How mindfulness went mainstream

Buddhist devotees meditate at the Wat Phra Dhammakaya Buddhist temple near Bangkok, Thailand, on June 3, 2023. | Sirachai Arunrugstichai/Getty Images

Americans embraced meditation. So did corporations.

Capitalism has a way of hijacking our culture’s best ideas. Regardless of the domain, industry turns almost every promising movement into a product.

Mindfulness meditation is an interesting example of this phenomenon. The number of Americans who’ve tried meditation has tripled since 2012, which, on the surface at least, seems like a great thing. And in many ways, it is a great thing: Mindfulness meditation encourages people to cultivate a deeper connection with themselves and the world.

But has the mainstreaming of mindfulness come at a cost to the practice itself?

Back in 1994, Jon Kabat-Zinn published his mega-bestseller Wherever You Go, There You Are, which helped pioneer the mindfulness movement in the United States. It was enormously influential and has now been republished in a 30th-anniversary edition.

Kabat-Zinn is a scientist and writer, and he’s done as much as anyone to adapt meditation techniques for Western medicine and society. So, ahead of the anniversary of his book, I invited him onto The Gray Area for a wide-ranging discussion about mindfulness — what it means to him, why it’s so hard to practice in everyday life, and what it has come to mean in our broader culture.

Below is an excerpt of our conversation, edited for length and clarity. As always, there’s much more in the full podcast, so listen and follow The Gray Area on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you find podcasts. New episodes drop every Monday.


Sean Illing

It’s hard to believe that it’s been 30 years since you published Wherever You Go, There You Are. Back then, mindfulness wasn’t a part of the lexicon at all. Now it’s everywhere. What do you make of that evolution and where the movement has gone?

Jon Kabat-Zinn

To tell you the truth, I’m very happy about it, even though there is a shadow side to it in terms of the hype that inevitably arises around anything that becomes in the public interest and is driven by certain kinds of motivations that may not have any real understanding of what the thing is.

In the case of mindfulness, it’s something that has very ancient roots in humanity and is, I would say, universal in its availability to us as human beings. So although it is, formally speaking, the heart of Buddhist meditation practice, it really is universal, as most of Buddha’s core teachings have to do with the nature of mind and the nature of reality, and not being part of a particular kind of clique or subset or religious group.

Sean Illing

What, for you, is the opposite of mindfulness?

Jon Kabat-Zinn

The opposite of mindfulness is mindlessness, and what that means to me is unawareness. One is actually out of touch with aspects of reality that are salient and potentially vital to living life fully. So mindfulness in my vocabulary is synonymous with awareness, with human awareness. It’s not something you have to acquire. You’re born with this capacity for awareness.

But what prevents us from living more in the actuality of our lives and getting pulled into our heads is a certain kind of tendency to cultivate intimacy with the present moment. What’s challenging in meditation practice, formal or informal, is remembering how important it is to fall awake, because most of the time we’re falling into that automaticity and autopilot. The opposite of mindfulness really is inattention.

Sean Illing

This might be the wrong question to ask, but if it is, knowing that will clarify a lot. What’s the goal of mindfulness meditation?

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Actually, it’s the one human activity that you engage in for no purpose. Not for some kind of contrived goal that you want to attain and then you’ll be happy or whatever. This is a practice for falling awake, so that you actually are living the life that’s yours to live in the only moment that you ever have to live it, which we don’t usually realize is this one now.

We’re always on the way to some better place, some better moment, or running away from the awful moments. We haven’t developed that skill that you could learn in elementary school to actually be with things as they are, whether they’re pleasant, unpleasant, or neither. You’re just neutral. And see how that actually feels. And the seeing is awarenessing. The feeling that you would feel in your body is awarenessing.

So as they say in the classical traditions, there’s no place to go, there’s nothing to do, and there’s no special state or feeling that you’re supposed to attain. It’s more about, “Can you be with things in your body, in this moment as they actually are? And what does that feel like?” And that’s a real discovery, realizing that I can actually inhabit this moment and not be tyrannized completely by my thoughts or my emotions. It’s a very useful skill if you want to be able to not miss your life.

Sean Illing

Now that you mention it, it’s pretty horrifying to realize that at the end of our lives, one of our biggest regrets will almost certainly be that we wasted so much of our attention, that we cared about the wrong things. And yet very few of us live as though we’ve internalized that insight. I mean, I certainly don’t. Most of us live as though we think we’re going to live forever because that would be the only justification for wasting so much fucking time, wouldn’t it?

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Beautifully put. There’s a certain way in which I think you can live forever, and that’s by living in this moment, because this present moment has no dimension to it. It’s like a dwelling place. You can reside in the present moment outside of time. So that is as close as I think we’re ever going to get to immortality.

Sean Illing

If you meditate long enough, do you eventually come to the conclusion that the self is an illusion? That whatever we mean by “the self” is really just a story that gets reinforced by our environment?

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Totally. It is a narrative. It’s the story of me, starring me. When people sit down to meditate, because everybody wants to be good at everything, they think, “Well, if I’m going to meditate, I better get a good result.” But again, this is the one thing you do for its own sake without getting a result. But that doesn’t matter because you’ll sit down, and after a few moments, something’s going to drive you crazy. Either your body’s going to get fidgety and you’re going to say, “Well, what’s the point of this?” Or you’re going to fall into some kind of narrative, or you’ll start thinking about what you’re going to have for dinner or what you forgot at the grocery store. Whatever it is, you begin to realize that, “Oh my god, that narrative never stops,” but your awareness of it isn’t touched by the narrative itself. So you already in that present moment have a new degree of freedom. You don’t have to fall into the thought stream. You can attend to it by just observing.

Sean Illing

Well, that all sounds lovely and so simple, and yet —

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Do you have a meditation practice yourself?

Sean Illing

I do, but it’s inconsistent and frankly embarrassing. I would say that my experience has been one of constant frustration and failure, even though I know you say that thinking of it in terms of success and failure is a mistake. But the reality is that this is hard to do in practice.

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Yes, because we are so reactive. The mind generates this illusory self. And this is a fundamental message of the Buddha or the fundamental insight: You are not who you think you are. You’re much, much larger than the story of me.

Sean Illing

But the world around us does sort of conspire to keep us in that story, right?

Jon Kabat-Zinn

That’s exactly right. Mindfulness meditation is a liberative practice. It’s actually freeing us from the automaticity that you’re talking about. Of course, you’ll get caught in a million different things, and you’ll sooner or later recognize that. The recognizing is the awareness. If you do this long enough, if you tune this instrument on the meditation cushion long enough, after a while that does become more your default mode. You live in the room rather than living in the agitation of your conceptual reality. But you don’t lose the conceptual reality. So it’s not like you get stupid. A lot of people might think, “Well, if I start meditating, then I’m going to just become a weird zombie, good for nothing, can’t get anything done, take too much time to do everything.” No, the most effective people I know are meditators.

Sean Illing

I’m sure you’ve heard the term McMindfulness, which is meant to capture how mindfulness practice has been co-opted by industry. What do you think about this and the kinds of problems it’s created in the broader mindfulness movement, or do you think it’s created any problems at all?

Jon Kabat-Zinn

To tell you the truth, no, I don’t think it’s a big problem. I think that people who try to capitalize on something, especially something as intangible as mindfulness, after a while, they’re going to find something more tangible to invest in because this one is really not going to carry them all that far.

I remember when the term “McMindfulness” was first brought to my attention. I was in the UK doing some stuff with mindfulness in Parliament, and somebody showed me this paper that somebody wrote about McMindfulness, and they were really angry about taking mindfulness out of the Buddhist context and just offering it to the world in medicine and so forth. And you know what? I learned a long time ago, you don’t have to wrestle with those kinds of accusations. Just let time take care of it. If it’s true that it’s not true dharma, it will fall away, and MBSR [Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction] will go the way of all sorts of other things.

I can’t take responsibility for everybody who’s hyping mindfulness. But I can tell you, because I’m so clued into the medical and scientific worlds, that I see authenticity everywhere. I meet thousands of people who come up to me and say, “This meditation practice has changed my life.” I keep hearing from them decades later. So my own maybe deluded or opaque take on this is that there’s far more beauty that’s unfolding through this entry of mindfulness into the mainstream than there is shadow side. And I don’t feel like it’s my job to police the waterfront.

Sean Illing

I think the concern that people have is that mindfulness is becoming another tool for productivity and self-gratification, or it’s becoming a kind of hack for self-gratification, which in the end just amplifies the sources of our disconnectedness and unhappiness. I mean, it’s got to make you cringe a little when a company like Facebook, which exists to harvest the attention of billions of people around the planet, probably has meditation rooms in its corporate headquarters.

Jon Kabat-Zinn

You nailed it. Mindfulness is very popular in Silicon Valley, and there are all sorts of paradoxes associated with life. You pointed to some of them earlier on in our conversation. So there’s no stopping what’s going on in technology. It’s mind-blowing. It’s also terrifying. The people who are doing it are terrified, and also driven by greed, hatred, and delusion just like everybody else. And they’re talking about not billions of dollars of potential profit, but trillions of dollars of potential profit.

So that is potentially very corrupting. The whole thing about artificial general intelligence, where the machinery trains the next generation of machine learning so that after a while, even the humans who have programmed things don’t actually know what, say, ChatGPT is doing. It’s doing stuff that it wasn’t actually programmed to do, or the programs didn’t realize that they were programming it to do it.

What happens in the nightmare doomsday scenario when the machines actually start doing other interesting stuff, when they actually become aware of themselves? So you’re pointing to something that’s really terrifying. And in a certain way, this makes the need to drop into our core multiple intelligences, including awareness, more urgent than ever. And to engage in it in a way that is ethical. And this is a very important part of it, and it’s been an ethical foundation to mindfulness from the time of the Buddha. The Bodhisattva vow is in some sense parallel to the Hippocratic oath in medicine. What’s the Hippocratic oath in medicine? “First, do no harm.” But how would you even know if you’re doing harm unless you’re aware?

Sean Illing

I’m more of a political person than you and that’s where I come from when I’m thinking about the dangers of mindfulness practice divorced from any kind of ethical foundation. From my point of view, the hazard of too much focus on our inner lives, or too much focus on meditation techniques to help us cope with the brokenness around us, is that it can actually distract us from the struggle to face that brokenness and change the world. I am all for self-compassion and self-love and that kind of thing, but if your journey inward doesn’t eventually lead you away from your ego and toward the world around you, toward the people around you, then it’s a dead-end ethically and politically.

Jon Kabat-Zinn

The Buddha is famous for having said his 45 years of teaching could be encapsulated in one sentence. And I like to say to people, “Well, on the off chance that that’s true, maybe we should memorize the sentence.” Here it is: “Nothing is to be clung to.” The operative verb being clinging, self-identifying, as I, me, and mine.

So again, when you recognize that you are clinging and caught up in that kind of selfing, the recognition factor is awareness, and the awareness is not clinging. So it’s not like you have to un-cling. It’s more like you’ve dropped into another dimension, what I call an orthogonal dimension of reality. It’s been here all the time. It’s called awareness. And when you live inside awareness, then you see how greed, hatred, and delusion operate, how easy it is to betray your ethical instincts. And you don’t, because you’ve exercised the muscle. And that’s what the meditation practice is.

People love to go to the gym and exercise muscles. And it’s not always pleasant because you have to work with just the right amount of weight so that you get some kind of resistance, but you’re not working against the resistance when you’re working with weight. It’s like a love affair. You’re working with the resistance because you want to build a certain kind of muscle strength or whatever. Well, it’s the same with the muscle of mindfulness. You just bring that kind of care and attention to it. The breath goes out, the breath comes in. The breath goes out, breath goes in. And you’re riding on the waves of your own breathing, moment by moment by moment. You can do this 24/7 if you don’t sleep, and you just ride on the waves of your breath.

You’ll get caught up in reactions and emotions, whatever they happen to be — fear about the end of the world, anger at what’s going on, and so on. Of course, we need activism within mindfulness, because if you’re not acting in the face of harm then you become part of the problem. We have to find a way to stand up to harm and do everything that we can, realizing that we don’t know what the limits are of what we could do, individually and collectively, to bring medicine to the world, to actually heal the world.

It’s not just about Israel and Gaza, or Ukraine and Russia, or China and Taiwan. These are really existential questions that all of a sudden aren’t for scientists or religious figures to deal with. It’s for all of us to deal with because we’re all in the same boat. And if you have children or grandchildren or you care about humanity, then activism is synonymous with mindfulness or heartfulness.

To hear the rest of the conversation, click here, and be sure to follow The Gray Area on Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you listen to podcasts.

——————————————-
By: Sean Illing
Title: How mindfulness went mainstream
Sourced From: www.vox.com/the-gray-area/23999825/mindfulness-meditation-jon-kabat-zinn-the-gray-area
Published Date: Tue, 19 Dec 2023 13:00:00 +0000

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I'm a writer for lifestyle publications, and when I'm not crafting stories, you'll find me cherishing moments with my family, including my lovely daughter. My heart also belongs to my pets—Sushi, Snowy, Belle, and Pepper. Besides writing, I enjoy watching movies and exploring new places through travel.