What is Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition of mindfulness?
We’ve already explored different Buddhist meanings of this term in the article about its seven alternative translations.
Today, we’re turning to a secular definition of mindfulness that comes from Jon Kabat-Zinn‘s book Wherever You Go, There You Are. In the chapter titled “What Is Mindfulness?” he writes, “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.” Let’s take a closer look at each element of this definition.
1. Paying Attention on Purpose
Paying attention on purpose means taking full responsibility for our well-being through continual, deliberate focus on the world around us. Jon Kabat-Zinn writes:
Mindfulness provides a simple but powerful route for getting ourselves unstuck, back into touch with our own wisdom and vitality. It is a way to take charge of the direction and quality of our own lives, including our relationship within the family, our relationship to work and to the larger world and planet, and most fundamentally, our relationship with ourself as a person.
The key to this path, which lies at the root of Buddhism, Taoism, and yoga, and which we also find in the works of people like Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman, and in Native American wisdom, is an appreciation for the present moment and the cultivation of an intimate relationship with it through a continual attending to it with care and discernment. It is the direct opposite of taking life for granted.
2. Paying Attention in the Present Moment
Paying attention in the present moment means anchoring our life to the only thing that truly matters — right now. Jon Kabat-Zinn writes:
This kind of attention nurtures greater awareness, clarity, and acceptance of present-moment reality. It wakes us up to the fact that our lives unfold only in moments. If we are not fully present for many of those moments, we may not only miss what is most valuable in our lives but also fail to realize the richness and the depth of our possibilities for growth and transformation.
A diminished awareness of the present moment inevitably creates other problems for us as well through our unconscious and automatic actions and behaviors, often driven by deepseated fears and insecurities. … Over time, we may lose confidence in our ability to redirect our energies in ways that would lead to greater satisfaction and happiness, perhaps even to greater health.
3. Paying Attention Nonjudgmentally
Paying attention nonjudgmentally means letting go of all the ways unhelpful thoughts prevent us from feeling truly alive. Jon Kabat-Zinn writes:
The habit of ignoring our present moments in favor of others yet to come leads directly to a pervasive lack of awareness of the web of life in which we are embedded. This includes a lack of awareness and understanding of our own mind and how it influences our perceptions and our actions ….
When we commit ourselves to paying attention in an open way, without falling prey to our own likes and dislikes, opinions and prejudices, projections and expectations, new possibilities open up and we have a chance to free ourselves from the straitjacket of unconsciousness.
About the book’s author: Jon Kabat-Zinn is a professor of medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where he founded Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society. Kabat-Zinn’s extensive contribution to the field of mindfulness has helped many people around the world understand and practice meditation. He has written several books on mindfulness, including Mindfulness for Beginners and The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness.
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