The following interview appears in the Fall 2004 issue of Inquiring Mind www.InquiringMind.com

Coming to Our Senses
A Conversation with
Jon Kabat-Zinn

Jon Kabat-Zinn: As the planetary citizens we are rapidly becoming—following on 10,000 years, or approximately a mere 350 generations, of history and what passes for civilization—we’ve reached a point  where it is probably critical that we refine and make better use of our genetic capacity as a species for self-knowing, our capacity for awareness, which is presumably more refined than that of any other species. We’ve also reached a point where we’ve created possibilities for self-destruction that are increasingly ominous, so that the question becomes: Can our capacity for consciousness as a species hold our shadow side in such a way that we don’t succumb to the “dis-ease” that is actually us. Can we come to our senses?

We have some excellent resources at our disposal for awakening, both ancient and modern, if we are motivated to make use of them. The First Noble Truth names the dis-ease of our species, which I look at as a kind of autoimmune disease, where we are, ironically, both the victim of the pathology and its source. You could look at the Buddha, as Alan Wallace has emphasized, as a scientific genius, born in an era when the only instruments at his disposal for investigating the nature of suffering and the potential for liberation were his own mind and body. He chose to explore and map that interior landscape and its functioning, and he made extraordinary use of those tools, as we know, first through a process of stabilizing the mind so that it could become a useful instrument adequate for the task, and then through a process of systematic self-investigation and inquiry. Drawing on those ancient tools and maps that have been handed down in an unbroken lineage to this day, as well as on what has been learned in the past thirty years in medicine about the mind-body connection, it’s becoming clearer and clearer in medical and scientific circles that virtually anyone is capable of mobilizing those innate powers of mind that we possess as a species to move in the direction of greater health and well-being. We’ve learned this in part by utilizing within mainstream medicine the very approaches the Buddha developed and articulated. Having seen over 16,000 medical patients in our stress reduction clinic over the past twenty-four years, we can safely say that pretty much any individual with adequate motivation can learn to be less reactive and less stressed by cultivating mindfulness. In the process, one’s interior world can be influenced and modulated to one degree or another—whether we are talking of blood pressure, the functioning of the immune system, emotional balance, or even self-compassion and making wiser and healthier choices in one’s life.

But it is becoming equally clear that we also need to do this as a species. As a first step, perhaps we need to have a global conversation about such a potential shift in awareness through intentional practice, about the possibility of waking up and, while we still have the chance, of coming to our senses, and of healing ourselves from the autoimmune disease that is us. Ultimately, it is a matter of liberation from our own persistent ignoring of our true nature as a species.

Inquiring Mind: Are you saying that by awakening to our senses—seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching—we gain sense, as in “common sense,” and that we are really talking about liberation? If so, it’s quite a double entendre.

JKZ: I am not saying that common sense equals liberation. But I am very much intending the double entendre. Coming to our senses really means waking up to what is. I am speaking of the potential for liberation arising out of the core “paying attention” that mindfulness practice is grounded in. One can argue, and of course many Buddhist teachers say it, that there are really only six things happening at any one time and that all together constitute our experience in any moment: Seeing that which is here to be seen, hearing that which is here to be heard, etc.—the five senses plus what the Buddha included as the sixth and most important and unifying sense, which is the capacity of the mind itself for nonconceptual knowing. As a species, we call ourselves Homo sapiens sapiens, a double dose of knowing, from the Latin “sapere,” interestingly, to taste, to know, to be wise. We only know through sensing and, of course, through the activity of mind.

Each of the senses is a miracle. Take seeing, for instance. It’s a miracle that light is focused onto the retinas at the backs of our eyeballs and excites certain cells that send signals to the brain that will then create a fairly good three-dimensional representation of the world out there, so that we don’t get eaten by something! But no one understands even how we go from wavelengths of a certain energy coming into the eyes to our experiencing of the color blue, for instance, never mind to a three-dimensional universe from upside-down two-dimensional images on the backs of our eyeballs. And of course, as we all know, we can be fooled by our senses, too. And we can see without seeing or hear without hearing—in other words, have no awareness of what is actually beating on our eardrums. We can, and sometimes do, make a whole life out of that unawareness, constructing stories about what is so and who we are without being fully tuned in to the actuality of things, and frequently without any appreciation for our own sentience.

That appreciation comes about through bringing mindfulness to the moment and point of contact with the sense object, and then to the whole chain of dependent origination that follows in its wake. It is that moment which defines the opportunity for freedom, if held in awareness, or for clinging, if unexamined and conditioned, especially by those mind-habits that go by the terms “greed, hatred and delusion.” Focusing on the senses themselves can bring this into focus so that we can actually begin to train ourselves to see and know what is here to be seen, rather than only what we want to see.

IM: Some people mistakenly believe that the Buddha was teaching denial of the senses, interpreting withdrawal from the sense world as the key to freedom.

JKZ: That is a hugely debatable point, of course. Denial of the senses is a somewhat parochial interpretation. Another view is that the Buddha was pointing out that suffering arises not from the sensing itself but from the grasping or aversion that so easily follows in its wake. So the senses are not problematic in and of themselves, and sensing is not the problem either, as long as we understand that the experience, whatever it is, is temporary and basically empty. In fact, when there is no clinging, the senses are a definite source of delight, and we can delight in our senses in ways that are deeply revealing of things as they actually are, including the beauty and harmony in the world and in ourselves, in the face of all the discord and its causes. This understanding is a deep part of both the Zen and Tibetan traditions, and it can be held very lightly and with delight. Just think of all the haiku of Issa and Basho, for instance. But if we reify appearances into thinking that what we are seeing has an independent self-existence, and then we cling to them because we want them to stay the same or we think that something is better than something else, in such moments we have fallen into attachment and are no longer simply seeing.

IM: So how can we train ourselves to use our senses wisely?

JKZ: The first thing is to realize how little we actually see, hear, smell, taste or feel. For years we can walk down the same street or through the same field and never quite see it, although our eyeballs are taking it in, so to speak. In The Zen of Seeing, Frederick Franck writes:

We do a lot of looking: we look through lenses, telescopes, television tubes. . . . Our looking is perfected every day—but we see less and less. Never has it been more urgent to speak of seeing. . . . [W]e are onlookers, spectators . . . “subjects” we are that look at “objects.” Quickly we stick labels on all that is, labels that stick once—and for all. By these labels we recognize everything, but no longer see anything.

For example, you walk into a room and see people in conversation. For some reason or other, the scene may trigger an emotional feeling within you, say a wish to be included in the energy, to participate, to be seen. That feeling can easily lock into an emotionally needy state and in that very moment blind you. We say you “lose sight” of what is actually going on. In the next moment you may act like an idiot because you’re not being true to what’s actually in front of you. I’ve experienced that scenario more often than I’d like to admit, and it is quite humbling. When you witness someone else doing that, it is also quite uncomfortable for all concerned. You want to cry out: “Can’t you see what is happening?” Of course, the person can’t, because they are caught by some momentary mind-state that prevents them from seeing, and thus from being sensate, sensitive to the situation, and even sensible in the most basic of ways. This can happen with any of the senses, but seeing is the most dominant of the senses, and so our metaphors for the senses usually cluster around seeing.

IM: So when we really do open our eyes and see, that brings us into a kind of presence that changes the nature of our reality and our behavior.

JKZ: It actually does change the nature of our reality, and thus of how we hold the moment and respond to it appropriately, how we will act or, if you like, behave. Presence of mind through holding the senses in awareness changes our relationship to the world “out there” and to our interior world as well, not that they are fundamentally two. I find myself more and more using a particular vocabulary to describe the domains of the senses. We commonly talk about the landscape, but as a rule, we don’t speak or even think about or perceive the soundscape, the airscape, the tastescape, the smellscape, the mindscape, or the nowscape that we are embedded in. Yet these are all domains we can experience only through our senses. When we are paying attention, we come to know each particular “scape” or textured world in a completely different way than when we aren’t paying attention.

Another scape worth mentioning and attending to, ironically, is what I sometimes call “the great escape,” which we are always at risk of falling into. We can use even meditation practice as a way to engage in that great escape, at least when we don’t pay attention to what’s actually presenting itself to our senses. It is so easy to be “out of touch,” which really means we are out of touch with any or all of the senses, and not just the sense of touch. “Touch” is the word with the longest entry in the Oxford English Dictionary, far longer than even “love,” because touch is so basic to life. The only way we know anything is through touching it through the senses. All scientific apparati, like telescopes or electron microscopes or spectrophotometers or fMRI machines, are extensions of our senses—designed to amplify signals of one kind or another and bring them in touch with our senses.

What is more, all touching is reciprocal. You cannot touch without being touched. So when we touch the world in any way, and allow ourselves to register that we are simultaneously being touched by it, a knowing that is both direct and impersonal arises. Subject and object merge into the part of speech we so wonderfully refer to as the present participle, so we have “just seeing” or “just feeling” or “just knowing.” We don’t have to make it into “I’m seeing,” and when we don’t fabricate this “I” who is seeing, the seeing is very different. Sensing itself is the nature of being alive, of being human.

IM: Are you saying that when you examine the senses, you also call into question “the sensor”? Who is it that is seeing, hearing, touching?

JKZ: We human beings have multiple ways of knowing the world, inwardly and outwardly, presumably more than, say, an earthworm. We have more dimensions to our interior landscape. In fact, even calling it an interior landscape is not really appropriate because it implies an artificial distinction between inner and outer. Actually, we are continually co-creating what we call the external world through our senses, and it is not quite accurate to personalize the whole thing, when the process is really quite impersonal. So in regard to who is seeing or feeling or hearing, I encourage people to look deeply into it for themselves in meditation practice, by questioning, “Who is hearing, who is feeling, who is thinking?” This is a strong practice in the Zen tradition.  You inquire into the sensory phenomena themselves in the moment of their unfolding. What usually comes up is a personal pronoun, as in “I am seeing.” But if you ask, “Who is that?” you come to realize that the pronoun itself is just a thought—a very, very old habit of mind which is itself a construct, a fabrication, rather than an enduring, substantial and independent entity—the way we usually think of “who I am” when we pop out with our name or some information about ourselves.

IM: It’s so habitual that we normally don’t see it clearly.

JKZ: Actually, people see it quite a lot, in my experience. For instance, someone might talk about “my cancer,” and then, when she starts meditating come to realize, “I’m not my cancer. It’s not me.” Doing a body scan, this recognition happens very frequently. People realize that saying “my leg,” “my elbow,” “my body,” or even “I’m meditating” is not really accurate. As a consequence of practice and the intimacy with the currents of the mind stream that emerge from it, our relationship with the personal pronouns gets a little looser, less habitual, less rigid.

Such realizations coming out of inquiry can happen in a lot of different ways—through sitting meditation, standing meditation, walking mediation, lying down meditation. I’m a big advocate of lying down meditation because we’re lying down so much of the time. Before you go to sleep and before you wake up in the morning are fabulous times to tune in to the senses. A good place to start is with sound because you don’t have to do anything. One minute you’re not hearing and the next minute you are hearing. You realize that it’s simply a shift in awareness. It’s hard to say, “It’s me hearing.’’ There is just attending, just hearing.

IM: Science is revealing more and more about how the brain works and how meditation might influence various sensory and emotional processes. Could you give us an example?

JKZ: Well, we recently published a paper in collaboration with Richard Davidson of the University of Wisconsin showing that people who go through MBSR [Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction] training in a work setting showed changes in the brain that suggest more effective processing of negative emotion under stress as well as an improvement in immune function when compared to a control group that didn’t receive the meditation training. Richie Davidson is currently studying meditation adepts in his lab who have been practicing intensively for many years, and finding major brain changes that suggest that their years of practice have rearranged the physical circuitry in their brains. They show patterns of brain activity during various kinds of meditation practices that have never been recorded before and are off the scale from what is already known. Such studies are showing that people who have intensively trained the mind are capable of doing things that we would ordinarily consider impossible, such as reproducibly generating stable patterns of brain activity on demand in very short periods of time that differ depending on which meditation is being practiced, and, in another study, of not showing a startle reaction in response to a pistol shot. You can learn more about these studies from Daniel Goleman’s book Destructive Emotions. Of course, all this is to say nothing of responding with compassion when one’s own well-being is threatened. So, in all likelihood, when you’re practicing lovingkindness or shamatha or vipassana with great perseverance and open-heartedness, over extended periods of time, in all likelihood you’re actually rearranging your neurons. No joke!

IM: Maybe that’s why Robert Thurman calls meditation an evolutionary sport.

JKZ: That’s very apt. It certainly develops the evolutionary potential of human beings, and we could argue that the fate of the species may hang in the balance.

Coming back to the nervous system and the brain, it used to be dogma in neuroscience that after the age of two you lost neurons in the central nervous system as you aged, but that you didn’t replace them; it was all down hill from there. Now, after fifty years of holding to the old understanding, scientists are finding that it’s just not true. Until the day you die, you’re forming new neurons on the basis of your experience. So what Buddhists are contributing to our understanding is that you can actually profoundly shape your relationship to experience by paying attention to it. The more you train in paying attention, the more you’re actually refining the entire organism even at the cellular and tissue levels. Any or all of the senses can be used as part of that kind of training, including the mind itself, which, as we said earlier, is thought of as a sixth sense in Buddhism.

IM: How do you suggest that we might become more “tuned in,” or “in touch,” or “in focus”?

JKZ: I think it boils down to developing appreciation for our amazing sensing abilities. When we stop taking things for granted, then the world lights up and we know things more deeply than when we’re just running through life in a robotic way. Thich Nhat Hahn frequently says things like, “Have you expressed appreciation for your non-headache?” Well, what about just thanking your eyes, your ears, your nose? What about gratitude for your tongue and all that it does, and thanking your feet for walking you along today, instead of waiting until the whole system breaks down and then bemoaning the loss? We are embodied creatures, but so often we are hardly at home, inhabiting neither the present moment nor the body. We could be more “in touch” with what actually is. That is the gateway into choiceless awareness, into a knowing that goes beyond subject and object.

IM: If we find delight in the fact of sentience and what exists in the present moment, then we won’t need to consume so much and we won’t be so driven.

JKZ: Exactly, because we will recognize and inhabit our intrinsic completeness. When we live in an open, spacious awareness—it could be focused on one sensorium or it could be inclusive of all—basically we do come in touch with a deeper dimensionality of being, our basic Buddha nature. That’s what the practice actually is. Practice requires, of course, recognizing this over and over and over again. It is becoming apparent that as we do that, we are transformed throughout our nervous system and right down to our atoms and molecules.

But that’s not why we’re doing it. We’re doing it to live life as if it really matters—not merely for the individual body but for what I call the body politic. The entire species needs to come to its senses. The well-being not only of our species but of all species really hangs in the balance. If not our calling, at least this is our opportunity. And it’s to be squandered at our peril.

© 2004 Inquiring Mind