davidson is coming out with in the pipeline that are very, very powerful clinical trials of the application of mindfulness, and I can’t talk about them until they are published. There is a recent issue of the Journal of Emotions (APA journal) and I don’t know if you have seen it, but it’s got a whole special section on mindfulness with some really top notch trials of one kind or another, including a Zen study on pain that builds on some of our earlier work with pain.

There has never been a more exciting time in this very young field, because as you know things are going exponential. So I can’t even keep track of the number of trials in various kinds of papers that are coming out about mindfulness because when something is going exponential you can’t keep track of it, I mean that is one of the definitions of it. But it’s very heartening because there are really more and more medical and clinical applications of both mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT), just to name two that are really probing deeply into the nature of what’s actually going on.

So it’s not just a matter of does it work. But now that people pretty much agree that this is a profound and potentially healing and transformative intervention, how does it do the work of healing and transformation? What is actually going on there? And I am sure you are familiar with the first paper that came out from Zindel Segal’s lab, Norman Farb is the first author, on differentiating people who took the MBSR program up there in Toronto with two pathways in the cerebral cortex that have to do with what they call “self-referencing.” One pathway is a mid-line pathway, very akin to what is called a default mode, that seems to be functioning when nothing else is supposed to be happening — like being or mind wandering, or something like that, which is what they call the narrative network for self. So like what you tell yourself about who you are, where you’re going, how things are going, how stressed you are, how great it’s going to be in the future, how horrible it was in the past, or vice-versa, how wonderful it was in the past, or how horrible it is in the present. So it is a narrative ongoing story of me. And that occupies a certain kind of brain territory.

They showed that people who are taking the MBSR program showed activity in a whole other, more lateral ventral pathway in the cerebral cortex, again in the prefrontal cortex, which was involved with what they called experiential focus. It’s like no more story, just this. Just this moment. Just this breath. Just this unfolding. And I want to emphasize that it doesn’t mean that all of a sudden you are either disassociating or that you’re going to get really, really stupid practicing mindfulness because now you’re just in the present moment and you don’t know what’s really happening and you’ve now gone beyond thought. Not at all. I mean it’s much more an effective, wise and emotionally intelligent way to make use of one’s thoughts and emotions, but hold them in a much, much greater and more empathic, and in some sense, more compassionate and wise container, and that container embraces what I mean when I use the word mindful.

Elisha: On October 6 you will be speaking at Royce Hall at UCLA in an effort to raise money for breast cancer. What message would you like people who come to the event — whether they have breast cancer, are survivors, or are people who are interested in mindfulness and meditation — what message would you like them to take away with them?

Jon: That there’s never been a better moment for actually getting involved in your health and well being and health care, and that there are some very, very powerful ways of doing that, through the cultivation of mindfulness that can actually influence both your brain and your immune system, on the one hand, and also how your genes actually express themselves, on the other, as well as the rate at which we age.

So the evidence from science is showing that these meditative practices which are thousands of years old, if adopted in ways that are really common sensible, and that are universal, and don’t require you to become a Buddhist or change your belief systems or anything like that, but to just start paying attention in new and creative ways. That can actually lead to the transformation of your biology, of your brain — not just function, but structure of how genes are expressed and which genes get expressed.

But beyond all of that the most important thing is to live life as if it really mattered and to make maximum use of the moments that we have, especially since the extension of our lives is always uncertain, and so if we are taking care of the present moment in a certain kind of way, not only might it have an effect on our physical health, but it will also have an effect on our relationships, in our mental health and in our feelings of well being, that is really priceless.

The message here is an age-old message, but in an entirely new medical and scientific context, and that is that there’s a huge amount that we can do for ourselves. And no one else can do that work for us. That’s what our patients learn in MBSR, and that’s basically the message that I am hoping to convey to the audience.

Elisha: If you were sitting across the table from someone who was suffering right now in some way or another, how might you advise them on getting started with mindfulness as the path towards healing?

Jon: Hmm. Well, they could read your book — see “A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook”

Elisha: (Laughing). Or the many that you have put out. Sure.

Jon: I mean, there are a lot more ways to get into mindfulness as a path to healing and transformation now then there were 30 years ago, and really wonderful resources both online and in other forms. So I think that the most important thing is actually to connect with yourself and your own motivation, and intentionality in a very deep way, and to just befriend yourself, and then form certain core intentions, and then go out and find what makes the most sense for you in terms of following through on those intentions.

So finding an MBSR program for instance in your area. In Los Angeles you can go to InsightLA with Trudy Goodman and Christiane Wolf. There are wonderful MBSR teachers I think in the United States and all over the world. So that would be one of the things to do.

Another thing would be to start reading books, and getting guided meditation CDs, and the kinds of stuff that you and Bob do, and the kinds of stuff that I and other people do, so that you just start somewhere with something that you feel has some kind of authentic emotional connection to you. And if it doesn’t have an authentic, emotional connection, then I would recommend people not to do it and that they find something else.

Because the beginning stages of the meditation practice are really important and if you don’t have that sympathetic vibration around it, (1) it is very unlikely you will continue for a sufficient amount of time for it to take root, and (2) you can also acquire certain kinds of misconceptions about getting somewhere, about meditation being another form of doing, where you get attached to outcomes. And this would be a huge tragedy, but it does happen. So it is very important to have that sympathetic emotional resonance around what it is that one is choosing to do, whether it’s in the term of reading a book, or a guided meditation or anything like that.

But I do want to stress, there’s never been a better time for this. This is all over the place now in a way that it wasn’t before. And so, you can try a lot of different things and then let those things fall away that seem like they don’t really speak to you, and pursue the one or two connections that really do speak to you. And ultimately, the only really important connection is to yourself, and then through yourself to the entire rest of the world.

Elisha: Okay. Well, thank you so much. This has been wonderful.

Jon: Thank you. It is a pleasure to talk with you and I also thank you for your work.

To the readers: If you’re reading this before October 6, 2010, I want to remind you of the opportunity to come see Jon Kabat-Zinn live at UCLA starting at 7:30 p.m. to raise needed funds and awareness around breast cancer.

As always, please share your thoughts, stories and questions below, your interaction creates a living wisdom for us all to benefit from.


This interview was transcribed by Ann Porter. Elisha Goldstein, Ph.D. is co-author of “A Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Workbook”. You may also find him

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