A professor of medicine and renowned researcher in the study of mindfulness-based stress reduction, Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, is one of the leading pioneers in bringing meditation into mainstream medicine. Here are just a few of the very Big Ideas he shares in his classic book, Wherever You Go, There You Are (Hyperion, 1994).
What Is Meditation?
You’ve probably noticed there’s a current of thoughts and emotions flowing through our minds pretty much every second. Think of the current of thoughts and feelings like a river. Sometimes it’s mellow, other times raging. Kabat-Zinn explains how meditation changes your relationship to this river of thoughts:
“Meditation means learning how to get out of this current, sit by its bank and listen to it, learn from it, and then use its energies to guide us rather than to tyrannize us,” he writes. “We call the effort to cultivate our ability to be in the present moment ‘practice’ or ‘meditation practice.’”
As we practice stepping out of the current and observing, we strengthen the mind muscle that gives us a better chance of gaining control of any emotion that threatens to sweep us away.
You might think of meditation as an ancient sacred practice, but Kabat-Zinn explains that the ancients were more interested in mental fitness than meditation itself:
“I’m told that in Pali, the original language of the Buddha, there is no one word corresponding to ‘meditation,’ even though meditation might be said to have evolved to an extraordinary degree in ancient Indian culture. One word that is frequently used is bhavana. Bhavana translates as ‘development through mental training.’ To me, this strikes the mark; meditation really is about human development.”
Kabat-Zinn points out that it’s nearly impossible to develop into mature human beings unless we deliberately train our minds. In an untrained brain, the fluctuating current of thoughts and feelings has all the power. Meditation strengthens the ability to stand back and use conscious intention instead.
Thoughts and Waterfalls
In a chapter titled “Meditation: Not to Be Confused with Positive Thinking,” Kabat-Zinn corrects some common misperceptions. “Meditation does not involve trying to change your thinking by thinking some more,” he explains. “It involves watching thought itself.”
Meditation also isn’t about changing our thoughts from negative to positive per se. It’s about learning to observe thoughts as they are, whatever they are: spiteful, bored, blissful, and everything in between. This process alone has an alchemizing effect: Simply realizing that we are not our thoughts is remarkably powerful.
Kabat-Zinn offers this metaphor: “Another way to look at meditation is to view thinking itself as a waterfall, a cascading of thought. In cultivating mindfulness, we are going beyond or behind our thinking, much the way you might find a vantage point in a cave or depression in the rock behind a waterfall. We still see and hear the water, but we are out of the torrent.”
Sit With Dignity
There’s a lot of confusion about the “right way” to sit in meditation. Here’s Kabat-Zinn’s advice:
“When we describe the sitting posture, the word that feels the most appropriate is ‘dignity.’ Sitting down to meditate, our posture talks to us. It makes its own statement. If we slump, it reflects low energy, passivity, a lack of clarity. If we sit ramrod-straight, we are tense . . . trying too hard. When I use the word ‘dignity’ in teaching situations, as in ‘Sit in a way that embodies dignity,’ everybody immediately adjusts their posture to sit up straighter. But they don’t stiffen. Faces relax; shoulders drop; head, neck, and back come into easy alignment. Sometimes people tend to sit forward, away from the backs of their chairs. Everybody seems to instantly know that inner feeling of dignity and how to embody it.”
Wondering how you should sit? Whether you’re in a formal posture or a chair, sit with dignity.
A Daily Discipline
There’s something magical about doing what needs to be done whether or not we “feel” like it. Kabat-Zinn recommends a daily meditation practice as a good place to see what happens when we don’t let moods rule our choices:
“One of the principle virtues of a daily discipline is an acquired transparency toward daily mood states,” he writes. “A commitment to getting up early to meditate becomes independent of wanting or not wanting to do so on a particular morning. . . . It provides a constancy that’s independent of the day you had yesterday and what kind of day you anticipate today.”
Breath as Anchor
People often resist meditation because the prospect of trying to think about nothing seems impossible — but that’s not what meditation is about. Kabat-Zinn explains that during meditation you direct thoughts toward something very basic — your breathing. This gives the brain something to do:
“It helps to have a focus for your attention, an anchor line to tether you to the present moment and guide you back when the mind wanders,” he writes. “The breath serves this purpose exceedingly well. Bringing awareness to our breathing, we remind ourselves that we are here now, so we might as well be fully awake for whatever is happening.”
One With the Universe
Ultimately, meditation is not the goal in itself. It’s a vehicle to help us live as fully as possible. It makes a fully lived life easier by helping us take our thoughts less personally, thereby freeing us to realize the best potential within us.
To illustrate, Kabat-Zinn tells the story of Buckminster Fuller — before he was recognized as a genius. Fuller had tried and failed at so many projects that he was contemplating suicide at age 32. Instead of killing himself, he decided to live from that moment on as if he had died that night. He decided to become an employee of the universe rather than being a slave to his own ideas. With his mind cleared of self-judgments and distractions, he instead devoted himself to the question, “What on this planet needs doing that I’m uniquely equipped to do, that probably won’t get done unless I do it?”
When you become an employee of the universe at large, you get to make your contributions by being yourself and doing what you do — but it’s no longer personal. You’re just part of the totality of the universe expressing itself. And what could be more powerful than that?
About the Author
Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, is founding executive director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He is also the founding director of its renowned Stress Reduction Clinic and professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He teaches mindfulness and mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) in various venues around the world. The Stress Reduction Clinic has served as a model for mindfulness-based clinical intervention programs at more than 200 medical centers and clinics nationwide and abroad.