A surprise evening with Jon Kabat-Zinn

Posted by on Mar 28, 2013 in Buddhism | 591 Comments

I just had an evening with Jon Kabat-Zinn by accident.

In case you don’t know, he’s the guy who turned mindfulness from a weird cult thing that only Buddhists did into something that gets taught in the health service in England and the US. He’s the reason why when you say ‘mindfulness’ people around you nod instead of saying ‘huh?’

Let’s face it, they probably don’t know what you’re talking about, but at least it’s OK to nod now.

He started teaching mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) in the late 1970s and is the author of Full Catastrophe Living: How to cope with stress, pain and illness using mindfulness meditation

He’s been responsible for getting mindfulness tested and measured by scientists. Basically he’s a big cheese.

Anyway, I was on my way home from work when I saw a sign outside the friends meeting house (the Quaker centre) in central London: ‘An evening with Jon Kabat-Zinna’.

That’s all it said.

I thought ‘Surely there can’t be two people with such a similar name?’

I went in to check. “Are you hosting an evening with Jon Kabat-Zinn, the mindfulness guy?” I asked. “It says ‘Jon Kabat-Zinna’ on the sign.”

“No” said the guy at reception. “It’s Jon Kabat-Zinna. I copied it off their website.”

He checked. He’d copied it wrong. He freaked out and ran off with some white stickers to cover up the extra ‘a’ on each sign he’d put up.

Before he went, I found out that the event was sold out. But I went and queued up anyway.

There were 1000 people at the event.

I sat in the ‘waiting list’ area. After about 15 seconds someone across from me asked one of the volunteers if there was anywhere she could sell an unwanted ticket.

“I’ll have it!” I said.

The tickets were £15. It turned out I had £15.20 in my pocket. Phew!

So I got in.

Jon Kabat-Zinn’s take on mindfulness

The interesting thing for me was how Kabat-Zinn didn’t talk exclusively about mindfulness. He managed to get the entire Buddhist teaching tucked inside that non-Buddhism-specific concept. A neat trick.

So actually his understanding of the ‘spiritual’ path is extremely rounded, deep and authentic. He was a great teacher. Is a great teacher. If you get the chance, go and see him.

The trouble with all this mindfulness stuff though is that people who know pretty much nothing about it are now teaching it.

Kabat-Zinn may have a rounded practice, but so many ‘mindfulness facilitators’ don’t. You can learn it so quickly – in just a few weeks. But to get to the position where you can really teach it takes a lot longer than that. Years longer.

He acknowledged as much.

His journey has been to take the western perception of mindfulness from the lunatic side of the fringes to the heart of the establishment. (While he’s been in England he’s been teaching it to members of parliament. He was even invited to 10 Downing Street.)

It’s for others to take what he’s done and broaden it out. We must live the tradition in order to communicate it.

He talked about how ideas tend to go from being far out, to being accepted, to being trivialised and used to sell stuff. He knew that this was a real challenge for mindfulness.

Some things that touched me:

  1. He likened thoughts to weather patterns. I like that.
  2. He spoke a lot about kindness, compassion, activism, social action, and getting out into the world. Not the usual territory of people who talk about mindfulness. Except people who really know about it.
  3. He used the present tense a lot, and used ‘-ing’ a lot. “What we’re doing here right now is getting deeper and deeper into an experience of mindful awareness.” As someone who spends their life writing and editing words, the significance of this choice was not lost on me. A neat way to bring mindfulness right here, right now, rather than talking about it abstractly.
  4. He was kind of heckled a couple of times by people in the crowd who wanted to tell him how clever they were. He was able to meet them with compassion, without collusion, and without skipping a beat, continue with what he was saying. This is the mark of a) a well-practised speaker but also b) someone who is able to let things go straight away.
  5. He had the posture of a mindfulness practitioner.
  6. He didn’t take himself too seriously, but he took himself seriously enough.
  7. He said the word ‘heartfulness’ a few times, making the point that the word for ‘mind’ and the word for ‘heart’ in the Buddhist tradition is the same.
  8. He talked about the paradox of social change taking a long time (like trying to turn the Titanic) and the need for urgency if humanity is to survive.

If you want to know more about mindfulness and its used in western therapeutic contexts, The Buddhist Way Through Depression: A Guide for Therapists includes a history, including Kabat-Zinn’s work and what has come since then.

I edited this book so of course it’s awesome! It was based on an MA thesis which was awarded a distinction. I basically turned it into something pleasant to read for people who aren’t academic headbangers.


Did you know The Meditator's Handbook is out? It has everything you need to set up and maintain an effective meditation practice. Check it out!


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