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How to start a practice of mindfulness


You hear a lot about mindfulness these days, but what is that really?

JON KABAT-ZINN: Mindfulness is awareness. Awareness is a very, very big deal. It gives us new degrees of freedom for dealing with the challenges that are facing us as individuals and also as a species.

CHANG: Jon Kabat-Zinn is the founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. It's a program that's now used by hospitals and medical clinics around the world. For NPR's Life Kit, Shereen Marisol Meraji spoke with Jon Kabat-Zinn about how to manage stress, uncertainty and difficulties by paying close attention.

SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, BYLINE: So where does meditation fit into mindfulness?

KABAT-ZINN: So mindfulness is often spoken of as the heart of Buddhist meditation. So it's a form of meditation that really is the cultivation of intimacy with awareness. We have to learn to enter the domain of awareness because so much of the time we're living in distraction. And that was true for thousands of years. So we didn't have to wait for the iPhone to be distracted. But now we're distracted to an infinitely higher degree than ever before.

Mindfulness can slow it down so that we actually are capable of driving our own vehicle, so to speak, and living optimal lives of well-being that are not merely self-centered to optimize things for ourselves. The more we are our full dimensionality of being, the more we are there for our family, for our children, for our, you know, partners, for our friends and for our colleagues at work and for the world itself.

MERAJI: For everybody who's listening to this who's like, yes, I want this in my life; I want to figure out how to be more authentically myself; I want to be more aware; and I want to be a better steward to this planet - where do they start if they've never had a mindfulness practice?

KABAT-ZINN: Yeah, good question. And the other thing is, of course, if you are simply aware of all of the catastrophic things that are happening, you might feel completely disempowered and depressed and anxious about the whole thing. So where do you start? A good place to start is awareness of the body. Right off the bat, this is an invitation to just drop in and experience the actuality of, say, the body - breathing. So in this moment, if you're not driving out there as you're listening to this and you can close your eyes...

MERAJI: OK, I'm doing that.

KABAT-ZINN: ...One of the first things you'll notice when you drop in in this way on your own experience is that there's breath going on. This is a very powerful door into the present moment because we don't care about yesterday's breath or the next breath or the last breath. The only thing we care about is this breath and the feeling of it; not the thinking about it but the feeling of the sensations of the breath coming in and out as I'm speaking. That's awareness.

And so after not very long, you've probably discovered it already, but the mind is going to start drifting away. Has that happened already? It's going to go here. It's going to go there. And so when you notice that your mind, which you gave the assignment to feel the breath in the present moment - when you notice it's not doing that, but it's off someplace else, having lunch in a restaurant or reviewing something that happened a long time ago or whatever it is, notice what's on your mind in this moment because you know what? It's on your mind in this moment. You're back in the present moment. As soon as you recognize that I'm off the breath, I don't even remember the breath. And look; guess what? The body's going to be totally loyal, and it will keep on breathing. So you can begin again.

And what's growing is a lot more interesting than a muscle. What grows is your access to awareness and the ability to, in some sense, live an - awake and aware of life and let that become your more or less go-to mode or your default mode rather than being in stress reactivity all the time and really being more or less mindless, especially when the proverbial stuff is hitting the proverbial fan. That's when we tend to see red and lose our minds completely.

And then one last thing is that the real meditation practice is the 24 hours itself. It's life itself. So it's not sitting on a cushion in a cross-legged posture or lying in a yoga pose called the corpse pose or anything like that. That's all fabulous, but we're cultivating that so that we get more comfortable with living our - all our moments as if they really mattered and therefore being there for them - the good ones, the bad ones, the ugly ones, the stressful ones, the difficult ones, the painful ones - and understanding that the more our heart and our mind are open in awareness, the more we have new degrees of freedom that are both profoundly healthy and healing but also help us learn, grow and transform across life itself.

MERAJI: There are misconceptions out there about the benefits of a mindfulness practice. What do you think the biggest misconceptions are?

KABAT-ZINN: The biggest misconception, I would say, is that you're supposed to make your mind blank and that if your mind is blank, then your stress will go away and you won't be in any emotional pain or physical pain and meditation is some special state, and if you're doing it right, you'll just nail it. You'll just land it, and then everything will be fantastic. Let me just say that that is such a crock...

MERAJI: (Laughter).

KABAT-ZINN: ...That it really is a kind of fiction that is unfortunately very prevalent in this society. There's no place to go. There's nothing to do, and there's no special state that you're supposed to attain. So it's the hardest work in the world. It's also the easiest work in the world if you're willing to actually be touched enough by whatever your impulse is to care about it or to care about yourself in this way.

And then the benefits are just vast, and the costs are minimal in a way because you're working on non-distraction. And since we're so distracted always anyway, we're not really ourselves when we're not really present. If you're in some sense nodding your head or something is resonating in your heart with even 10% of what I've said, that's really trustworthy. And it's not coming from me. It's coming from you, and it's coming from the dance that's happening between my voice and your heart and your ears.

And there's a certain kind of mystery to this where we're all each other's teachers, and we're all each other's fellow humans. And so I trust that as listeners, you'll find your own way. And it's kind of like following a thread, and at a certain point, you'll follow this thread. And then you'll go in another direction, and you'll trust that. And you'll follow that thread, and then you finally realize that all these threads are really your own heart befriending itself.

CHANG: That was Jon Kabat-Zinn speaking with Shereen Marisol Meraji for Life Kit.

And if you want to be mindful about your resolutions in the New Year, check out Life Kit's Resolution Planner. There you will find over 40 ideas to help with your own personal growth. You can find that at Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Shereen Marisol Meraji is the co-host and senior producer of NPR's Code Switch podcast. She didn't grow up listening to public radio in the back seat of her parent's car. She grew up in a Puerto Rican and Iranian home where no one spoke in hushed tones, and where the rhythms and cadences of life inspired her story pitches and storytelling style. She's an award-winning journalist and founding member of the pre-eminent podcast about race and identity in America, NPR's Code Switch. When she's not telling stories that help us better understand the people we share this planet with, she's dancing salsa, baking brownies or kicking around a soccer ball.