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Toward a Mindful Society

As creator of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, Jon Kabat-Zinn has brought the benefits of meditation practice to hundreds of thousands of people and inspired a movement that is changing our society in many ways. In this exclusive interview with the Sun’s BARRY BOYCE, he discusses the philosophy, goals, and promise of the mindfulness movement.

Barry Boyce: Does mindfulness go beyond simply cultivating our attentiveness?

Jon Kabat-Zinn: The ultimate promise of mindfulness is much larger than that, more profound. It helps us understand that our conventional view of ourselves and even what we mean by “self” is incomplete in some very important ways. Mindfulness helps us recognize how and why we mistake the actuality of things for some story we create, and then makes it possible to chart a path toward greater sanity, well-being, and purpose.

Based on that understanding, how would you describe the central mission of your work?

In part 2 of Coming to Our Senses, I talked explicitly about the word dharma—describing it both in terms of the teachings of the Buddha (with a capital D, often spoken of as Buddhadharma) and also as the way things are, the fundamental lawfulness of the universe. So although the Buddha articulated the Dharma, the Dharma itself can’t be Buddhist any more than the law of gravity is English because of Newton, or Italian because of Galileo. It is a universal lawfulness. I specifically asked His Holiness the Dalai Lama at the Mind and Life XIII conference in Washington, D.C., in 2005 whether there was any fundamental difference between Buddhadharma and universal dharma and he said “no.”

The central mission of my work and that of my colleagues at the Center for Mindfulness has been to bring universal dharma into the mainstream of human activity for the benefit of as many people as possible. That’s a very broad calling, so as a skillful means I chose very consciously from the beginning to anchor it in medicine and healthcare. I thought that would be the most fertile ground for introducing meditation and the wisdom and compassion of the dharma in its universal aspect to a wider world, hopefully in an authentic and meaningful way. After all, hospitals function as dukkha magnets in our society, so what better place for the teachings of suffering and the end of suffering to be made available in ways that people might be able to resonate with and adopt as their own?

This year, we’ve been celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the UMass Medical Center. The original vision has in some sense come to fruition, because Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction has indeed spread to hospitals, clinics, and laboratories around the world. It’s being researched, offered clinically, and experimented with in ways that were virtually inconceivable thirty years ago. I think that has come about because the world is longing for authentic experience that transcends the usual limitations we impose on ourselves—through cultural traditions, ideologies, belief systems, and so forth. People are searching for ways to realize the full spectrum of their humanity.

Why do you think a scientific approach is important in spreading the practice of mindfulness?

I am not really interested in “spreading” mindfulness, so much as I am interested in igniting passion in people for what is deepest and best within all of us, but which is usually hidden and rarely accessible. Science is a particular way of understanding the world that allows some people to approach what they would otherwise shun, and so can be used as a skillful means for opening people’s minds. By bringing science together with meditation, we're beginning to find new ways, in language people can understand, to show the benefits of training oneself to become intimate with the workings of one’s own mind in a way that generates greater insight and clarity.

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