321: Mindfulness is a Radical Act of Sanity

This week’s conversation is with Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, a Professor of Medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where in 1995, he founded the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society and in 1979, its world-renowned Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) Clinic.

Jon’s research between 1979 and 2002 focused on mind/body interactions for healing, on various clinical applications of mindfulness meditation training for people with chronic pain and/or stress-related disorders, on the effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) on the brain and how it processes emotions, particularly under stress.

He is the author of 14 books, including the bestsellers Full Catastrophe LivingWherever You Go, There You Are, and Mindfulness for Beginners.

His books and guided meditation programs describe meditation practice in such commonsensical, relevant, and compelling terms that mindfulness meditation practice has become a way of life for thousands of people.

Jon’s work has contributed to a growing movement of mindfulness into mainstream institutions such as medicine, psychology, health care, neuroscience, schools, higher education, business, social justice, criminal justice, prisons, the law, technology, government, and professional sports. Over 700 hospitals and medical centers around the world now offer MBSR.

Jon lectures and leads mindfulness workshops and retreats around the world. I’ve been fortunate enough to attend several of them, and I can’t even begin to express the impact Jon has had on my life.

Not only does he teach and guide in a special way, he is a special human being. I’m excited for you all to hear what he has to share.

“Taking a seat in meditation is actually taking a stand in this life. It’s taking a stand in the only moment we ever have, which is this one.”

In This Episode:

Our relationship with experience

Experience is a huge mystery. Nobody understands how we experience, how we get, have, understand experience. I mean, it’s one of the biggest philosophical conundra and it’s also in neuroscience, like awareness and experience are like two gigantic black holes. We know that we are conscious, that we can be aware and that we have experiences, but we really don’t understand how that comes about. So, we are busy in some sense, thinking that we are the doer of our own experience, as opposed to in some sense being in a very reciprocal, interconnected dance with reality, all of reality, a lot of which you can’t see here as smell, taste, or touch because there are all sorts of invisible forces also going on, and the beauty of this kind of orient and the fact that it can be infectious just like COVID that it has the potential to be a meme that will spread through the entirety of the human population is that it optimizes our capacity to feel at home in our own skin, even under extremely difficult or stressful circumstances sometime, and at those particular times, when the proverbial stuff is hitting the proverbial fan, that’s the most important moment to not lose your mind.

Asking the important questions of yourself

We think that our narrative is who we really are, and we want to optimize our narrative, optimize our bank account, optimize our happiness quotient or whatever it is at the expense of the rest of the world because we think of ourselves as separate, which is the most profound delusion of all, which is why in the meditative traditions, the question of who am I becomes the question par excellence, like taking a can opener to your head and opening it up and actually realizing that we’re not who we think we are. We’re not who we say we are. We’re infinitely bigger than the stories we generate for ourselves.

Know what you don’t know

From a scientific point of view, the greatest scientists are the ones that realize how they know, and they know that they don’t know it, and therefore they put their energy into pondering that interface, like where we go up to everything that we know, and then you just stay here. It’s like a meditation practice. You just stay with what one Zen master I trained with called don’t know mind or not knowing mind, but that’s not a function of ignorance. It’s a function of wakefulness and openness. And then the brain is so beautiful, an organ, or the human being is such a beautiful entity that the not knowing, but contemplating the space of knowing, all of a sudden what arises often, and this is as much a miracle as seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching is insight that the moment before you didn’t have, and then all of a sudden, you saw a connection. Scientists have this experience rarely, but it’s very powerful where for a brief moment, they know something that no one else on the planet knows because they put two and two together and came up with four for the first time.

We are all capable of growing

I see this as a distributive movement. It’s not about heroes or saints or particular people who have transcended in one way or another and put on other people’s pedestals, but exactly the opposite. That we’re all capable of learning, growing, healing and transformation in the direction of wakefulness, of before we die, waking up – as Thoreau was saying – to the actuality of who we are to experience as he started out saying, and I love that and in my experience, I’m not deluded. I may sound deluded as we have this conversation like who talks like this? But I don’t think I’m deluded at all because I’ve seen thousands and thousands of people come in depressed, anxious, in chronic pain, in all sorts of stress around relationship disintegration and meaninglessness and everything else, and then in a few short weeks of cultivating intimacy with one’s own embodied awareness through a discipline.

The popularization of mindfulness

It’s true that it is being popularized, but that’s because there are people who will try to take advantage of or maximize their own position with whatever other people find interesting when it reaches a certain kind of level in society. So, yeah, there’s a lot of hyping of mindfulness and people talking about it and maybe even teaching it who can’t even spell the word mindfulness. That’s the way I joke about it, but the fact is that there’s so many serious people out there teaching mindfulness in hospitals and medical centers and clinics and now schools and in the political arena and everything else that it’s like has the potential to put us back in touch or perhaps put us in touch for the very first time with the name that we gave ourselves as a species, Homo sapien sapiens from the Latin origin, which means to taste or to know. So, we’re the species that knows and knows that it knows, which means not cognition and metacognition, but awareness and meta awareness. So, we’re the species that is aware and is capable of being aware that we are aware and then therefore making really wise choices, and we haven’t quite lived our way into that yet.

Taking care of the body politic

We need to actually start taking care of the body politic, not just of the planet, but of how we’re all going to live together on this planet in a way that optimizes a sense of being at home in your own skin and in your own country and in your own culture in a way that you don’t have to go to war with the rest of the world in order to do.

Start where you are

One basic principle is you start where you are, and that’s huge. As soon as you decide that you’re going to embrace your own experience as it is with the ultimate aim of living life fully and having it presumably be fulfilling, that’s the biggest step of all. The rest is detail. The other thing that’s really important to emphasize is that the meditation practice is not when your ass is on the cushion in a full lotus posture sitting a Buddha or a statue of the Buddha in a museum or a temple someplace. The real meditation practice is how we live our lives moment by moment by moment by moment when the proverbial stuff is hitting the proverbial fan. When you’re anxious, when you’re depressed, when you’re lonely, when you’re in despair, those are all part of the curriculum and every single one of those moments is a door in to wakefulness and awareness, and when you understand that that’s what meditation is rather than trying to get to some special woo-woo state where everything is copacetic, because that can set you back 30 or 40 or 100 years if you’re always trying to get someplace else instead of, “Oh wait a minute. I got it completely wrong.”  The idea is to be where you already are completely even if it’s miserable, and then you can ask very interesting questions. You can become like a scientist of it and it’s like, “Is my awareness of my pain or suffering or trauma or misery actually miserable?”

There’s no moment like now

There’s no moment that’s not an absolutely wonderful moment to actually wake up and see what might be possible, even in the midst of depression. People who are great cognitive researchers, who develop mindfulness-based cognitive therapy have shown depression is a disease of dysregulated thought. When you’re completely self-centered and it’s all about me and what’s wrong with me and why they don’t like me and everything else, this is not the reality of anything. These are just thoughts, but they’re thoughts that if you don’t know their thoughts, then you suspect they are the reality of things. I mean, you can be imprisoned by those thoughts and the horrible feelings, the black hole of depression for your entire life. So, the stakes are incredibly high for us to actually reclaim our full humanity

There are many doors into wakefulness

There’s no one right way to do it. It’s not like, oh, just get a hold of my app or my CDs or my guided meditations and that’s the door in. No, there are an infinite number of doors in. The door in is actually your heart. It’s actually your body. It’s actually your breath. It’s actually if you have a friend on the planet, it’s that. If you have somebody who really loves you and that you are really in love with, wonderful, and if you don’t, love yourself, not by inflating yourself into something you’re not, but by recognizing your own beauty, your own internal beauty. You were beautiful as a child. What makes you think that you’ve somehow outgrown that? That’s the one thing you don’t actually outgrow, but you can ignore it and if you ignore it long enough, it atrophies. Access to awareness atrophies. Access to your own beauty in your own heart atrophies. The good news is it comes right back as soon as you don’t take your narrative of yourself too seriously.

Don’t take it too seriously

Mindfulness is far too serious to take too seriously, and I’m serious about that. Because we really do need to approach this whole thing with a major dose of sense of humor and a recognition that we’re all in this together and if it’s not one crazy notion or another that, yeah, we’re all a little bit nuts and attached to our own way and despising this, that, and the other thing if it doesn’t accord with our own way, but when we drill down to where we started with just bare experience, awareness itself and open-hearted wakefulness, and you have at least one friend on the planet who sees that in you and can support it and maybe meditate together formally or at least talk about your meditation practice and in that context, everything that’s going wrong in your life, no problem with things going wrong in your life. Welcome to the club. That’s part of what humanity is.

Understand impermanence

Some things go wrong for a while, but it’s all impermanent. It’s impermanent. It’s not going to last that long. So, the point is much more rather than attaching to outcome, which is a big mistake in the meditation practice to actually be the knowing that your awareness already is, always has been, and always will be including the knowing of how much we don’t know, and that is liberating right at the very first moment in the middle of your meditation practice or your life and the very last moment too. So, it’s good in the beginning, good in the middle, good in the end, and there are an infinite number of doors into it. So, you have to find your own Way with a capital W, I might say.

It’s bigger than you

If you were living more in the now, then you’ve got resources and dimensions to call upon, hidden dimensions actually of our own humanity that are intrinsically wise, that are intrinsically insightful, that are intrinsically compassionate, that care about other people. So, rather than making ourselves the center of the universe, if we cared more and acted more out of the caring for others, we would actually be infinitely happier than just putting ourselves first all the time and then trying to maximize our own small-minded happiness when we’re much bigger than who we think we are, much, much bigger than the narratives we generate about ourselves.

“Awareness is like finger touching a soap bubble”

If the disease is thought of as the soap bubble that we’ve manufactured by blowing air into soap or hot air into our own story about how that person doesn’t like us and they don’t like us for a good reason because we’re so unlikable. That’s like you just fabricated a soap bubble, which you’re calling the reality, which completely diminishes your value as a human being, and then you compound that. You know what a finger does to a soap bubble? Soap bubbles flying in the air and for a while, it’s just going to be flying until you touch it with your finger, there’s only one thing that ever happens to the soap bubble and that is it pops… As soon as you see it, for that moment, you’re liberated, and if you do it moment by moment by moment, liberated, liberated, liberated. It becomes like an exercise. You have to practice because the thought bubbles are going to come constantly because we’re so addicted to our own thinking that we actually believe that that’s the reality whereas they’re just thoughts.

The state of our thoughts

Einstein was famous for having said if you have one good thought in your lifetime, and he probably had more than one, you’re ahead of the curve. And I tend to agree with him that a lot of our thoughts, when you start to watch them, they’re at best hugely inaccurate and they’re unbelievably self-centered and since we talked about how who we think we are has virtually very little to do with who we actually are and what our full potential is, then the kind of awareness that liberates them, you already have that. It’s not like you have to get it. It’s not like, “Oh now, I have to go to school and get a degree in awareness.” No, you were born with a human capacity for awareness. What we need to actually exercise and what we do in formal meditation practice or informal where life itself is the meditation is just reminding ourselves over and over again that it’s access to the awareness that’s obscured because we’re lost in thought all the time. As soon as you’re aware that you’re lost, you’re not lost anymore because the awareness is there and that awareness is the awareness. There’s only one.

The world needs mindfulness

Genetically, we have the repertoire for wakefulness because that’s our true nature. That’s why Linnaeus called us Homo sapien sapiens. It’s our true nature. We need to in some sense get back to it and now maybe it’s good to end on this note that this is an all-hands-on-deck moment on planet earth. This is not like, “Well, I’ll just keep doing my own… ” No, the world needs absolutely all of us to tilt things in the direction of greater sanity, sustainability, justice rather than injustice, modulating our behavior and our use of energy so that we actually make the planet habitable for other species and for our own children, grandchildren, and on there. So, it’s like we couldn’t have asked for a better time in which to be alive. It’s the first time on the planet where we have enough technology to feel completely interconnected…  this is a real moment, a real unique moment I would say for us to wake up as a species and take care of what needs taken care of while we have the chance because the window of opportunity is not going to stay open forever.


It’s hard to sit there, because at the beginning it feels a lot like you’re doing nothing and it is a big difference between doing nothing and non-doing. So, you’re practicing non-doing and that sounds very Chinese and Taoist and so forth, but it’s actually any kind of elite athlete would understand non-doing because what do we do a lot of the time? We get in our own way and then it’s not like our competitors that are beating us. We’re beating ourselves by not actually recruiting the full dimensionality of our capabilities. So, this is something like a muscle. You can exercise it.

Taking a seat is taking a stand

Taking your seat, as we were talking about in formal meditation practice, is, in a certain way, taking a stand in this life. In the only moment we ever have, which is this one. So, taking a seat is taking a stand, and I would say for myself that when I take my seat in meditation formally, it’s a radical act, and it’s a radical act of sanity and it’s a radical act of love. So, if there was one word that you’re asking for to describe the whole thing, this is extremely easy to misunderstand, but the nature of wakefulness because of the first thing you recognize when you drop into awareness is the interconnectedness of everything and your own belonging within it that the nature of that is love, but it’s not self-centered. It’s distributive and that we share each other’s hearts in an infinite number of different ways and that’s what we’re doing on this program through the auditory function that people will be listening to.

Listen, Watch & Subscribe

Related Episodes

For a complete list of all Finding Mastery sponsors, vanity URLs & discount codes, visit Our Sponsors.
Stay up-to-date with the latest high performance and wellbeing podcasts and content with the Finding Mastery weekly newsletter.