By Robert Booth
22 October 2017
Jon Kabat-Zinn, father of secular mindfulness. Photograph: Graeme Robertson for the Guardian
The police in Cambridge, Massachusetts, showed no mercy to Jon Kabat-Zinn in May 1970. The man now considered the godfather of modern mindfulness was a graduate student from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and an anti-Vietnam-war protester, agitating alongside the Black Panthers and the French playwright Jean Genet.
“I got my entire face battered in,” he recalls. “They put this instrument on my wrist called the claw, which they tightened to generate enormous amounts of pain without leaving any marks. But they certainly left a lot of marks on my face. They pulled me into the back of the police station and beat the shit out of me.”
Today, at 73, Kabat-Zinn’s restful, lined face shows no scars from that protest outside a police station, when a trip canvassing support for a nationwide university strike boiled over into violence, leaving him with stitches.
He sits beneath the statue of Mahatma Gandhi on Parliament Square in London taking a breather after going straight from an overnight flight out of Boston into a 90-minute talk to a gathering of international parliamentarians about how he thinks mindfulness could – to put it bluntly – change the world.
The once “very macho” anti-war activist who raged against MIT’s role in nuclear weapons research is the catalyst behind the west’s mushrooming interest in mindfulness meditation, having re-imagined Buddhist contemplation practices for a secular age almost 40 years ago.
With others, he pioneered an eight-week mindfulness-based stress-reduction course at the University of Massachusetts Medical School for patients with chronic pain, harnessing the fundamentals of mindfulness meditation as taught by the Buddha, but with the Buddhism taken out. “I bent over backwards to structure it and find ways to speak about it that avoided as much as possible the risk of it being seen as Buddhist, new age, eastern mysticism or just plain flakey,” he says.
Kabat-Zinn had been meditating since 1965, but had no compunction in playing the Buddhism right down. “I got into this through the Zen door which is a very irreverent approach to Buddhism,” he says. He talks a lot about dharma, the term for the Buddha’s teaching, but he’s not a Buddhist and remarks that to insist mindfulness meditation is Buddhist is like saying gravity is English because it was identified by Sir Isaac Newton.
The UMass Stress Reduction Clinic opened its doors in 1979 and taught people with chronic back pain, victims of industrial accidents, cancer patients and sometimes paraplegics. Kabat-Zinn has defined mindfulness meditation as “the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally”. By focusing on the breath, the idea is to cultivate attention on the body and mind as it is moment to moment, and so help with pain, both physical and emotional.
“It often results in apprehending the constantly changing nature of sensations, even highly unpleasant ones, and thus their impermanence,” he says. “It also gives rise to the direct experience that ‘the pain is not me’.” As a result, some of his patients found ways “to be in a different relationship with their pain” while others felt it diminish. The title of his 1990 bestseller about the clinic captures his approach to accepting whatever life throws at you: Full Catastrophe Living.
Now, in 2017, Kabat-Zinn vibrates with an urgent belief that meditation is the “radical act of love and sanity” we need in the age of Trump, accelerating climate change and disasters such as the Grenfell Tower fire.
He has a platform to build on. Mindfulness courses ultimately derived from his work are now being rolled out in the UK to school pupils, convicts, civil servants and even politicians. It is prescribed on the NHS in some areas to prevent recurrent depression, with 2,256 people completing eight-week courses last year. The course reduces the likelihood of relapse by almost a third, according to an analysis of nine trials. In the US, the NBA basketball champions, Golden State Warriors, are the latest poster boys for the practice after their coach, Steve Kerr, made mindfulness one of the team’s core values.
“He is Mr Mindfulness in relation to the secular strand,” says Lokadhi Lloyd, a meditation teacher in London who has been on courses led by Kabat-Zinn. “Without him, I don’t think mindfulness would have risen to the prominence it has.”
Supporters such as Willem Kuyken, a professor of clinical psychology at Oxford University, even suggest that Kabat-Zinn’s pioneering work could one day see him mentioned in the same breath as Darwin and Einstein. “What they did for biology and physics, Jon has done for a new frontier: the science of the human mind and heart,” says Kuyken.
But mindfulness, Kabat-Zinn figures, must now be harnessed in a bigger way than so far seen, to do nothing less than challenge the way the world is run. This latest mission is why he has flown into London to speak to parliamentarians from 15 countries about how to act more wisely.
“If this is another fad, I don’t want to have any part of it,” he says. “If in the past 50 years I had found something more meaningful, more healing, more transformative and with more potential social impact, I would be doing that.”
There are signs many others agree with its potential. Globally, 18 million people subscribe to the Headspace app, practising mindfulness meditations through their headphones.
In the shops, ranges of mindfulness clothing – not least “drop of mindfulness” tights (the only thing mindful seems to be the brand name) – colouring books and even dot-to-dot puzzles testify to the idea’s growing ubiquity – even if Kabat-Zinn derides much of this as “McMindfulness”.
His work has attracted its share of sceptics, such as Miguel Farias and Catherine Wikholm, authors of The Buddha Pill, who caution that mindfulness is no cure-all and warn of a dark side if not taught correctly.
Wikholm, a clinical psychologist, has said that “the fact that meditation was primarily designed not to make us happier, but to destroy our sense of individual self – who we feel and think we are most of the time – is often overlooked in the science and media stories about it”.
There have also been 20 published case reports or observational studies where people’s experiences of meditation were distressing enough to warrant further treatment, according to a recent study. They include “meditation-induced” psychosis, mania, depersonalisation, anxiety, panic and re-experiencing traumatic memories.
Kabat-Zinn and other highly experienced teachers point out that these are rare incidents and mostly relate to intensive retreats rather than the routine courses where meditators practise for perhaps half an hour a day. But he also admits that “90% of the research [into the positive impacts] is subpar”, with major studies still needed.
Kabat-Zinn’s decision to pour his energy into trying to inject mindfulness into global politics should come as no surprise. In the political tumult at MIT in the late 1960s, he helped establish the Science Action Coordinating Committee to campaign against the university’s work with the Department of Defense, including research into multiple-warhead nuclear missiles.
His activities regularly made the front page of the student paper, The Tech, as he appeared on platforms with Noam Chomsky, supported the Viet Cong and on one occasion translated the radical French playwright Jean Genet’s call for revolution. They meditated before actions, but one week, it reported how he and others stormed a meeting of the MIT Corporation chanting: “Kick the ass of the ruling class – end war research!” and “Power to the people.”
In 1969, he told a meeting: “We are approaching a critical unique point in history. We are approaching an ego disaster of major proportions – overpopulation, pollution of every conceivable kind including mental.”
When I read that back to Kabat-Zinn in Parliament Square, his response is urgent. “We’re worried about that right now, too,” he says. “Trump is crazier than anything we have ever seen ... This is our work at the moment, to see if we can maintain a degree of sanity and recognition of the fears and concerns of those who do not see the world the way we do. The temptation is to fall into camps where you dehumanise the other, and no matter what they do, they are wrong, and no matter what we do, we are right.”
Trump’s threats to annihilate North Korea are one example of a people “losing their minds”, as is the lead poisoning of the water supply in Flint, Michigan. This month he’s travelling there to speak at a benefit for some of the victims of the 2014 decision to replace the supply with undertreated water. “The human mind, when it doesn’t do the work of mindfulness, winds up becoming a prisoner of its myopic perspectives that puts ‘me’ above everything else,” he says. “We are so caught up in the dualistic perspectives of ‘us’ and ‘them’. But ultimately there is no ‘them’. That’s what we need to wake up to.”
Kabat-Zinn has just written a paper arguing that amid “the ascendancy of Trump and the forces and values he represents”, “endemic racism and police violence” and “persistent social and economic injustices … this may indeed be a pivotal moment for our species to come to our senses ... mobilising in the mainstream world ... the power of mindfulness”.
He is at the House of Commons to make his case, but first he must get past the guards at the airport-style security system. While everyone else unpacks their laptops for the scanner, Kabat-Zinn produces a pair of ancient-looking copper meditation chimes, to the complete bemusement of the guard, who tries to confiscate them. When Kabat-Zinn explains they are for meditation, the puzzlement only deepens, as security staff gather to assess the threat. Finally, when he mentions it is for mindfulness, there is a flash of recognition and he is waived through. It is a moment of satisfaction for Kabat-Zinn: if a security guard knows the score, it must be catching on.
Meditation is the “radical act of love and sanity” that can help manage the fear and aversion he believes underpin so many of the world’s problems. The Grenfell Tower disaster that claimed around 80 lives was partly down to an absence of mindfulness – “deep and authentic listening” – by decision makers who clearly felt an aversion to the complaints of residents.
“There were many indications and pleas to take a look at the safety of that building with the cheaper cladding. People were saying: ‘This a fire trap,’” he says. “And because those people were without means or political significance, I think they were systematically unattended to. They thought: ‘It is not my job to attend to that.’ Everyone says: ‘Why didn’t we do something?’, but the reason is nobody said: ‘Let’s pay attention to what this is calling out for.’”
Kabat-Zinn was born into a non-practising Jewish family and raised in upper Manhattan, near where his father worked as a scientist at Columbia University. It was rough and tough on the streets around Washington Heights and he jokes he is “the world’s most improbable mediator – a street kid from New York”.
He started meditating while studying molecular biology at MIT in 1965 when a talk by Zen Buddhist Philip Kapleau “took the top off my head”. In 1979, married with children and working at the University of Massachusetts medical school, he had a 10-second “vision” on a meditation retreat in the woods 80 miles west of Boston. “I saw in a flash not only a model that could be put in place, but also the long-term implications,” he says.
Kabat-Zinn foresaw mindfulness clinics spreading to hospitals and clinics with thousands of practitioners earning a living in a good cause. “Because it was so weird, I hardly ever mentioned this experience to others,” he says. “But it was so compelling I decided to take it on whole-heartedly as best I could.”
Anyone who has tried to meditate knows how hard it is when the mind keeps wandering into thoughts, sometimes trivial, sometimes not. The difficulty people in chronic pain must have faced in embracing the elusive quality of attentiveness cannot be overestimated. But in Kabat-Zinn they had an experienced teacher. For more than 30 years, “every morning at five o’clock”, he would do yoga and then sit on his cushion and meditate. He stayed with his eight-week stress-reduction programme until 2000, spreading its influence through books, guided meditation CDs, teaching at retreats and endless conferences.
In 2002, Welsh psychologist Mark Williams worked with colleagues at Cambridge and in Toronto to combine the US programme with cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) to form an eight-week mindfulness-based CBT course that, in 2004, was recommended for prescription on the NHS for recurrent depression. Williams taught mindfulness to the comedian Ruby Wax at Oxford University when she was looking to tackle her depression. She then popularised it through her 2013 book Sane New World.
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) has been shown to be at least as effective as antidepressants at preventing relapse and, in a two-year trial by Willem Kuyken’s team, 44% of the MBCT cohort relapsed compared with 47% on pills. In one trial of 173 people, it was also found to reduce the severity of current depression, with an average 37% reduction in symptoms. It is being taught widely in the private sector with qualified MBCT teachers delivering courses in parish halls, workplaces and beyond.
“The science of meditation is in its infancy,” Kabat-Zinn says. “We need decades more study. People talk about artificial intelligence and machine learning, but we haven’t scratched the surface of what human intelligence is really all about.”
So now, Kabat-Zinn travels the globe. He is fascinated by teaching in China where he has detected a rebirth in the country’s contemplative traditions as a way of tackling its challenges. He leads intensive five-day retreats in the US, runs courses in Austria, Korea and Japan. Lately, he has been talking with David Simas, a former White House adviser and now chief executive of the Obama Foundation, who was inspired to take up mindfulness meditation by Kabat-Zinn. “I feel it’s my responsibility, since to a large degree people blame me for starting this whole ball rolling to participate in whatever way I can,” he says. “This is, in some sense, the fruition of that 10-second vision I had in 1979.”