My formal mindfulness practice began five years ago when I read ‘Full Catastrophe Living’ by Jon Kabat-Zinn, ‘the father of mindfulness’. I quickly discovered the positive impact this had on my health and wellbeing. It was a large part of my jigsaw puzzle that until then had been missing. It is perhaps no coincidence that it came during the same year when the rest of my life had been taken to pieces; I was being forced to contemplate a new way of being in light of a neurological diagnosis and complete change of life circumstance, and Jon’s work opened the door to what continues to be a wonderful, nourishing and inspiring journey. Jon’s presence can be felt even through his books and recordings, and it has always been a dream of mine to experience it in real life, to meditate with him and have the opportunity to thank him for the profound influence he had on me at an incredibly difficult time.
“Hi, I’m Jon,” he said, walking over to greet me with a little bow. We were in the garden of the Friends House in London, a tranquil oasis amidst the chaos of Euston Road. Jon had been deep in conversation with Lord Richard Layard, another key figure and advocate for happiness and wellbeing, and he was now giving me his time and presence with an abundance of humility and kindness. He held my hands as I expressed my gratitude and told him of my mindfulness training. I truly believe he felt as privileged to be in my company as I was to be in his.
‘Mindful Living with Jon Kabat-Zinn’ was hosted by Action for Happiness at The Light last week. There was a sense of anticipation and awe as a diverse group of people filled the 1000 seater venue. “I’m not interested in being a Guru,” Jon said, placing his jacket on the back of his chair, carefully rolling up his shirt sleeves and putting his watch on the floor in front of him. “When the Buddha was asked, ‘are you a God?’ he replied, ‘no, I’m awake.’” Jon was an engaging speaker, funny, wise and with a great depth of knowledge and insight, which he was eager to share and explore with us. The talk itself was a meditation as we seamlessly transitioned in and out of formal practice, our awareness shifting without the need for bells.
“The hardest work in the world is falling awake,” he said, “but we always have the opportunity to drop into our awareness and be awake to the actuality of what life is.” Jon had a tennis ball which he dropped from one hand to another, reminding us to drop into our bodies and get beneath our thoughts. If you ask someone lying in an fMRI scanner to do nothing, whole areas of their brain light up with activity. They’re getting caught up in the narrative of me, a steady stream of thoughts we all have that take us away from our immediate experience. But why is mindfulness, or awareness, so hard? “We all have it. We don’t have to get it. But we’re self-distracting all the time. Automaticity and mindlessness have become our default mode.”