WHO: Jon Kabat-Zinn
WHAT: Kabat-Zinn, a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and founding director of its Stress Reduction Clinic, recently published two books: ‘‘Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment — and Your Life,’’ and ‘‘The Mind’s Own Physician: A Scientific Dialogue With the Dalai Lama on the Healing Power of Meditation.’’
Q. What exactly is mindfulness?
A. Mindfulness is awareness. It’s the awareness that arises by paying attention, on purpose in the present moment, non-judgmentally. Mindfulness is not just a concept or a good idea, it’s a way of being.
Q. That sounds easy, but as you write, it’s not.
A. It’s actually pretty challenging to inhabit the present moment. It requires cultivation by continually checking and seeing where your mind is. Most of the time, we’re lost in thought, we’re off in the past, we’re obsessing about the future or planning or worrying. The present moment, which is the only one we’re ever alive in, tends to get squeezed out.
Q. You’ve basically devoted your career to showing that this kind of mindfulness can have healing properties.
A. Cultivating mindfulness can be tremendously healing. A lot of our patients [at the UMass clinic] will say things like “it gave my life back to me.’’ Our work over the years has shown that people with a wide range of medical diagnosis benefit enormously from training in mindfulness and bringing it into their everyday lives.
Q. It does this largely by reducing stress, but how does that work?
A. When you’re aware of the landscape from moment to moment you can actually navigate the obstacles you face with much greater grace and ease and ultimately these things - and there’s accumulating evidence for that - influence your health. They minimize how much you get stressed over the day or how effectively you deal with the stress that does accumulate. Over time, it does grow on you.
Q. You write that one goal in practicing mindfulness is just to accept that the mind wanders - not to blame ourselves when we drift, but just to accept the drift and be aware of it?
A. The knowing of it, the awareness of it is incredibly important because then you can bring it back. The more you actually exercise that muscle, the stronger and more robust it becomes, and then you can become aware of the moments where your mind hasn’t gone off yet but you’re about to go off someplace else, and just the awareness of it obliterates the self-distraction and you stay in the present moment.
Q. Awareness of sensations is also crucial?
A. The practice of cultivating mindfulness really goes through the sensors. That’s why the first exercise we have people do is eat a raisin - one raisin for about 10 minutes. They just look at it for 3-4 minutes, smell it for a minute or two. Put it in the mouth and slowly take a few bits and really put awareness in the mouth. And then experience the explosion of tasting. People will say the most amazing things, like I don’t think I ever ate a raisin before with awareness. They’ll say after one or two raisins, “I actually feel full.’’
Q. You argue that mindfulness is relevant not just at the level of individuals, but society, and the health of our planet as a whole.
A. I think everybody would agree that the body politic in this country has gotten really really really out of balance in terms of people’s sense of well-being, their ability to earn a respectable living, all sorts of things like that. We’re drifting from awareness of what our core principles are. What could bring us back? Mindfulness. What else?