Thrive Global: Did you ever expect mindfulness to become so mainstream?
Jon Kabat-Zinn: I did, actually, have a vision in 1979 that came to be true: That mindfulness would have a tremendous impact if the science said that it had been clinically successful at the medical center where I was starting Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Then, because of its impact on mainstream medicine and neuroscience and health care, it would move out into society.
The whole idea was to transform and heal the world, and I know that sounds arrogant, but that was, in fact, the sense of it. But mindfulness is something at the heart of Buddhist practice — it’s not like I made up “mindfulness” in 1979.
TG: Is it possible to have a more mindful relationship with technology?
JKZ: You can be more mindful of how addicted you are, but unless you impose behaviors on yourself, it’s like heroin. It’s not like you can live without technology — I own an iPhone. But you can’t live with it unless you find some kind of way to not lose yourself in digital reality to the point where you forget that your body is analog.
It’s a matter of not being there for an experience because you were texting about it or tweeting about it. That can happen when you have a baby. You’re not there for having a baby because you’re sharing the experience so fast. You want to get feedback about what you said so much that you miss your own analog experience. That would be a tragedy.
My son and I teach retreats for Silicon Valley leaders, and it’s largely with the hope that the people who brought us this technology might recognize how wonderful and how simultaneously harmful and distracting and addicting it is, and find ways to utilize and transform it so we don’t just create a deeper and deeper hole for ourselves.
The biggest distractor is not your iPhone — it’s your own mind. You can’t stop your mind from secreting thoughts, but what you can do is not be caught by them. That’s an art form and that’s what mindfulness training is about.
It’s not really about the breathing, or the object of attention, but it’s the attending itself. We are so seduced by thinking and emotion and we don’t realize that awareness is at least as powerful of a function. It can hold any emotion, no matter how destructive, any thought, no matter how gigantic.
That’s where the transformative power lies, that you’re adding a measure of deep introspection and perception to ordinary experience. And then realizing: There is no such thing as ‘ordinary experience.’ Everything is extraordinary.
TG: Seeing the extraordinary in the everyday is part of the path.
JKZ: Mindfulness represents a new way of being in a relationship with yourself, one that’s catalytic of a new way of ongoing learning and healing. The transformation comes with the understanding that you are not your thoughts about yourself. You are far, far bigger, more nuanced and multidimensional than who you think you are, the story of you.
In some sense, it’s befriending yourself. You don’t have to meditate in a cave for 50 years; you just need to realize that. These meditative practices are really meant to recognize and learn to inhabit that domain of being, as opposed to fragment it into the sacred-secular divide, the mind-body divide, or the self-other divide.