If it is part of the evolutionary glide path of us humans to progres- sively know ourselves better, thereby inhabiting a bit more the name we gave our species*; if it is also part of the evolutionary glide path of us humans not to destroy ourselves or create nightmare dystopias beyond those we have already managed to perpetrate, we will need to take on a whole new level of responsibility for ourselves, for our own minds, for our societies, and for our planet. Otherwise, if past is any prologue, all of us may unwittingly be contributing either by omis- sion or commission, in tiny ways that may not be so tiny in the end, to creating a highly unhealthy and majorly toxic world that none of us will be happy to inhabit. And that is perhaps the understatement of the millennium. The prevailing dis-ease of humanity is playing itself out increasingly before our very eyes. It is also increasingly harder for any of us to ignore, and we do so individually and collectively at our peril.
So mindfulness for all and the cultivation of greater enacted wisdom in how we conduct ourselves and take care of our world is hardly mere hype or wishful thinking. It may be an, if not the, essential ingredient for our short- and long-term survival, health, and ongoing development as a species. But to be up to the enormity of this challenge, the mindfulness I am referring to has to be authentic, nested within a universal dharma framework nurturing and cultivating wisdom and compassion.* As I am using the term, mindfulness is a way of seeing and a way of being, one that has a long history on this planet. It also has considerable momentum at the moment as it moves increasingly into the mainstream of many different societies and cultures in a variety of ways. Axiomatically, the approach I am advocating has to be and is grounded and safeguarded at every level in ethical, embodied, enacted, and ultimately selfless wis- dom and action. We might think of mindfulness as one tributary of the human wisdom tradition. While its most articulated roots lie deep within Buddhism, its essence is universal and has been expressed in one way or another in all human cultures and traditions.
our vast diversity of peoples, cultures, and aspirations on the planet. Mindfulness has something to offer all of us as individuals, and as a global human community. I don’t think that there is any question that its transformative potential needs to be realized—i.e., made real— in an infinite number of creative ways at this particular juncture in the unfolding of our species, nested within our far-more-fragile- than-we-thought-until-recently planetary abode.
As one of many recent indications that mindfulness is moving into the mainstream in broadly influential ways, the very last chapter of the historian Yuval Noah Harari’s 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is about mindfulness. In it, he discloses that since a ten-day retreat in the year
2000, he has been meditating every day, plus annually participating in an intensive silent meditation retreat of one or two months duration (with no books or social media during that time).* That alone tells us a lot. After offering us two remarkably popular, profound, provocative, and insightful volumes describing the history of the human condition† and the challenges we are facing as a species in the very near future,‡ some of them quite terrifying, his most recent work, also a bestseller, distills from all that scholarly investigation twenty-one key lessons for the present. I found it quite revealing and gratifying that, with all the threads Harari so skillfully weaves together from history to reveal the enormous challenges our species is facing now, he explicitly adopts the rigorous practice of mindfulness in his own life and names it as an improbable but perhaps essential element for cultivation if, as a species, we are to thread the needle going forward in facing the new challenges brought on by both information technology and biotechnology, chal- lenges he elaborates in considerable and sobering detail.
When 21 Lessons for the 21st Century was reviewed on the front page of the Sunday New York Times Book Review on September 9, 2018, by Bill Gates, under the title, “Thinking Big,”* because Harari is nothing if not a deep and creative thinker and synthesizer as an historian, Gates asks:
What does Harari think we should do about all this? [i.e., the large challenges Harari enumerates we are facing as a species at this moment in time] Sprinkled throughout is some practical advice, including a three-prong strategy for fighting terrorism and a few tips for dealing with fake news. But his big idea boils down to this: Meditate. Of course he isn’t suggesting that the world’s problems will vanish if enough of us start sitting in the lotus position and chanting om. But he does insist that life in the 21st Century demands mindfulness—getting to know our- selves better and seeing how we contribute to suffering in our own lives. This is easy to mock, but as someone who’s taken a course on mindfulness and meditation, I found it compelling.
This is a rather remarkable statement, especially coming from Bill Gates. Apparently he understands the power of mindfulness from the inside.
describes in great detail, we might do well to explore in depth what being fully human, and thus, more embodied and more awake might really mean and feel like. That is both the plea and the challenge of this book, and of all four books in the Coming to Our Senses series. But it is inviting a very personal engagement on your part, in the sense that each one of us has a responsibility, not only to ourself but to the world, to do our own inner and outer work through the regular cultivation of mindfulness— as a meditation practice and as a way of being—and thereby come to recognize and inhabit the full dimensionality of our being and its reper- toire of potentials right here and right now, as best we can.
Since elements of the universal mindfulness meditation-based dharma perspective I am referring to run through wisdom streams within every human culture, mindfulness is intrinsically inclusive, capa- ble of dissolving barriers to communication and finding common pur- pose rather than promoting divisiveness. There is no one right way to cultivate it and no catechism or belief system one has to adopt. What is more, this emerging wisdom perspective is continuing to evolve through us and through how we choose to lead our lives and face our very real challenges and opportunities. It reflects what has always been deepest and best in us as human beings, in our diversity and in our commonality.
Of course, the kind of wisdom we are speaking of has to be grounded in ongoing cultivation, and that means in a practice of some kind that nurtures, sustains, and deepens it. For mindfulness is not mindfulness if it is not lived. And that means embodied. Those of us who undertake it in this way do so as best we can—not as an ideal, but as an ongoing and continually unfolding way of being.
Because mindfulness is not merely a good idea, or a nice philoso- phy, belief system, or catechism. It is a rigorous universally applicable
meditation practice—universal because awareness itself could be seen as the final common pathway of our humanity, across all cultures. When all is said and done, mindfulness is really a way of being— a way of being in relationship to experience. By its very nature, it requires ongoing cultivation and nurturance by us as individuals if we care about living our lives fully and freely, and ultimately, as sup- portive and nurturing communities and societies. In the same way that musicians need to tune, retune, and fine-tune their instruments on a regular basis before and sometimes even during performances, mindfulness practice can be thought of as a kind of tuning of the instrument of your attention and how you choose to be in relationship to experience—any experience, all experience. It doesn’t matter how accomplished a musician you are. You still have to tune your instru- ment regularly. And the more accomplished you are, the more you need to practice. It is a virtuous circle.
Even the greatest musicians practice. In fact, they probably practice more than anyone else. Only with mindfulness, there is no separation between “rehearsal” and “performance.” Why? Because there is no per- formance, and no rehearsal either. There is only this moment. This is it. There is no “improving” on our awareness. What we are cultivating through the practice of mindfulness is greater access to and intimacy with our innate capacity for awareness, and an ability to take up resi- dency, so to speak, in that domain of being as our “default mode,” out of which flows all our doing.
The practice and larger expression of mindfulness in the world needs to be as diverse as the constituencies that might advocate for it, adopt it, embody it, and benefit from it—each in their own way, just as the music played and enjoyed by the human family is so profoundly diverse, a veritable universe of lived expression and connection.
At the same time, if you ask if I am concerned with the hype associated with mindfulness in the world these days, and with the tendency of some to advertise themselves as “mindfulness teach- ers” without much, if any, grounding in rigorous practice and study, you bet I am. Might the title of this book be contributing to that hype? I certainly hope not. I have been engaged for decades in the endeavor to bring mindfulness into the mainstream of the world in ways that are true to its dharma roots and do not denature or diminish it, precisely because of my conviction about and personal experience (limited as that might be, being just one person) of its profound heal- ing and transformative potential, its widespread applicability, and its many-times-over documented contribution to health and wellbeing at every level that those words carry meaning. And the scientific study of mindfulness, while still in its infancy—although far less so than twenty years ago—is substantiating that there are many differ- ent applications of mindfulness beyond MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) and MBCT (mindfulness-based cognitive therapy) in medicine and clinical psychology that are making significant contributions in various domains, including all levels of education, criminal justice, business, sports, community-building, even politics.
Do I mean by “mindfulness for all” that everybody is all of a sud- den going to adopt or ultimately wind up with a rigorous and personally meaningful meditation practice? No. Of course not. Still, and highly improbably from the perspective of 1979, when MBSR was first devel- oped in the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, more and more people around the world and increas- ingly among diverse and divergent communities are actually incorpo- rating consistent and regular mindfulness meditation practice to one degree or another into their lives, from refugees in South Sudan to U.S. Forest Service firefighters, from children in well-researched pub- lic school and afterschool programs in inner city Baltimore to cops in major police departments, from people attending drop-in weekly pub- lic meditations throughout the city of Los Angeles offered by UCLA’s
From The Healing Power of Mindfulness, by Jon Kabat-Zinn, published by Hachette. Copyright © 2019 by Jon Kabat-Zinn.
Check out Jon’s new book here.
Browse Jon Kabat-Zinn’s catalog on BetterListen here.