I'd read and heard of Jon Kabat-Zinn for years. But I hadn't really grasped, until recently, that he is first a scientist — a molecular biologist — and second one of the world's leading experts on meditation. And it was when I listened to talks he'd given at Google and MIT that I really wanted to have this conversation with him. He is the real thing — a teacher — with a personal combination of erudition, warmth, wit, and wisdom. As he told me as we began to speak, the seeds were planted in his earliest life with his microbiologist father and painter mother to pursue the nature of the human condition in its fullest sense. In three decades of work at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Jon Kabat-Zinn has contributed mightily to demystifying meditation — taking it out of a box that says it is only for Buddhists or special practitioners, then studying its effects clinically and bringing the fruits of his research into life-changing work with the ill and dying, with leaders, with Olympic athletes. He has followed a conviction that began to grow in him after he began to meditate, while a doctoral student at MIT in 1966, that if the deepest insights behind mindfulness meditation are true, they must be true for everyone, in every circumstance. That is, the facts of impermanence and imperfection as a commonplace part of life apply to us all; we all struggle to live gracefully with those realities; and we all create suffering for ourselves and those around us as we resist and deny them.
Such insights ring especially clear in a moment like this. Our recent economic boom was created and sustained by unrealistic expectations and fueled by the ever steeper tradeoffs they required. Living with an expectation and insistence that things can continue to "go my way," as Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it plainly, is nothing short of a delusion, one that will create suffering for ourselves or others — if not in every moment, then somewhere down the line. He also makes the helpful point — echoing Sharon Salzberg's wisdom in our Repossessing Virtue project — that in American culture, we personalize the consequences of impermanence and imperfection. We equate professional and economic failure with shame and success with superiority. But you are not better or worse as a human being when your circumstances change for the better or worse, Jon Kabat-Zinn says; life is merely doing what life does. The real challenge that defines our humanity is this: how do we take on reality as it unfolds, navigate it, and truly stay awake and alive in this moment of life, whatever its contours. And here is the silver lining, if you will, of Buddhism's frank insistence on suffering as a feature of life: a parallel insistence that equanimity and even joy are within our grasp in every moment, without anything at all needing to change. The stakes for getting this right are high. As Thoreau said, in one of Jon Kabat-Zinn's favorite lines, "Only that day dawns to which we are awake." I've come to think of meditation and yoga as spiritual technologies that have been mined — by contemplatives in general, and Buddhists in particular — for thousands of years, and are now presenting themselves to 21st-century human beings when we need them the most. Jon Kabat-Zinn describes the present historical moment for humanity in terms that intrigue and compel me. We call our species Homo sapiens sapiens — the species that knows, and knows that it knows. But as of this juncture in our history, we have barely begun to grasp our capacity to tune the remarkable instrument of our minds, even as we live with the increasingly sophisticated consequences of its powers to create and destroy. He also points out that our wondrous, seductive, addictive new generations of technologies — at once liberating and stress-inducing — are themselves changing us. And they will force us to re-examine the deepest meaning of what it means to be human. Part of this work, surely, will be in living into our understanding of that second level of knowing that we know — of sovereignty over our minds, of awareness that encompasses "thinking" but also transcends it and can galvanize it towards greater sanity, creativity, and healing. There is a paradox here that I love, and that I explore with delight with Jon Kabat-Zinn in this conversation. That second level of knowing — being mindful — is not about being in one's head, just as meditation is not about sitting with one's thoughts. It is first and foremost about rooting in the whole of experience. In the first instance, this means rooting ourselves in our own bodies, in all of our senses, in breath, in the mind itself as a "sense" and not just a cognitive realm. There are a couple of minutes in this hour in which we hear Jon Kabat-Zinn conduct an introductory meditative experience for employees at Google, which we also partake of by way of radio. This spiritual technology or way or living, however you want to name it, is immediately effective and at the same time an engagement for a lifetime. It is about "coming to our senses" in the fullest sense of that phrase.