Spotlight on Jon Kabat-Zinn: Ancient Practices, Modern Mindfulness

Jon Kabat-Zinn. For many, the name has become synonymous with modern mindfulness. As a physician who took a break from his work to study Buddhism in the ’70s, it was a decision that helped lead the beginning of the mindfulness movement in the United States. After training in Buddhism, he came back to his practice with the then-fairly radical idea that the benefits of Buddhist mindfulness could help his patients who were suffering from chronic illness. The result was the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts.

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Although I haven’t participated in an any of his training courses, I’ve read a lot about Jon Kabat-Zinn and own his highly regarded book, Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Widsom of your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness. His journey is one of a physician who became a Buddhist practitioner and then applied what he learned to physician to help people with their ailments. It’s now a well-established fact that mindfulness meditation can help reduce everything from anxiety and stress to depression. Dr. Kabat-Zinn drew on the teachings of the Buddha (broadly known as “dharma“) to share the tools he learned as a student of Buddhism. His life’s work led to the creation in 1979 of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society to teach Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) to those suffering from a variety of maladies. According to Shambhala Sun, Dr. Kabat-Zinn “ended up teaching people in a hospital function-room to eat a raisin as if for the first time, to scan each and every area of their body, to stretch, turn, twist, breathe, walk, and above all pay attention to moment after moment after moment.” His father, an immunologist, provided fertile background for Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s training at MIT as a molecular biologist. After listening to a talk at MIT by Philip Kapleau Roshi, he became a student of the Korean Zen master Seung Sahn. According to the Shambala Sun article, when he “took some time off from his job in the gross anatomy lab at the UMass Medical Center to do a meditation retreat, it occurred to him while practicing that patients in a hospital could use some mindfulness. It was one of those so obvious but so brand-new realizations that happens to scientists in labs every day: take the mindfulness to the hospital because that’s where the pain is.” But this was easier said than done–we Americans are notorious for questioning anything “foreign” or otherwise “un-American,” and “Eastern religion,” well, back then (and now, as well, for that matter), it’s the province of hippies and star children. So, Dr. Kabat-Zinn had to be careful not to scare off those who could benefit from Buddhist teachings by avoiding Buddhist phrases and “Americanizing” the teachings as much as possible, while teaching the core practices of mindfulness. Shambala Sun summed up his philosophy thus:

“Kabat-Zinn is trained in Buddhism and espouses its principles, but he does not identify himself as a Buddhist. ‘People don’t need any more identifications than they already have,’ he says. ‘If you present the dharma as Buddhism, one half may love it and tell great Zen stories or romantic Chinese Chan stories or exotic Tibetan Vajrayana stories and be sucked into this whole orbit of how wonderful Buddhism is. The other fifty percent may be completely turned off, feeling that some Buddhist evangelist is trying to sucker them into a belief system and on top of that, they probably want money.'”

Making Ancient Teachings Accessible to the Modern American

What’s interesting about Dr. Kabat-Zinn is that, from the beginning, he appears to have been very aware of the stigma associated with Buddhism in the West. Change of any kind is often feared by Americans, so change coming from the East that could be considered “religious proselytizing” of any kind could completely undermine his goal. To mitigate the risk that his program would be rejected out of hand, Dr. Kabat-Zinn started from the premise that MBSR needed to be something that people could understand is plain, “American-ese” while helping people learn the practice and techniques that have worked for thousands of years for those in the East.  As he explains:

“The challenge we are faced with in mindfulness-based stress reduction is how to make use of a vocabulary, structure and format that will invite people into the deep practice of meditation in a way that lets the practice be American. That has happened in every country Buddhism has ever gone to. There are many differences between the Buddhist traditions, yet the heart of it is dharma. At this stage, for Buddhism to become Buddhism it may have to stop being Buddhism. Meditation is not a collection of techniques that belongs to any group. It is a way of being. After all, the Buddha was not a Buddhist.”

Spreading the Word. Of course, what’s interesting about this is that the Buddhist himself “wasn’t a Buddhist,” and his teachings were spread throughout the Eastern world and morphed into a variety of philosophical models, much like language did, into a variety “versions” that suited the needs of peoples, culturally and philosophically. The core components of calming the brain are the same–mindfulness meditation reduces stress, calms down the ancient part of the fight/flight/freeze of the brain, and builds up the pre-frontal cortex, which regulates emotions and higher executive functions. In other words, mindfulness meditation helps improve the “good” aspects of the brain while diminishing the stressful, more anxious “ancient, survival” parts of the brain that can get us into trouble and what I have referred to as “negative feedback loops.” Is it okay if it’s not “real” Buddhism? When asked about the possible perversion of Buddhist teaching by “Westernizing” the practices, Dr. Kabat-Zinn explains that he considered this, and that Buddhist teachings can be perverted or distorted externally or internally, presumably with or without MBSR. This, for me, is the core of the argument against those who would say that any kind of mindfulness teaching other than “strict” Buddhism is somehow blasphemous or a threat. Teachings are–by their very nature–living, breathing, malleable practices. No one owns them. One does not have to be a Buddhist to enjoy the benefits of mindful practice, as others would have you believe.  Thich Nhat Hanh one of Buddhism’s most respected adherents makes this clear, in his many books on how to live a more mindful life, without the expectation or requirement that one become a Buddhist, per se. There is no orthodoxy in his teachings that exclude people if they don’t follow the strictest tenets of Buddhist. All one need do is practice the simple, but effect practice of mindfulness…any time, wrote the preface to Jon Kabat Zinn’s highly regarded work, Full Catastrophe Living:

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“This very readable and practical book [Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Kabat-Zinn] will be helpful in many ways. I believe many people will profit from it. Reading it, you will see that meditation is something that deals with our daily life. The book can be described as a door opening both on the dharma (from the side of the world) and on the world (from the side of the dharma). When the dharma is really taking care of the problems of life, it is true dharma. And this is what I appreciate most about the book. I think the author for having written it.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh

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When he was beginning his program, Dr. Kabat-Zinn talked to many knowledgeable Buddhists he respected about how he had to “protect the dharma” from hm as he spread it to people outside of a Buddhist context. You dont need to protect Dharma

But don’t take my (or Kabat-Zinn’s) word for it…

The Dalai Lama seems to agree, and more than that, has been actively involved in the “dialogue” between Buddhism and Western science and medicine. In the book, The Mind’s Own Physician: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama on the Healing Power of Meditation, the world’s best known Buddhist practitioner and teacher (along with many other Buddhists) worked closely in what started in 2000 as the “Mind and Life Dialogues,” named after the Mind and Life Institute. But the Dalai Lama’s interest in engaging with “the other side” began long before this book was written. In fact, His Holiness has always expressed an interest in science:

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“Although my own interest in science began as the curiosity of a restless young boy growing up in Tibet, gradually the colossal importance of science and technology for understanding the modern world dawned on me. Not only have I sought to grasp specific scientific ideas but have also attempted to explore the wider implications of the new advances in human knowledge and technological power brought about through science.” ~ The Dalai Lama

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As Dr. Kabat-Zinn explains, in the a meeting in 2000, described in the Dalai Lama’s book Destructive Emotions: How Can We Overcome Them? explains how this came to pass:

better whatever you are“His Holiness urged participants to find innovative ways to make the meditative practices being elucidated as effective in regulating difficult emotions more accessible in wholly secular contexts, since their essence is grounded in universal aspects of the human mind and heart, and thus their potential benefits are not at all limited to adherents of Buddhism. Such universalized approaches to the potential benefits of meditative practices are all the more important and urgent given the prevalence of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, as well add high levels of stress and violence, that characterize our modern age. “A gathering of [Buddhist scholars and scientists] would have been unthinkable ten or fifteen years ago. Yet it came to pass in 2005, arising from an earlier and equally unthinkable public meeting held at MIT, and from a stream of smaller invitational meetings that have taken place since 19087 under the auspices of the Mind and Life Institute and with the abiding interest and enthusiastic engagement of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. “…the Mind and Life Dialogues became an ongoing mutual exploration of some of the most profound questions facing humanity in terms of science, ethics, and morality, such as the nature of mind, the nature of the universe and our place in it, the nature of reality, and the potential for the healing and transformation of afflictive emotions into more positive mental states, leading to greater health, harmony, happiness, and possibly both inner and outer peace. Over the years, these dialogues have included psychologists and neuroscientists, physicians and philosophers, physicists, molecular biologists, and educators, and also contemplatives and monastics from various Buddhist lineages as well as other spiritual traditions. Increasingly, more Tibetan monks and nuns have joined as observers and students of these dialogues as a result of His Holiness’s efforts to promote a great exposure to the modern scientific worldview within the monastic community.” ~ Jon Kabat-Zinn

MBSR at a Glance

The following is from the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society’s MBSR program brochure.


From the MBSR PDF brochure:

Dr. Kabat-Zinn on…

..Meditation Practice: “meditation practice is really about coming to our senses, both literally and metaphorically. That we could actually cultivate intimacy with the ordinary…anyone can drop into awareness of the breath. What’s difficult is to keep your awareness of the breath.”

..doing: “We’re always doing doing doing. We could call ourselves human doings rather than human beings.”

…not being present: “Next time you’re in the shower check to see if you’re in the shower. You may not be there, you may be in a meeting. Or your whole meeting may be there with you. And you may be having one hell of an argument with people who are not there.”

This video of JKZ when he was at the University of San Diego is long–about an hour–but well worth watching.


Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Web Page: and biography


OnBeing: Unedited interview with Krista Tippet and JKZ:

Yours in Mental Hygiene,

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The Ancient Brain and Modern Mindfulness


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