Mindfulness for everyone
Last April, I spent an evening with Jon Kabat-Zinn, the biologist and mindfulness teacher who gave a public speech at the Facultad de Medicina de la UCM in Madrid, Spain. Or rather, as he called it, he performed a dance with the almost-simultaneous translator—a very skilled Spanish woman who sat next to him.
I’m grateful to the university for not only opening its doors for free so I could sit there with Kabat-Zinn, but also streaming his YouTube speech for free. The attitude in Spain contrasts with the attitude in Denmark, where Kabat-Zinn’s talks and seminars cost anywhere from US$25 to US$300. Of course, things must be financed, but isn’t the idea of mindfulness supposed to be all-embracing and include those people who don’t fit into the demographics of the white upper-middle class?
In Madrid, Kabat-Zinn said many familiar and interesting things; he guided a short meditation and read poetry. “Let us bring our awareness to our breathing,” he said. “Mindfulness is not about the breath or any other object. It’s about focus and attention.”
Pay attention to the present moment without any objective. Cultivate your awareness to everything. Become one with life. For me, this is an ethical practice, as Simone Weil said, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”
The connection to Dubliners
In 1914, James Joyce published Dubliners, a collection of 15 short stories. (Kabat-Zinn mentioned it briefly, although he confused the reference.) Joyce writes about one Mr. Duffy in one of the short stories, “A Painful Case”: “He lived at a little distance from his body, regarding his own acts with doubtful side-glasses.”
Mr. Duffy isn’t in his body; he’s not even aware of it. He’s disconnected from the world because he doesn’t inhabit it and is detached from it due to his thoughts, feelings, and actions. However, the body is the foundation of mindfulness. We think, feel, and experience with our bodies. This is why the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze has often referenced Spinoza’s question, “What can a body do?”
Do we know exactly what the body and mind are capable of? I doubt it. Thus, Mr. Duffy’s problem is related to mindfulness.
Mindfulness is relational and concerned with connectivity, but Mr. Duffy is disconnected from everything. Paying attention to what arises in the present moment in a non-judgmental way is all about connecting our bodies and minds to life. Living even a short distance apart from our bodies is a direct pathway to stress. And the distance only grows as we gradually postpone our engagement with life because we just want to finish yet another project. Today’s capitalist world is filled with an unhealthy desire for prestige and status.
Balancing mindfulness and critical thought
Mindfulness is a core human capacity. “It’s non-doing,” Kabat-Zinn said several times. He stressed this because the human being has become a human doing by constantly trying to achieve something. Although this is taxing, non-doing is not passivity but rather, acceptance.
The most important message, I think, was put into words when Kabat-Zinn said, “Nothing is good for everything.”
“Have we lost all critical thinking?” he asked. Skepticism can be healthy, even though pessimism isn’t.
“Mindfulness doesn’t promote meditation’s fundamentalism,” he stressed. “Don’t just blindly believe; instead, demonstrate the effect of meditation beyond all doubt. Be your own scientist. Test your mind. Explore life and different forms of life.”
The moral is: Live this moment. “Don’t imitate, create,” said Kabat-Zinn, emphasizing that no one should live like him or any other person, although many today seem to be on the lookout for gurus to lead the way. We all have our share of problems and suffering.
By the way, to suffer means “to carry,” as in carrying anguish, anxiety, fear, insecurity, and/or boredom, to mention just a few possible states of mind. These mental states weigh us down, even though they all involve temporary thoughts.
This isn’t to claim that we can overcome all problems through mindfulness. For example, sometimes we suffer (or nature suffers) because of political and social situations that make our lives unbearable, and yet the challenge isn’t to dismiss our desire or lack thereof, but to accept what’s currently occurring. Deleuze called this becoming worthy of what’s happening to us. Following that, we can then make qualitative changes.
This, of course, is never easy, but with practice, we can all cultivate awareness without losing our capacity to think critically. Mindfulness can help us see what knowledge we should bequeath and the best possible way for us to bequeath it, along with the world itself, to the generations that follow us.
Read more about Jon Kabat-Zinn and his mindfulness-focused work in MBSR: Mindfulness courses that help practitioners reduce stress and relax»