Mindfulness: Just Becoming Aware of Something Changes Its Fundamental Nature
Your brain is regularly inhibited by aversion, apprehension, greed, and fear. Mindfulness exercises can help change that.
Jon Kabat-Zinn is Professor of Medicine Emeritus and creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. Kabat-Zinn was a student of Buddhist teachers such as Thich Nhat Hanh and Zen Master Seung Sahn and a founding member of Cambridge Zen Center. His practice of yoga and studies with Buddhist teachers led him to integrate their teachings with those of science. He teaches mindfulness, which he says can help people cope with stress, anxiety, pain, and illness. The stress reduction program created by Kabat-Zinn, called Mindfulness-based stress reduction, is offered by medical centers, hospitals, and health maintenance organizations.
Jon Kabat-Zinn: When you sit down and observe your own mind on purpose just for fun as a kind of scientific inquiry into what drives you, it doesn’t take long, say if you focus on, say, the breath as the object of attention and you’re riding on the waves of your breathing. It doesn’t take long before you’ll notice that some kind of want comes up. Some kind of desire. And maybe it’s because your body’s uncomfortable. So maybe you just want to fidget a little or shift posture, you know, and just do it this way or that way. So it’s very hard to sit still. Why? Because we’re antsy. Why are we antsy? Because we want to be comfortable and we’re not comfortable. So rather than holding the discomfort in awareness because why should we privilege comfort? Comfort, discomfort — because there’s no ultimate comfort. That’s why we shift from one leg to the other and we’re very shifty. But if you actually train yourself to be embodied, you get less shifty. I mean the mind just naturally settles. The body naturally settles and you can be, like, comfortable. Just at home in your own skin. But when you’re not and you want something, we call that greed. I mean that’s like, you know, it’s greedy; it wants something. Now that one thing to just be comfortable, that’s fine. But when you start to watch the mind, you’ll notice that it’s got a lot of agendas on the greed spectrum.
I mean it’s — and greed is not quite the same as ambition. It has to do with — greed has to do with more for me. More of what I want for me. Then there’s this other thing that you’ll also notice, which is you’re sitting there and the opposite will come up. What I don’t want. What I’m afraid of. What I need to keep at the door. Keep at bay. To push away. And that’s collectively referred to as aversion or dislike or hatred, you know, when it’s really strong and directed often at other people or whatever. So we’ve got greed on one hand and it is toxic. The more you’re sucked into greed; the more egotistical you become; the more it’s all about me; the more you’re willing to lose your own ethical foundation to get a particular result only to find that even that result is not really satisfying so you’re on to the next result. And it’s a never-ending trajectory. But nevertheless, we have to admit it’s here all the time. It’s not like oh, I’ve transcended greed, you know. I don’t think we do transcend greed, but we can transform how we are in relationship to it. And with awareness that greed doesn’t have to run us. And even if it’s attenuated 5 or 10 percent — wow that would be its own form of liberation. Never mind 30 or 40 or 50 percent. And the same with the aversion. Like what I don’t want. It’s so bloody boring to sit here and watch my breathing.
All right. So what? Who thinks it’s boring? Have you looked at your boredom? So have you looked at your aversion? Then as soon as the you that’s looking at your aversion, that’s more like awareness. It’s like awareness of aversion isn’t diversive. Awareness of greed isn’t greedy. So you’re free already of those two toxic impulses. Then there’s another one, which is like the madness that passes for the scenario in our head. And that’s often spoken of as illusion or delusion. That we’re kind of like, got these completely half-baked explanations about everything and who we are and where things are going and what’s wrong with the world and what’s wrong with my family and what’s right — and all of that is kind of none of it’s true. None if it’s true. But we believe it, that narrative mode and that mind wandering, default-mode network that’s like, you know, our favorite pastime — the story of me. And it’s deluded and it also drains a huge amount of energy. So we can bring mindfulness to greed and the greed can be attenuated or liberated. Mindfulness to aversion and the aversion could be attenuated or liberated. Or mindfulness to our own deluded nature — thoughts and emotions and so forth. And that is liberating of them. Then what do you have left? You. As pure awareness. Fully embodied. What comes next? I don’t know. You’re writing the script. It’s not like oh then you’ll feel this and you’ll feel that and you’ll be enlightened and everybody will bow down to you and you won’t ever have to have any kind of challenges or difficulty.
The full catastrophe will evaporate forever. Nope. It’ll be the same old same old. Only you won’t be the same old same old. Because you’ll be the same you. You’ll have the same bank account. You’ll have the same social security number. You’ll have the same face in the mirror. It’ll be aging every day, but you will be in a wiser relationship to your possibilities. And to your embodied, enacted unfolding of those possibilities moment by moment. And that means life lived fully while you have the chance, while we have the chance. As far as I know, you didn’t ask to be born. This is pure gravy. It’s just a total gift even with all the pain and suffering and the trauma and I recognize the profundity of that and the rending quality of that. Still it’s a gift and you’re a gift and — silence, in some sense, at that point becomes wakefulness. It’s radiant. It’s luminous. And it’s already you.
Your brain is regularly inhibited by aversion, apprehension, greed, and fear. Mindfulness exercises can help change that. Medical professor and meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn explains how one can combat their aversion and, hopefully, become a better, more reasonable person in the meantime.
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