Jon Kabat-Zinn is the founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic and of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. His groundbreaking Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program sets the standard for training people to cope with stress, pain and illness using moment-to-moment nonjudgmental awareness. Through Kabat-Zinn’s visionary work, mindfulness training has been brought to hospitals, schools, prisons, businesses and other social environments worldwide. His best-selling books, including Full Catastrophe Living (Bantam, 1990); Wherever You Go, There You Are (Hachette, 1994); and Coming to Our Senses (Hachette, 2005), bring an ever-widening circle of readers to these practices. He is also coeditor, with Mark Williams, of Mindfulness: Diverse Perspectives on its Meaning, Origins and Applications (Routledge, 2013).
To explore questions around mindfulness training in the U.S. military, Inquiring Mind editors Barbara Gates and Alan Senauke sat down to talk with Kabat-Zinn in December 2013 in Berkeley, California.
Inquiring Mind: Critics of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction challenge you for decontextualizing the dharma. The concern around this becomes particularly salient when it comes to adapting mindfulness practices to train the military.
Jon Kabat-Zinn: In my experience, that view is very rare. I certainly hope we are not decontextualizing the dharma. Perhaps recontextualizing the dharma in some sense, hopefully without denaturing it—as a skillful means.
The Buddha can be thought of as a world-class scientist who, in the laboratory of his own being, discovered certain relationships regarding suffering and the nature of mind and self that are lawful. That’s what the word dharma means: law, as in the law of gravity. These laws apply everywhere, which makes them universal. Moreover, the principles and practices the Buddha elucidated can be tested empirically. With skillful guidance, the right laboratory and the right equipment, anyone can explore that path as a Way of being, with a capital W. Life itself is that laboratory and each of us has all the equipment we need.
IM: Of course, each step of the Way, recontextualizing bears serious examination. Your point of view on bringing mindfulness-based practices to the context of the military has evolved as you have considered it. How has it changed and why?
JKZ: Some time ago, Liz Stanley brought up the subject publicly on a seven-day MBSR professional training retreat. She had already developed a collaboration with Amishi Jha to study the impact of mindfulness training with U.S. marines predeployment, and she invited me to be part of the project. My initial reaction, and I emphasize “reaction” rather than response, was that I just didn’t want to be associated with it. For one thing, I was concerned it could wind up using meditation to train people to become better killers. We were using mindfulness for healing, and for dealing with suffering. I was loath to confound that work with possible misuses of the practice.
I argued that the essence and beauty of the dharma would inevitably be lost or denatured, and that the people who really need mindfulness training are the ones who send the military to war, thus the White House, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the Congress. I still feel that, of course. Liz is ninth-generation U.S. Army. She was a military intelligence officer in Bosnia. She was also a nun in Burma for a time. She pushed back and we had an intense dialogue. Liz was arguing that ground wars nowadays unfold mostly in counterinsurgency situations. Most of the people who are killed are civilians who may be walking across the street at the wrong moment, or babies and mothers and elderly people in a car who, when you try to wave them down at a checkpoint, don’t understand and don’t stop. In situations like that, some young twenty-year-old soldier who is hyped up on rock ’n’ roll in his earphones, with a powerful machine gun and probably terrified, may well cause a lot of harm to a lot of people—and karmically speaking, a lot of harm to himself as well.
Military medicine is now so good at saving soldiers’ lives that many of the gravely injured don’t die, but they do suffer from major lifetime trauma in every imaginable and unimaginable form, in body, brain, mind and beyond. These are our kids! Maybe formal and informal mindfulness training would resonate with soldiers to some degree and reduce the overall levels of harm that armies cause in so many ways. Why not?
IM: So did you change your perspective on bringing training in mindfulness to the military right on that retreat, in your conversation with Liz Stanley?
JKZ: No, I didn’t, but I did find my view gradually shifting as I encountered senior officers who were interested in mindfulness, such as Col. Mike Brumage, a physician and career soldier. He called one day and said, “I have a group of people in my office at Tripler Army Medical Center. We sense that mindfulness could be hugely helpful for the problems we’re facing every day.” That meant war-related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), of course, as well as the pain and suffering in the families from multiple deployments, the very high suicide rate and more. There I was on the phone with seven army officers. Within fifteen minutes we were talking about the systematic cultivation of mindfulness as a practice. It was unreal. Through Mike, I later met a number of generals who were interested in at least talking about the value of greater mindfulness in their commands. For an antiwar activist from the Vietnam era, it was a bit bizarre. Col. Brumage invited me to come out to Oahu and conduct a two-day mindfulness retreat. Liz Stanley and I led it together for about two hundred people. It felt like we were probably doing more good than harm sowing these seeds. And those explorations continued with the Surgeon General of the Army, and with senior officers in the Navy and Air Force as well.
IM: As you’ve contemplated applying mindfulness to the whole body politic, what are some of your thoughts?
JKZ: There is a whole section on this subject in Coming to Our Senses, so I won’t deal with that here. But I will say that on September 11, 2001, I was with a small group of teachers invited to spend the day with the Zen master Harada Roshi at his Tahoma Zen Monastery on Whidbey Island, in Washington State. From early morning, my wife and I had been sitting stunned in front of the TV. We decided to go ahead and spend the day with Harada.
At the end of the day, he gave everyone a poster with a big Zen circle, an Enso, and underneath, the words, “Never forget the one-thousand-year view.” I just love that. I would say that all of my work has been informed by that spirit. How can we just put one skillful drop into the mix? We have no idea what the effects will be. The world is on fire. It’s screaming. We have to trust that if we maintain a certain kind of integrity and learn to wake up in tiny little ways and embody compassion in tiny little ways in the laboratory of our own lives and families and work, over time it will elevate and transform society.
IM: Yes, if you’re teaching wholesome practices. But what if folks teaching mindfulness to the military or other places sometimes don’t teach it as compassionate or liberative? Is there a distinction between mindfulness and right mindfulness?
JKZ: When we use the word mindfulness in MBSR, we mean right mindfulness. I use mindfulness as a kind of umbrella term. Woven into mindfulness is an orientation towards nonharming and seeing deeply into the nature of things, which in some way implies, or at least invites, seeing the interconnectedness between the seer and the seen, the object and the subject. It is a nondual perspective from the very beginning, resting on an ethical foundation.
For me, what is beautiful about the dharma is that it’s available for anybody. Clearly, the bell curve of the entire society would benefit from shifting even slightly in a direction of greater discernment, wisdom and kindness. Why not train anybody who might be interested, whatever their initial motivation, in paying attention systematically to their own minds, bodies, hearts and actions?
IM: But mightn’t unskillful teaching of mindfulness lack that discerning capacity, lack the potential for wisdom or kindness?
JKZ: Yes, of course. That’s the rub. As more and more demand for mindfulness programs comes from hospitals, prisons, schools, businesses, the military, the VA, etc., we are facing an enormous challenge: how to train large numbers of mindfulness instructors in authentic ways so that the programs are truly in the service of wisdom, compassion, nonharming and healing. The Center for Mindfulness at UMass is continually fine-tuning and deepening its training programs, standards and requirements for certified MBSR instructors, and developing worldwide collaborations for training the trainers of MBSR instructors.
IM: So ideally, how is mindfulness taught to those who have suffered in the military? Say if people are in an extreme environment, let’s say a traumatic wartime environment. Or they are dealing with a toxic internal environment after having been saturated in that reality. How does mindfulness help them meet the really difficult affect that comes up?
JKZ: I think it has to do with befriending the difficult, when you most don’t want to turn towards it or look at it. Befriending the unwanted, even if it’s terrifying, even if it’s a trauma-laden nightmare. I’m not saying this is easy. You need a huge amount of support and kindness from others, and that is where shaping the appropriate “container” for this kind of work comes in. I have met many professionals who are extremely skilled at providing this kind of support in working with veterans, with wounded warriors and their families.
I have a certain kind of faith in human beings’ interior wisdom and in the dharma itself. When you practice, it’s not that you become more like the Buddha. It’s that you realize that you actually are a buddha and always have been. You realize that no matter how horrible the pain and the loss and grief, awareness can hold it all and is not itself in pain. It’s not suffering. And that awareness is already yours, already available to you, at least for brief moments. So awareness offers a previously hidden dimension for being in wiser relationship to pain and suffering and loss. It is intrinsically healing and liberating, revealing how we might be in wiser relationship to everything, recognizing new openings and possibilities and living our way into them. I’ve heard people say, “I didn’t know I could be kind towards something I’ve been hating in myself for years.”
When we are hard on ourselves, in a certain way we are mirroring the same violence we criticize in the world and in the military—we are at war within ourselves. Don’t we sometimes imprison ourselves, often the best parts of ourselves? And are we not also numbingly unaware that things could actually be different if we took a different perspective?
That’s why awareness is so important. Awareness can hold any thought, any horror, and see possible openings that might not have been seen or realized before, especially if you know how to be still and attentive for extended periods of time, or even brief moments many times, but without forcing something to happen, understanding that things are always changing, and that who you think you are is not who you are. By assuming that kind of more open relationship with experience in the present moment, we could say that you are already transformed. In that moment, you are already liberated. The next moment is a whole other story. That is why mindfulness is a lifetime’s practice.
IM: This is the teaching at its most true. But how do you propose that we watch to guard against the commodification of mindfulness within our culture?
JKZ: In this era, some commodification may be unavoidable. But to what end? Maybe it can be a skillful means to promote wisdom. I trust the dharma and the practice itself in this regard. For me, in essence, it is an expression of love. And that love includes trust in the integrity of the people who come to the practice and stay with it. Motivation is extremely important. Motivations grow and change, so even if your initial motivation is to cause harm, by the time you finish, you may have a different motivation. I have to trust that. What else is there? We are trying to maximize the wholesome and minimize harm through discernment. It’s like a muscle. It can be trained.
Of course, the mainstream flowering of mindfulness is a work in progress. If the entire military wanted high-level training in mindfulness, how many qualified instructors would you need? And how do you prevent the practice from being distorted, diluted, denatured or commodified? This is a gigantic practical challenge.
Still, there are many deeply committed people teaching mindfulness in one form or another in hospitals, prisons, schools, corporations and in the military, and researching the outcomes. Hopefully they are dedicated practitioners themselves. Are they perfect? Well, are we? All we can do is to do the best we can, to “be all you can be,” as the Army slogan has it. But it is hard to be aware of what you’re not aware of. So we need to help each other. We need to talk out difficult things. We need to practice together, and live our own understanding. And we need to recognize our own uncertainties and blindnesses, and keep the one-thousand-year view in mind. I just bow to the two of you for doing this issue. It’s dicey, and an important conversation to have.