As an internationally recognized expert on the topic of mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., has changed the way the world looks at the power of mindfulness and meditation. He has written numerous research papers on the clinical applications of mindfulness in medicine and healthcare, and is the founding executive director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
Jon also is the founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) therapy and an expert in stress reduction, relaxation and the applications of mindfulness meditation in everyday living. We sat down with Jon to talk about mindfulness, meditation and how it can help us create a love affair with our own life.
Live Happy: We hear the term “mindfulness” used so much these days—can you tell us what mindfulness truly means?
Jon Kabat-Zinn: The easiest way to explain it—but the one that doesn’t make it sound too attractive—is to say it’s pure awareness. Of course, we downgrade the value of awareness constantly. But mindfulness is really pointing at something: A very profound capacity that we don’t pay much attention to, and that is that we can be aware of both the interior and exterior, inner and outer, experience in a way that gives us more leverage on how we’re going to conduct ourselves in the next moment.
Without that, then we’re kind of on autopilot and being jerked around by this condition and that condition, and in some sense not living our lives as fully as we might.
LH: What changes when we begin practicing mindfulness?
Jon: When we meet life with awareness, our lives go from a black-and-white movie to a full Technicolor panoramic sound movie. It lights up the potential for us to live life as if it really, really, really mattered. And I, for one, would say it really, really does matter.
LH: We know that mindfulness and meditation can change our perspective, but how does it change our brain structure?
Jon: Well, nobody knows completely how it works, but what we’ve learned is that the brain is not a static organ. It’s the organ of human experience and it’s continually changing itself on the basis of human experience. It is continually changing the way neurons in one part of the brain talk to neurons in another part of the brain, and of course the brain regulates, and in some sense controls, how you move your body, how your body feels, how you speak, how you understand what’s going on with yourself, memory and learning; all these things depend upon our brain.
When we meet life with awareness, our lives go from a black-and-white movie to a full Technicolor panoramic sound movie."
When you start paying attention to [your body] in the way that you do when you cultivate mindfulness through these formal and informal meditation practices, your brain is listening in a variety of ways.
It might be regulating functions like lowering your blood pressure and maybe affecting the movement of food through the digestive tract; there are influences on the immune system, some regulated through the brain, some not, and we see structural changes in areas of the brain associated with learning, like the hippocampus. There are changes in the prefrontal cortex, which has to do with executive function, or how we actually regulate and move through very complex circumstances in our lives making life decisions, learning as we go, problem solving and regulating impulses.
LH: A lot of people want to know what they have to “do” to achieve those kind of changes.
Jon: It’s not a “doing,” it’s a “being.” It’s a shifting from thinking and emotions and getting things done to taking a moment to just drop in and “be.” And it’s not that you won’t get things done, but the things you get done will get done better and get done in a less stressful way because the “doing” will come out of this deep reservoir of “being” that’s really our biological birthright.
LH: One of the reasons many people say they don’t meditate is because they don’t have time. What’s the “minimum daily requirement” we should spend being mindful or meditating?
Jon: In a sense, we don’t have time not to do mindfulness —it’s that important. On the other hand, it’s outside of time altogether. The present moment has very intense properties. The past is over, the future hasn’t come yet—so there’s only this moment. If you can learn how to live in this present moment, then mindfulness doesn’t take any time at all. You’re moving though life, surfing on your breath and handling whatever comes up as you need to.
And then, when you’re doing it that way, instead of being a drag…it can become a love affair with your life while you still have it to live.
LH: That sounds amazing. How do you create a love affair with your own life?
Jon: Very often, there are unhappy consequences to not recognizing how beautiful you are and how complete you are in this moment, no matter what you think is wrong with you. And when you start to actually extend attention with tenderness to yourself, that becomes a kind of discipline, and a love affair comes out of that.
When you learn to become aware of your body, then you can learn to feel the various sensations in the body, one of which, no matter what you’re doing, is that your breath is moving in and out of your body. And you can [learn to] ride on the waves of your own breathing, keeping in mind that it’s the awareness that’s more important than the breathing itself.
This kind of surrender allows you to accomplish your agendas in a way that are much more artful and elegant and with a much less stressful cost associated with them.
LH: What is the most important thing for us to learn about meditation and mindfulness?
Jon: The real meditation practice is every moment. It’s how we live our lives and how awake and aware we can be and how centered on awareness we are. Then we see how that influences the way we live our lives.
I would say to let life become your mindfulness teacher.
Paula Felps is the Science Editor for Live Happy magazine.