Jon Kabat-Zinn

The work of Jon Kabat-Zinn

Who is Jon Kabat-Zinn?

Born in New York City in 1944, Jon Kabat-Zinn is a professor who works at the Medical School at the University of Massachusetts. He is an emeritus professor of medicine who has a particular scientific focus on the role of certain aspects of Buddhism, in particular, mindfulness within a Western tradition of medicine. He founded the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine at his medical school in 1979. He is also a powerful advocate for stress reduction programmes that allow patients to treat a wide range of conditions themselves. Jon Kabat-Zinn has been recommending that professionals in the US healthcare system take the role of mindfulness more seriously, which, he claims, can assist patients who are coping with stress, anxiety and pain. He also says that certain mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) methods that can be learned by following traditions in Buddhism are also able to help deal with certain conditions and illnesses.

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What is mindfulness, according to Jon Kabat-Zinn? 

As an adherent of mindfulness, Jon Kabat-Zinn takes a scientific approach to what it can do for people by engaging in studies that measure its effects. As a graduate of bio-medicine from Haverford College in 1964, Kabat-Zinn went on to earn a PhD in molecular biology from MIT, one of the United States leading educational institutions, in the early 1970s. As such, his approach to mindfulness techniques has always been something that he has attempted to explain in quantitative terms with plenty of data to back up his arguments. It provides healthcare professionals with something they can turn to as a therapeutic option that can complement other medical approaches. His work in MBSR has led to it being adopted more widely in the West thanks to his often pioneering research.

How did Jon Kabat-Zinn discover the power of meditation?

Jon Kabat-Zinn first came across the possibilities of meditation when he met Philip Kapleau, a Zen missionary who he encountered during his time at MIT. Subsequently, Kabat-Zinn went on to study meditation with a number of Buddhist teachers, Thich Nhat Hanh and Seungsahn among them. Later, he would go on to study the Theravada tradition of Buddhism, often considered to be the oldest form of Buddhism, at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre in Massachusetts, where his ideas developed. Another of the earlier influences on Kabat-Zinn was a teacher of Zen Buddhism known as Philip Kapleau from Newhaven in Connecticut. Kapleau advocated for the Sanbo Kyodan tradition of Buddhism, one that blends the Japanese Soto and Rinzai schools. During his lifetime, Kapleau also argued strongly for Buddhist vegetarianism in the West.

What is Jon Kabat-Zinn's background?

Born in 1944, Jon Kabat-Zinn came from a non-religious Jewish family, one of three children. His father was a scientist and his mother, Sally Kabat, was a painter. His educational career initially saw him earning a degree from Haverford College before progressing at MIT. As a young man, he was an advocate for peace during the Vietnam war. In fact, as a student, he would become something of a campaign leader speaking out against the sort of technological military research that was being undertaken at the university at that time. It was around this time in his life that Kabat-Zinn first encountered the aforementioned Kapleau, who gave a talk about meditation at MIT. As a high-achieving student, Kabat-Zinn would go on to study under Salvador Luria, a Nobel Prize-winning microbiologist who specialised in genetic, bacterial resistance.

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Which books by Jon Kabat-Zinn should you read?

"Full Catastrophe Living: Using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness", first published in 1991, is one of Jon Kabat-Zinn's better-known works. Alternatively, "Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness and Meditation in Everyday Life", of 1994 is considered to be a book that is ideal for a general readership. More recently, "Mindfulness for Beginners" is another good place to start understanding his overall approach. Co-authored with Richard Davidson, a professor of psychiatry and psychology at the University of Wisconsin, Kabat-Zinn's 2012 work, "The Mind's Own Physician: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama on the Healing Power of Meditation" is a reflection of his discussions with the spiritual leader from 2005 at the US-based Mind and Life Institute's dialogue sessions.

How does Jon Kabat-Zinn's body scan meditation work?

To answer the question of how Jon Kabat-Zinn's body scan meditation works, the developer of it would say that it provides a means of gently scanning our own bodies in a non-judgmental way that can help to focus and centre us mindfully. Once the technique has been learned, skilled meditators will be able to mentally scan their body. Most people start off with a guided meditative process, however, which Kabat-Zinn has made freely available recordings of. A mindfulness body scan can take about 45 minutes and consists of uninterrupted relaxation and focus. The basic idea is to allow the mind to focus on various parts of the body but not to think about aches and pains in any areas and to simply acknowledge them with a simple greeting, instead. This makes it a little like observing one's own emotions without engaging in them only in the physical realm. Most people who do it lie on the back for the duration of the body scan.

What do Jon Kabat-Zinn and Thich Nhat Hanh have in common?

When answering what Jon Kabat-Zinn and Thich Nhat Hanh have in common, it is important to first note that Kabat-Zinn was initially a student of Thich Nhat Hanh. Therefore, much of the former's thinking about meditation and stress reduction has been informed by the latter. In fact, Thich Nhat Hanh is sometimes referred to as the Father of Mindfulness because he has done so much to promote its benefits around the world. He tends to focus on introducing mindfulness techniques into every aspect of daily life, including mealtimes, meetings with others and solo pursuits, like walking. Kabat-Zinn also concentrates largely on mindfulness, but his work tends to be based on meditation programmes for the purpose of stress reduction. Both teach that mindfulness has practical uses that can benefit everyone. Indeed, both have led to greater uptakes of mindfulness in places where it did not use to feature very much, such as schools, workplaces and even prisons.

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What is Jon Kabat-Zinn's sitting meditation?

Jon Kabat-Zinn's philosophy with meditation is that it can take many forms. He has written about Vipassana meditation, walking meditation, Zen meditation and loving-kindness meditation, along with other techniques. He has taught that it doesn't matter whether a meditator is lying down, sitting in a chair, or sitting cross-legged on the floor. What he advises, however, is that practitioners of his mindfulness-based stress reduction techniques adopt a position that 'embodies wakefulness and dignity' for them. For beginners, especially, this will mean sitting. According to Kabat-Zinn's teaching, we need to practise sitting so that we can make a special time that is devoted to the non-doing of things. This would mark it out from a walking meditation technique, for example. What Kabat-Zinn says is that a sitting meditation will mean consciously assuming a body posture that is at once alert and relaxed.

Is Jon Kabat-Zinn a Buddhist?

The question of whether Kabat-Zinn is a Buddhist or not can be answered with a straightforward no. His upbringing was Jewish, but he was not deeply imbued by religion during his childhood. Instead, he has said that his spiritual beliefs are a blend of art and science. That being said, Kabat-Zinn has been trained in the tenets of Buddhism, and he certainly espouses many of the beliefs and philosophies associated with the tradition. Indeed, he went on the record in 2017 to say that he had got to an understanding of Buddhism through the door of Zen Buddhism, something he refers to as an 'irreverent form' of Buddhism. In his teachings, Kabat-Zinn certainly uses many Buddhist ideas and principles insofar as they inform meditative practices. What he has done, unlike most Buddhist teachers of mindfulness, is to remove Buddhism from these practices to make them secular.

Did Jon Kabat-Zinn create MBSR?

In a sense, Jon Kabat-Zinn did create MBSR, yes. That said, all of the techniques that he used in this approach to mindful meditation were pre-existing. In this sense, he cannot be said to have created it but to have adapted Buddhist ideas to meet the demands of modern Western society for stress reduction. In other words, his mindfulness-based stress reduction, or MBSR, is a programme that anyone can follow if they would like to use mindfulness to help them lower the levels of stress they are exposed to every day. Even so, other mindfulness techniques and meditation methods can have similar results. What Kabat-Zinn has developed is a methodology that simply suits many Westerners more than other meditation techniques primarily because it is focussed on what they want most – less stress.

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How can you practice mindfulness according to Jon Kabat-Zinn?

Making time for meditation is the key to Jon Kabat-Zinn mindfulness techniques. He teaches that you need to 'drop in' to meditate and do the exercise of it rather than being goal-oriented and working towards the outcome. He also says you must be 'breathed', which means noticing all of the physical sensations associated with breathing and, in a sense, simply being. He then says you should allow your mind to wander in an observatory capacity with no judgements being applied to yourself. After meditating, Kabat-Zinn says you should operate mindfully. What this means is opening your eyes and transitioning out of a formal meditative state but maintaining awareness of breath. As such, being mindful means continuing to observe oneself, as though one were meditating, into daily life patterns.

Is Jon Kabat-Zinn a doctor?

Jon Kabat-Zinn is a doctor of philosophy insofar as he has a PhD qualification. Outside of his life as a teacher of mindfulness-based stress reduction and wellness, he is a biomedical scientist, which is not exactly the same thing as being a medical doctor. Bio-medicine is a branch of science that tends to be conducted in research laboratories rather than in hospitals and other healthcare settings. In the case of Kabat-Zinn, his specialism in bio-medicine is in the field of molecular biology. This is the branch of biology that is primarily concerned with the way plant and animal cells interact with one another, including things like molecular modifications and syntheses. It is partially due to Kabat-Zinn's scientific background that he has been so successful in explaining MBSR but, to be clear, his research in this area is not at the molecular level of biology.

How does Jon Kabat-Zinn know the Dalai Lama?

Jon Kabat-Zinn is a member of the board of a not-for-profit organisation in the United States known as the Mind and Life Institute. Based in Charlottesville, Virginia, this institution was set up to forge greater links between the so-called contemplative sciences in the US and other meditative traditions. Part of its work, and therefore Kabat-Zinn's, has been convening symposia and dialogues with the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan Buddhist spiritual leader. In 2005, Kabat-Zinn gave a presentation at the annual Mind and Life Conference, after which he questioned the Dalai Lama on a number of his ideas. His dialogues with the Dalai Lama have since gone on to be published in a book format with the subtitle of 'The Mind's Own Tradition'.

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Jon Kabat-Zinn in summary

To conclude, it is probably best to say that Job Kabat-Zinn's influence on the way many parts of Western society now understand and engage with mindfulness cannot be underestimated. Part of why his ideas have caught on is down to his powerful advocacy of them, of course. And yet, it is also the way in which he has gone about educating the public about mindfulness that is so striking. Firstly, although he learned about the broader world of meditation through the lens of Buddhism, Kabat-Zinn has taken all religion and philosophy out of his ideas. That might mean, for some, that the essential element of spirituality is missing. There again, for a more scientifically minded person, his teachings are able to hit home without all of the 'baggage' that some associate with New Ageism and other spiritual movements.

In addition, Kabat-Zinn has grounded his work in academic research in a way few others before him even attempted. As a scientist, he was able to formulate studies that made discernible links between meditation and brain physiology. This is why his techniques are not just more accepted in the West but have become part of the tradition of Western medicine in some quarters. Overall, however, it is Kabat-Zinn's connection between stress reduction and mindfulness that has been lauded by so many. In a fast-paced world, stress and anxiety – along with a raft of other mental health disorders – are increasingly being diagnosed with only limited treatment pathways, especially preventative ones. This is, at heart, what he teaches and why his teachings are so popular.

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