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A leading mindfulness teacher shares insights to counter tech addiction and isolation

Jon Kabat-Zinn is a leading researcher into the health effects of meditation. He developed the Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction protocol in 1979.
D Dipasupil
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Jon Kabat-Zinn is a leading researcher into the health effects of meditation. He developed the Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction protocol in 1979.

In 1979, a report from the Surgeon General inspired Jon Kabat-Zinn to action. The U.S. "Healthy People" report chronicled Americans' struggles with chronic diseases, connecting poor health with harmful social conditions like poverty, as well as unhealthy habits.

"It was an extremely powerful articulation that no matter how many billions of dollars we throw at the problems of health in the American population, no amount of money can do the job," says Kabat-Zinn, who at the time was a researcher at University of Massachusetts Medical School and taught yoga and meditation on the side. "We have to ignite passion in people for taking care of themselves."

So Kabat-Zinn started a clinic to teach what he called Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction – or MBSR – at UMass Medical School. The eight-week course offered a structured, secular approach to meditation – which involves learning to maintain awareness in the body in the present moment. The goal, says Kabat-Zinn was to teach people "how to take better care of yourself – not instead of medicine, but as a complement to whatever medicine can do."

In the decades that followed, his scientific studies, teachings and books grew into a movement – now active in hundreds of hospitals and medical centers – to use meditation and mindfulness in mainstream medical care. It also birthed a new area of research showing the practice can help with conditions like pain, anxiety and immune responses.

In recent years, mindfulness has gained traction as a potential tool to address problems on the population level, including trauma, loneliness and addiction. Kabat-Zinn, now Professor Emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School and author of several books including the classic, Wherever You Go, There You Are, says societal transformation was always his intent for this powerful tool.

In a wide ranging interview, Kabat-Zinn shared his thoughts on how mindfulness can extend beyond individual self-improvement – and affect social change. Here are five of his insights:

These interview excerpts have been edited for length and clarity.

1. The widespread adoption of mindfulness today is 'radical beyond imagining'

Medicine doesn't handle many of the [societal] problems that we're facing now very well. For instance, the Surgeon General, Vivek Murthy, says loneliness is an epidemic that is causing enormous mental health problems – in the aftermath of the pandemic, even more so. And that's where mindfulness comes in.

[If you look at the] number of papers published per year on the subject of mindfulness in medical literature... it's just exploded and it's continuing to go in that direction. Today, there are centers for mindfulness in universities and medical centers all around the world.

So in a sense, with my aim of it becoming a public health intervention – it's already functioning that way. But what about taking it to the next level where government – which has a much bigger purview than any university or health center – starts to take responsibility?

This is what Vivek Murthy is doing – he has put out his own guided mindfulness meditations on an app called Calm.

Never in my wildest imagination could I have ever conceived that the Surgeon General of the United States would, in his own voice, out of his own meditative experience, offer a whole range of brief, beautiful, accessible guided meditations for the American population.

It's radical beyond imagining from the point of view of 1979.

2. Mindfulness combats social isolation by helping us connect with ourselves and others

There's a big difference between being lonely, which is [behind the] epidemic of loneliness – and learning how to be alone. It's very hard to be with other people in an authentic way unless you know yourself.

Mindfulness is so powerful because it teaches you how to be at home with yourself, starting with the body. [It starts with] a willingness to stay in the present moment, and just see what happens.

Everybody has a body. Every single person is breathing. And do we ever pay attention to it? This is like turning the tables on our own self-talk about how inadequate we are and saying: look, it's a bloody miracle. Everything about being human is an absolute miracle.

We all come from nameless generations for gazillions of years to give rise to this kind of genetic chromosome combination called "me." I live for a relatively short period of time, pass on my genes maybe, and then: gone. So why not recognize the miracle of the present moment?

You are a remarkable human being with infinite capacities for love, wisdom, connectivity, for contributing to making the world a safer, better place or [for] whatever it is that you most love.

And the miracle of miracles is that there's awareness, and it is embodied. And it has profound implications for healing, both at the level of the body and at the level of the body politic and therefore public health.The more people take responsibility for themselves, the more they recognize that there is no such thing as "myself" in isolation.

3. In our tech-driven world the big risk is that 'you end up being remote from yourself'

We're so distracted. We were so distractible for thousands of years before the advent of the digital revolution. And now, we have a supercomputer in our pocket or purse or backpack. We're continually looking for stuff to entertain us, amuse us, distract us, carry us away, divert us. It's become extremely addictive.

And what are we diverting ourselves from? Who we actually are.Ultimately, the biggest public health problem is [that] you end up being remote from yourself.

From a public health perspective, before we give up our analog selves, maybe we need to go back to some first principles.Maybe we need to understand what it means, inwardly and outwardly, to be an analog being before we wind up becoming so hybridized or colonized by the digital.

Already [many are] sounding the alarm that the mental health consequences of these kinds of digitized relationships are creating a kind of environment of dis-ease – let's put a hyphen between the "dis" and the "ease" – that can lead to all sorts of real disease.

We know from [decades of] research now that the mind can actually drive disease within the body, but it can also reverse it and heal it.

Meditate with Jon Kabat-Zinn

4. 'Befriend' your mind and you may discover 'there's more right with you than wrong with you'

The work [of mindfulness] is the interior work of cultivating moment-to-moment awareness, of paying attention to one's own mind, one's own body, one's own heart – the ways in which the mind plagues us and drives us crazy and compounds our stress. And then learning to befriend everything, putting out the welcome mat to see that your awareness of pain, for instance, is pain-free in this moment.

If you're anxious and you know that you're anxious, you already have a way to hold that anxiety, because the knowing is awareness.

Awareness is much, much bigger than thought. So what if we learn to access it so much that it becomes where we live, where we hang out?

My default mode – as the neuroscientist might say – is awareness rather than the helter-skelter mind that's all over the place – liking this, not liking that, having ideas about how I'm not good and all of that kind of stuff.

What mindfulness offers right from the start is the direct experience and evidentiary proof that there's more right with you than wrong with you, no matter what's wrong with you. And the proof is: Are you breathing? Do you have a body? Do you exist?

5. Life itself is the meditation practice

[It's better] not to have an agenda timewise on how long this should take before I reach full liberation or anything like that. But make this your default mode how you actually live your life – because every single moment is the only precious moment.

There's a line fromDerek Walcott, who's an Afro-Caribbean Nobel laureate poet: "Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart / to itself, to the stranger who has loved you / all your life, whom you ignored / for another, who knows you by heart. Take down the love letters from the bookshelf, / the photographs, the desperate notes / peel your own image from the mirror. / Sit. Feast on your life."

That's very wise advice – and the sitting, you know, he's not joking. I mean, it's: sit. You don't have to call it meditation. If you just think of it as sitting, you'd be wrong in a certain way because it's living. If life itself is not the meditation practice, then there is no meditation practice.

I don't see why all Americans can't do that in the same way as we all go out and play tennis or pickleball or football or whatever. I mean, everybody can do it. There are an infinite number of doors into the room of mindfulness or heartfulness. And it doesn't matter which door you go through. The important thing is to enter the room of your own potential as a human being.

It all rests right here in this present moment, in awareness. And so you've got everything you need.

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Pien Huang is a health reporter on the Science desk. She was NPR's first Reflect America Fellow, working with shows, desks and podcasts to bring more diverse voices to air and online.