Moment to Moment
An Interview with Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D
for Common Ground Spring 1997
by Virginia Lee
An expert in mind/body medicine, stress reduction, meditation and yoga, Jon Kabat-Zinn has made a significant contribution to enhancing the quality of life for thousands suffering from chronic illness and disease. His Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center has received national recognition, especially since being featured on Bill Moyers' 1993 PBS documentary, Healing and the Mind.
Kabat-Zinn's teaching is not only for those suffering from AIDS, cancer or heart disease. It applies to anyone who desires true happiness. A noteworthy list of clients include judges, Catholic priests, the 1984 Olympic men's rowing team and the Chicago Bulls.
Drawing from a vast well of wisdom, embracing everything from ancient Buddhism to Thoreau's Walden Pond, Kabat-Zinn's books are written in an unintimidating, user-friendly style that presents the concept of mindfulness in a way most everyone can understand. Full Catastrophe Living (Delta, 1991) is a national bestseller, and his more recent book, Wherever You Go, There You Art (Hyperion, 1994), is not far behind. Look for his next book, Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting, written with his wife, Myla Kabat-Zinn. It's due to be published in June 1997 by Hyperion Press.
CG: The first thing I notice about your work is how you have introduced the principles of yoga and meditation to the mainstream. Who exactly is the audience you write for?
JKZ: Anybody. I don't make any artificial distinctions between the mainstream and anybody else. As far as I'm concerned, people are people. And we're all wired up fairly much the same way: We have bodies, we breathe, we have thoughts and feelings. We all have our trials and tribulation, our triumphs and our joys, our yearnings and longings to be connected. Mindful meditation and yoga is really for anybody who wants to deepen their relationship to what's vital in life.
CG: How has the ancient Buddhist practice of mindfulness been translated into 20th century living? Is it still the same?
JKZ: The beauty of Buddhism is that it's constantly changing. Every time it goes to another country, it picks up all the indigenous characteristics of that culture. It modifies itself to Chinese, Tibetan, Korean, Japanese, Indonesian — or American — ways of life. But the practice of Buddhism is essentially the same; it's no different than it was 2500 ago.
CG: Do you regard yourself as a Buddhist?
JKZ: Buddhism is so universal it's hardly a religion. But I don't consider myself to be a Buddhist; I consider myself to be a student of Buddhist meditation. It's easy to embrace because it doesn't invalidate other religions. You can be a Buddhist, and you can still be something else, if you need to be.
CG: Would you say your first book introduced these concepts, whereas your second book is written for those already on the path?
JKZ: As I see it, both books are written to make meditation sensible to regular Americans. That was the object. The first book was designed for the kind of patients we see in the hospital, people who have some kind of chronic medical problem that is not being satisfactorily treated by allopathic medicine. That translates to most stress, pain and illness, which covers and awful lot of territory. Whereas, the second book is just for anybody; it's not oriented to those with adverse medical problems. Although to many people, being alive is a problem.
CG: What do you mean when you refer to the "full catastrophe" of life?
JKZ: I use the term, which comes from the movie Zorba the Greek, to be a poetic expression of the human condition. The full catastrophe isn't necessarily bad, it's just the way things are. In the movie, a young guy asks Zorba, "Have you been married?" Zorba answers, "Am I not a man? Of course I've been married: wife, house, kids—the full catastrophe."
CG: Would you comment of the dynamic between control and stress? Is releasing control a way to release stress, or is it just surrendering to chaos?
JKZ: I think that everybody ultimately desires happiness. The Dalai Lama stresses that point over and over and over again. Everybody is the same in that we all desire to be happy. And one of the things that gives us tremendous satisfaction is in completing something, fulfilling a goal, a task. And there is a sense of manageability and control in that process. As a result, we tend to be control addicts. We want to be able to have that good feeling all the time. And our experience tells us that when we are in control, we have that feeling.
From a meditative point of view, the best way to really be in control is to not be in such tight control. In the Zen tradition they all it "pushing the river." For example, the sun comes up and goes across the sky quite nicely on its own. We don't need to help it. But very often we don't know that the universe is unfolding in certain ways, so we work against ourselves. As John Lennon said, "Life is what happens when you've made other plans."
We all want to be the scriptwriters in life and to a large degree, we are. But when you have a deeper appreciation for the non-controlability of things, the kind of control you exercise in life will be more subtle and less clinging. You will have a greater sense of equanimity and happiness, even in those moments when things are "not going your way." That's the challenge of being human: You get to control a lot, but you don't get to control the whole show. Sometimes that can be very painful and tragic.
The word "blessing" actually comes from the French blessure, which means "wound." So, a blessing always has that other side to it, which manifests in ways that are unpredictable. It's part of the full catastrophe. What Buddhist meditation emphasizes is cultivating the kind of mind that is capable of holding all the oscillations and fluctuations of human experience that doesn't deny or suppress its pain. It doesn't shut out the joy or the grief. Rather, it understands life's basic impermanence. We really don't have any ultimate control. We are only here for a brief instant.
CG: Is it possible to live a stress-free existence?
JKZ: Not while you're human. Because stress is part of life. Stress is not bad. Is it less stressful to be unconscious or constantly living in a state of delusion? Yes, of course. But you can't really avoid stress by running away from your fears and dislikes. Because they're always one step behind you.
CG: Does reducing stress mean giving up certain aspects of modern life? If so, which ones?
JKZ: I don't think that it means giving up anything. I think it means embracing the whole of experience and discerning what has merit in terms of your own heart and your own intuition. That will be different for different people. Some thrive on Wall Street while others thrive in the wilderness. In many ways, stress is in the eye of the beholder. One of the rules of stress management is: It's not the stress, but it's how you see it and how you hold it that makes all the difference.
Of course, we can all afford to simplify our lives to make room for more beauty and more peace. We are all too busy pursuing happiness, while the irony is that happiness isn't someplace else.
CG: Is it ever too late to change?
JKZ: Yes, I think that once you're dead it's probably too late. But as long as you're breathing, there's hope. We actually say this to our patients who come in with AIDS, cancer, heart disease. We tell them, "As long as you're breathing, there's more right with you than wrong with you. Your pain might not go away, but your relationship to it might change entirely."
CG: How do you define mindfulness to someone who's never heard of the concept?
JKZ: The way I define it is: "Mindfulness is moment-to-moment non-judgmental awareness." Meditation I define as "paying attention intentionally." It's a state of observation, of witnessing what goes on without getting sucked into the drama of it. That's the art of non-attachment.
Now I don't necessarily mean that any of this is easy. It's just very simple. And it's not something that happens overnight. You don't just throw a switch and get enlightened. It's more organic than that, requiring years of digging in the dirt, planting seeds, cultivating and weeding. One of the most common misconceptions about meditation is that it leads to some special state, and that if you just learn the gimmick or pop the right pill, you're there.
Instead of being a God pill, meditation is really understanding the process of being human. Since every moment is a new moment, we have the opportunity to grow from moment-to-moment, realizing our true capacity for who we really are. The only moment we ever really get to be alive is the present one. Right here, right now.
CG: How does someone adhere to the practice of meditation in the face of personal crisis?
JKZ: By being disciplined. But meditation means more than just sitting in the lotus position. It's a state of mind, of being fully present with all the turbulence that's tearing you apart. The goal isn't necessarily to be calm; it's to expand the field of awareness around the small way of looking at what's happening so you can embrace it in the larger context.
That doesn't mean you're going to feel any better. It means that you will understand what's happening, which may give you more patience in dealing with it—and more faith, more trust, more comfort with uncertainty. It takes the edge off the terror. The point is not to get beyond the experience, but to embrace it to its fullest. This is what it means to be human. Meditation can be an ally in the midst of crisis.
CG: Are there any other misconceptions about meditation?
JKZ: Another common misconception is that meditation is self-indulgent navel-gazing. Rather than being a self-absorbed occupation, it's really a way of being tuned in to life.
Unfortunately, many Western people think that if you're just sitting, you're not doing anything. But most people have no idea of the power of stillness and silence. This is an inner stillness; you can still be moving while you're doing it. For example, we train the Chicago Bulls in mindfulness—and they're moving when they play basketball. We can even teach people to meditate through traffic jams.
People who complain that they have no time to meditate simply need to prioritize their lifestyle. If you consider how much time Americans spend watching television, there's enough time to meditate.
CG: How do you deal with patients who expect miracles from you?
JKZ: I'm the kind of guy where you take one look at me and you give it up. I'm good at defecting people's projections. If necessary, I'll use street talk. I'm capable of being so regular and profane that people get the message this is work they have to do for themselves.
But to get people to meditate, you have to motivate them. It takes imagination, energy and sensitivity to ignite in them a passion for life, a desire to realize their full potential.
CG: Do you ever take on cases involving addiction?
JKZ: We do. AA says, "Live one day at a time." We say, "Live one moment at a time." The 11th Step is what meditation is all about. There's a big overlap, but it's better when people are already grounded in the ten previous steps before taking on the 11th one. Our program is not where you'd want to go first with an addiction problem. What we do is therapeutic, but it's not therapy.
From our point of view, everything is an addiction. Our entire society is suffering from an Attention Deficit Disorder. The problem isn't just that people can't pay attention; most can't give it either. In truth, most people are walking around starved for real attention. That's why the Dalai Lama is so amazing. When he looks at you, he is totally there. And you feel it.
CG: Are you always successful or are there people you lose?
JKZ: Sure. Some people walk away because they don't understand what we're talking about. And sometimes they'll come back years later, when they're ready.
CG: What is the difference between healing and curing?
JKZ: I wrote about that in Full Catastrophe Living. In curing, the goal is to restore the whole system to the way it was before there was a problem. Whereas, healing is coming to terms with things as they are. There are not the many real cures for diseases. There are some and they're terrific when they work. But with healing, there is often a physiological shift that follows the emotional and mental acceptance. It's as if the cells are listening. When homeostasis is re-established, the healing can looks like curing. But the healing may come long before the pain disappears. As you befriend the pain, it can begin to go away.
CG: What is the difference between living "for" the moment and living "in" the moment?
JKZ: Living for the moment is the philosophy of "Eat, sleep and be merry." It's totally hedonistic. Whereas, living in the moment reflects an awareness that we only have a series of moments to live. And any one that's gone is permanently gone. So, if we really want to be alive, we have to claim our moments while we have them. Unfortunately, many live either in the past or the future—and completely miss the present.
CG: Why is it harder for Americans to "be" than to "do"?
JKZ: It's not for Native Americans. But those of us raised in the Judeo-Christian culture come from the tradition of paving the universe. Of course, doing is important, but we should be aware of the consequences of what we're doing. Native Americans consider the effects of what they do on the next seven generations. That's a level of sensitivity worth aspiring to.
Unfortunately, the intensity and pace of modern life is putting us out of touch with what Buddhists call our true nature. As a result, society is pretty miserable even when there's plenty of money in the bank. For example, children don't talk to their parents and visa versa.
All of that comes from a fear of just "being." As we approach the new millennium, we're hungry for this self-knowledge. That's why I believe meditation is being so well-received by what you call the mainstream. When our doing can emerge from our being, it will generate incredible wisdom and compassion—for the earth and its people.
CG: To what degree does the past determine our future?
JKZ: It's the present that determines our future, continually. That's what the Buddhists mean by karma. Any action, any pattern of thought in the present moment will color the next one. If you want the future to be different, the only opportunity you have to change it is now.
CG: Do we create our own reality? Can we change the course of history?
JKZ: Look at how Communism fell overnight. Or how peace finally came to Guatemala. Those things happen when the collective mind undergoes a certain kind of insight. Your mind is not located inside your head. A cultural mind can have tremendous influence on the way things are.
CG: Do you believe in destiny and how does that relate to karma?
JKZ: I believe that we all have unique callings. And the most important thing is to listen to those inner yearnings—and pursue them no matter what anyone else thinks about it. They think they know what's best for you and they'll try and control you—especially if you're five years old.
CG: Do children innately understand the principles of mindfulness? When and how do they forget?
JKZ: Children constantly live in the present moment. But they gradually get distracted into wanting things. Look at what's advertised on television. They learn to desire things they don't have. It does nothing to teach them that they are complete and whole unto themselves. We are all in a state of amnesia, which is what the Buddhists call "ignorance." We have forgotten our fundamental nature. We're looking for happiness somewhere else. Peace of mind isn't something you find; you uncover it. It's here all the time.
CG: Is the best way to change the world to transform it from within?
JKZ: It's a dance. Change is happening constantly. Let's go back to the river analogy. If you're in a canoe and you're going downstream, you can ride the waves and currents of an ever-changing world. And every once in awhile, it doesn't hurt to use a paddle.
Virginia Lee was Associate Editor and served on the Editorial Board of Yoga Journal from 1980-85, and has been widely published in magazines ever since. She was a regular interviewer for Common Ground from 1992-2004, and has also written two books: The Roots of Ras Tafari published by Avant Books of San Diego in 1985, and more recently Affairs of the Heart published by Crossing Press of Freedom, CA in 1993. She currently works as a freelance writer in Santa Cruz, CA.