Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD is the developer of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) programs used in medical centers, hospitals and clinics around the world. In his latest book “Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment--and Your Life” Jon says mindfulness and its application in health and disease have been a subject of increasing study and discovery over the past 30 years.
Mindfulness is awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a sustained non-judgmental way to the present moment. Awareness of thinking provides a balance and perspective so our thoughts don't rule our lives. The faculty of awareness is just as important as precise, keen, critical thinking. Jon believes both should be taught in schools. We have become so conditioned by our patterns of thinking we tend to experience our thoughts as facts or an absolute reality. Our opinions and prejudices form a veil that prevent us from seeing clearly. When our thinking and emotional states are not examined in the larger field of awareness, they can run amuck and cause great suffering.
Meditation is about befriending our thinking and holding it gently in our awareness. It's not about shutting them off or changing them. Our mind is similar to the waves on the ocean's surface. The surface changes constantly like our emotions, moods, thoughts and experiences. However, the entirety of our minds is by its nature deep, vast, still and quiet like the depths of the ocean.
We are born with the amazing capacities of awareness, thinking and feeling. Awareness is the container that can hold thoughts and emotions without being caught up in them. However, for most of us awareness is sorely underdeveloped. Mindfulness reminds us that our internal narrative is often based on fabricated thoughts. While our narrative contains truth we are more than our story. Our lives are simply bigger than thought. We ultimately don't know who is doing the talking in our head. We're something more mysterious. Like Walt Whitman said, in “Song of Myself:” “I am large! I contain multitudes!” Jon says it's actually true . We are like universes. We are boundless.
Jon says an easy way to develop mindfulness is to pay attention to the sensation of breathing in the body. The breath has within it everything we need for paying attention and cultivating wisdom and compassion. Mindfulness reminds us to use our attention and awareness to shift from a doing mode to a being mode. It teaches us to observe, befriend, understand and stabilize our mind in a sustained and reliable way to become aware of what's beneath the surface of our activities.
Our attention is unstable and invariably gets carried off someplace else. With practice we become familiar with the mind's comings and goings. Even a tiny bit of stability, coupled with awareness, is important and transforming. With practice over time mindfulness begins to function as our “default setting.” We come back to it instinctively when we lose our emotional balance. Without trying to change anything the discipline of mindfulness brings a spaciousness and clarity of awareness. With the cultivation of mindfulness life becomes a meditation practice and teacher. Whatever happens in the moment is simply the curriculum of that moment. Each moment is an opportunity to experience genuine joy, equanimity and peace. When we bring gentleness and kindness to the process we begin to be at peace with things the way they are without changing anything.
Jon says meditation is not about navel-gazing, giving up functioning, motivation, getting things done or engaging passionately in the world. Meditation is a way of letting all the things we care about come out of being. It's more than doing because it's informed by knowing our own mind. Mindfulness develops attention, discernment, clear seeing and the wisdom to not get caught up in misperceptions and misapprehensions. Discernment develops through the cultivation and discipline of attending.
Pure being is not a special state because whatever we are experiencing in this moment is already special and extraordinary. While pain is inevitable the suffering that accompanies it is optional. How we choose to be in relationship to pain makes a difference. Mindfulness is not a technique but a way of being.
Jon is the founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the university of Massachusetts Medical Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society. Mindfulness training in the form of MBSR and related interventions is highly effective in reducing stress related medical problems, anxiety, panic, depression, living with chronic pain, and enhancing the quality of life of patients with chronic illnesses. From a mindfulness perspective awareness is a sixth sense. Neuroscience confirms this.
MBSR positively affects the way the brain processes difficult emotions under stress. It activates and shifts the right prefrontal cortex to the left which fosters greater emotional balance and positive immune system changes. Studies show MBSR training activates networks in the cerebral cortex involved with experiencing the present moment. This results in the thickening of certain brain regions, (the hippocampus), which plays a role in learning and memory and the thinning in another region (the right amygdala) a structure in the limpic system that regulates fear-based reactions.
Training for mindfulness is now being used by Fortune 100 and 500 companies to optimize performance in team-based projects, improve leadership, innovation, creativity, emotional intelligence and effective communication. The military is also making use of mindfulness training to instill in soldiers greater stress resilience and discernment.