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Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D.
Founder, Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society
University of Massachusetts Medical School
"The Healing Power of Mindfulness: Living Your Life as if it Really Matters"
May 4, 2001

Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D.: I like to think of the word "healing" in the relationship to curing, as coming to terms with things as they are. What healing is is a process through which we come to terms with the actuality of our situation in the present moment. Now, the beauty of healing is that healing is possible even in the absence or the very improbable likelihood of a cure -- that the work of healing can be done right up to our last breath.

There is no moment that is not appropriate that in some way embracing the actuality of things that does not mean we have to like them or that I’m talking about passive resignation by any stretch of the imagination. I’m talking about an active embrace with all of the faculties that we can bring to bear on how things are right in the present moment; to come to terms with things as they are. Why? Because in the process of dropping-in on the actuality of things, then, in that acceptance, we can unlock our potential to grow. And, sometimes the body has its ear to the rail and is listening in those moments when we actually accept rather than continue to struggle or fight with things as they are. And then, lo-and-behold, the next moment, things actually can shift and change because as long as we are breathing, our perspective on our patients is that – and we say this to people when they are referred to the Stress Reduction Clinic, no matter what it is that they are referred for. And we take people across a very wide range of chronic medical conditions and even sometimes acute medical conditions. I like to say to people, "from our point of view, as long as you’re breathing, there is more right with you than wrong with you, no matter what’s wrong with you." We do not have a very good track record with the dead. There are other people who specialize in that kind of thing, and that’s something else. But for us, we really want to engage with people who want to move-in on their life while it’s happening. And that includes what I come to call the "full catastrophe" of life.

The entirety of the human conditions – the good, the bad, and the ugly -- the things that cause us so much pain and so much suffering and where it does feel sometimes like there is no way out and that I am stuck and trapped. Whether it is in this body or in this mindset with these demons, with these feelings of inadequacy, with these feelings of unworthiness . . . whatever it is when we begin to feel that there is not possibility for growing. Those are interesting moments if we are willing to stand inside them. So, from the perspective of the meditation practice of any kind, meditation is embracing things as they are through our capacity to pay attention, to actually become aware of things as they are.

The first thing to become aware of when you start to pay attention this way is that virtually every aspect of our experience is colored by our past experience and by our ideas and thoughts and opinions about how things are and about what that means for the future. So, for instance, if you have a chronic back condition and you’ve been through three neuro-surgeries and you have not only not gotten better, but gotten worse, that’s a huge thing to have to deal with. Or a cancer diagnosis: that one day you felt totally fine and the next day you have Leukemia or a tumor is discovered. Those are moments of huge turbulence and a complete turning upside down of one’s life an one’s sense of self and one’s sense of meaning. And medicine, from the very beginning, has really always been about the embracing of the person who is suffering with compassion and with empathy and with the intention to serve from the deepest place of one’s self as a healer or as a physician, as a teacher. That means in some way, recognizing the sacred privilege of being able to work with people who are in pain and suffering. And do what it is we can for them, using all of our greatest diagnostic methodologies and treatment interventions, but at the same time recognizing that we are dealing with a whole human being, and that our first calling is to at least do no harm. And, if we don’t recognize the person as a whole human being, we’re already in some way doing harm.

Probably all of you have had the experience at one point or another of going to some figure of authority (whether it be a physician or a teacher or anybody else) who did not accord you their full attention while you had some heavy issue that you needed to communicate about. How does that make us feel? No matter how good they are in the technical issues, if there is a certain way in which they are not attending to you – if they are not present for you – does that not feel horrible inside; complete experience of being disregarded? And so, that has always been an element of the art of medicine. The art of medicine is honoring the sacredness of the encounter between the physician, or the healer, and the patient, and knowing that there is certain element of mystery here, that I can do so much and I can’t do anymore, but I will stay with you until the end, no matter what that end is.

Now there’s another element here that is becoming more and more possible with the development of all sorts of new lines of evidence in the past twenty to thirty years. Understanding that human beings – are actually extraordinary living systems that are capable of learning and growing and that we sit on top of vast immeasurable inner resources for learning and growing and healing across the life span. But, no one ever told us that. That could be introduced into the partnership between us as clients, or customers, or patients – the recipients of health care, or disease care, because to a large degree we have a disease care system, not a health care system. We don’t even know what health is. In addition to those interactions that can happen between the physician and the patient, imagine if the patient were invited to participate in his or her healing by tapping into (and learning if one didn’t know how) those deep inner resources for learning and growing and healing and potentially for transformation so that no matter what dimension of the full catastrophe of being human was up for you in this moment, that you had the sense that it was workable, in partnership, and that you had some degree of sacred responsibility for yourself.

The army understood this big time when they hired some expensive Madison Avenue firm to come up with the slogan, "Be All You Can Be." That’s really what it’s about – realizing that a lot of the time we diminish ourselves, a lot of it through our own fear or through our own scars that we’ve acquired over the course of our lifetime that allow us to actually believe that we are less than we truly are. Of course we don’t show that to the world most of the time so we put on a some kind of mask and make it look like we are just totally with it. But sometimes there is a feeling of loss inwardly or a feeling of emptiness inwardly that is not so healthy. So, the notion of mindfulness-based-stress-reduction is that hospitals could actually create healing environments where people could be referred by their physicians to do that interior work of looking deeply into themselves by paying attention; not the interior work of becoming a Buddhist or becoming anything else except maybe more yourself. And that, to my mind, is a worthy work and the hardest work on the planet I would say as well.

Our experience with over 12,000 patients at the University of Massachusetts Medical School over the past 21 years that we’ve been running this program is that people take to this like ducks to water. We train people fairly intensively in meditation practice. It is not some kind of dime store-Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse Band-Aid-type thing. This is like really living your life as if it really mattered – if your health, if your well being, if your sanity really mattered. What would you give to tap it in its fullness? Would that not actually be a worthy lifetime’s worth? And is it, in fact, not something that could be lived, embodied in such a way that it did not prevent you from doing everything else, but that it in fact enlivened everything else that you are and did. From that perspective you might say that the doing that we do can come out of our being (if we had any familiarity whatsoever with being).

I want to point out a few interesting things, etymologically speaking just to sort of tie this together. One is that the words, "medicine" and "meditation" sound alike when you think about it. In 1979 when I proposed bringing yoga and meditation into the mainstream of an academic medical center that was almost conceived like the Philistines were at the door. We were going to tear apart Louis Pasteur and Cochran and all of the incredibly hard-won struggles to move towards a scientific basis of medicine and now all of the sudden you got ringing bells and meditating and we’re all going to be a bunch of weirdos that stand on our heads! But I like to ask the medical students, "what is the root meaning of the word medicine and doesn’t it in fact sound like the word meditation?" In fact they are deeply connected. The word "medicine" comes from the Latin, medico, which means "to cure," but the European root of it means, "to measure". So what does medicine, or for that matter, meditation, have to do with "to measure." The way we think of measure is that I get out my measuring tape and I hold up this external standard and I measure how wide the arms of a chair are. That’s not the meaning of "measure" that’s being pointed at. What’s being pointed at is the more platonic notion of measure that everything has it’s own right to inward measure. We speak of sometimes the "measure of the man." Everything has its own right inward measure. So medicine would be the restoring of right inward measure when it’s disturbed.

We can update it and think of it as homeostasis or dynamic health. Because our health, that’s what I meant when I said that we don’t know what health is, the health of a 20-year-old is very different from the health of an 80-year-old and sometimes 80-year-olds are a hell of a lot healthier than 20-year-olds, even well 20-year-olds. There’s a certain kind of mystery, here, while it is very valuable to understand pathophysiology so that we can really understand what goes wrong in this system, it’s also helpful to know what this sort of outer-reaches of what the system is capable of are. And that is in some way why we love the Olympics and Olympic athletes and movement artists who can transport us with how they complete a movement and defy gravity because in some sense they say you could do that too, this is what the human body could do. That’s developing our capacities to the highest possible level. Or imagine if we could understand health enough to actually shift the scale in the direction of the highest possible level of health and well-being, say starting from infancy and moving right through into the very end of life. We would honor health in every way, shape and form. Medicine is the restoring of right in with measure using whatever powerful tools are at our disposal to do that when it is disrupted.

What is meditation? Meditation is the direct perception of right in with measure. It is like already here. Your inward measure is already here. And even if you are suffering from some kind of a chronic illness or condition, there is a certain way in which that condition is held in a larger wholeness. The right inward measure that we attend to in meditation is things as they are. You say, "okay, this is the measure now. This is how it is." We see that in even being out of balance, because it’s dynamic, there is the potential to bring it back into balance, that we can counterbalance it, that we can actually flow with even huge amounts of pain and terror and various elements of suffering in ways that liberate us from the suffering, that actually you feel different, you feel free of the condition even though the condition itself is not going to change. It’s an inner shift – a rotation in consciousness – to understand that you are larger than your body, even if your body is missing, say, an arm or a leg or a breast, or an eye, that you as a human being are still whole. The word, "health," comes from the root meaning "wholeness." So medicine and meditation, in fact, both relate to a wholeness. It also has the dimension of "holy" and "healing," so that they all come together in this way when we begin to pay attention to how we are whole human beings instead of just fragmented human beings.

I’d like to share a couple of poems with you, and I share poems mostly from the western tradition so that you see that this is an element that is in all cultures (and particularly in our culture). When you are listening to a poem by Emily Dickinson, you have to listen especially attentively because she does things with words and with spacing that no one else did before her or after her. Listen carefully with your whole being and kind of drink it in with your skin.

Me, from myself to banish, had I art

Impregnable my fortress unto all heart

But since myself assault me how have I peace

Except by subjugating consciousness

But since we’re mutual monarch how this be

Except by abdication, me of me

One of the great questions of all the meditative traditions and all of the psychological traditions and all of the philosophical traditions is, how much do we abdicate our own wholeness? How much do we, in fact, fragment and split ourselves off and look in the mirror and say, "well, that’s not me," because it’s not what you want to see. Or whatever it is and whatever ways we disregard the actuality of our being.

There is another poem by Juan Ramon Jimenez who is a Nobel laureate and great Spanish poet:

I am not I

I am this one standing beside me who I do not see

Who I sometimes manage to visit

But at other times I forget

What we’re talking about is reclaiming our wholeness. The meditative traditions have been developing interior technologies to explore this terrain for thousands of years and they have come up with some pretty amazing things. But they are really, in many ways, foreign to our culture. Although, Native Americans would not consider them at all foreign, native African traditions would not consider it at all foreign. Some of them have to do with stillness, some of them have to do with movement, some of them have to do with place, but they all have to do with presence. They all have to do with stepping outside of time. And what do I mean by stepping outside of time? I mean stepping into the only moment that we are alive in – the present moment. A lot of the time, if you start to pay attention to what is on your mind, you will see that it is all over the place. Much of the time is spent in the future worrying. Any of you notice that? You laugh, but it can be a torment. It’s not just worrying about ourselves. If you are a parent, you are worrying about your children all the time. Or, we are worrying about the past and how great it was when or why it is this way now. Again, it can take a lot of our energy to pass over. The future has not happened now. The only time we ever have to have anything be different is this moment. But we say, "well, this moment I’m busy, so I’ll do it some other moment." And twenty years go by. Twenty years can go by just like that.

David White. How many of you know who David White is? He’s a wonderful poet and teacher (we sometimes teach together). He wrote a beautiful book called, The Heart Aroused, and he works with corporate America around issues of work and wholeness and soul. He just wrote another book called, Crossing the Unknown Sea – Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity. Very beautiful. David White was working with a group of AT&T executives and he had them writing poems. One senior manager wrote a poem that went like this:

One day I turned my head for a moment

And it became my life.

You know that one where you get caught someplace and then you forget? This moment is always a time to come back and remember, rejoin the membership in the wholeness that you are. No matter what has happened, it is always possible for us to do that. If you stood in the present, imagine what the effect would be on the next moment. It would be huge because if you are not in the present moment, things come at you, you don’t quite know how to deal with them and then the next moment has consequences because you were not really paying attention. If you want the future to be different, the place to work is here and now with things as they are. Then the body has its ear to the rail and it responds, the heart responds, the mind responds, and all of the sudden we get into dimensions that have really been mapped for thousands of years. It’s what His Holiness talks about, the Dalai Lama. Lots of different spiritual teachers talk about it, but when push comes to shove, they all go home at the end of the day and you are still the same old person you always were (and maybe some nice inspiration). The challenge, here, is to do some disciplined work (and that’s what it is – work) or a play. We challenge our patients to actually carve out some time everyday to drop into being. Who has time for that? You have to make the time. When I talk about stepping out of time, I’m talking about stepping into this very moment.

I don’t want this to be too weird, but if you are willing, let’s just drop-in on ourselves for a moment or two. I will actually ring some bells. Notice how everybody is shifting? I love that! People kind of know, "okay, I’m supposed to look a certain way or feel a certain way." My sense of reading the room is that people sat up more. Kind of get a little more alert. We know that the body actually has its own language. What I like to say is that for sitting meditation, and sitting meditation is not what meditation is really about. Meditation is about being entirely who you already are. There is not place to go, there is nothing to get, there is nothing to fix. It is about opening to the full spectrum of who you are right now. And, understanding who you are right now and understanding or seeing the interconnectedness of things. This brings up tremendous compassion including self-compassion and also wisdom. But, you don’t have to go anywhere because you are already whole. If we recognize that, the healing would be in this very moment and we move from here.

So, I will ring some bells. What I would invite you to do is to sit in the posture that embodies dignity, whatever that means to you, and to follow the sound of the bells, such as it is, into silence.

And if you care to, you can allow your eyes to gently close (although that is not necessary). See if you can allow your mind to alight on the breath as if you were coming upon a very shy animal sitting on a tree stump in a forest clearing, with that kind of gentleness. Or as a leaf might flutter down to the surface of a pond and then ride on the waves of the in-breath and the out-breath. Just give your attention over to feeling the breath moving in your body. Let that be center stage in the field of your awareness of this moment. Just feel the full duration of the breath coming in, and the full duration of the breath leaving the body without having to do anything. You don’t need to do take over the controls of breathing. It’s been doing it just great all morning. You are just basically surfing on the waves of your breath with full awareness, riding on the waves of your breath, feeling the sensations of the breath in your body – either at the nostrils or, more indirectly, the gentle expanding of the belly on the in-breaths and the receding of the belly on the out-breaths. This seems so simple. It is simple, but it is not easy. The taste that I have given you is simply that – a taste. This is an incredibly rich adventure into this domain of the internal landscape. But, mindfulness can be brought equally well to the outer landscape as well, so that ultimately we understand that there is no outer and no inner; there is no fragmentation whatsoever. We can reside in our wholeness moment by moment. Or if we lose it, we can come immediately back to it because it never leaves. From that point of view, any moment is a great moment for dropping-in on yourself, and any place is a great place for doing it, for being yourself. In moments of great difficulty, of great stress, of great trauma we can bring this kind of attention right to those moments.

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