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Why Even Bother?

by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D • Massachusetts

If, from the meditative perspective, everything you are seeking is already here, if there really is no need to acquire anything or attain anything or improve yourself, if you are already whole and complete and by that same virtue so is the world, then why on earth bother meditating? Why would we want to cultivate mindfulness in the first place? Why use particular methods and techniques, if they are all in the service of not getting anywhere anyway?

The answer is that as long as everything you are seeking is already here is only a concept, it is only a concept, just another nice thought. Being merely a thought, it is extremely limited in its capacity for transforming you.

More than anything else, I have come to see meditation as an act of love, an inward gesture of benevolence and kindness toward ourselves and toward others, a gesture of the heart that recognizes our perfection even with all our shortcomings, wounds, attachments, vexations and our persistent habits of unawareness. In stopping, looking, and listening, in giving ourselves over to all our senses, including mind, we are in that moment embodying what we hold most sacred in life. Making the gesture, which might include assuming a specific posture for formal meditation, but could also involve simply becoming more mindful or more forgiving of ourselves, immediately re-minds us and re-bodies us. In a sense, you could say that it refreshes us, makes this moment fresh, timeless, freed up, wide open.

In such moments, we transcend who we think we are. We go beyond our stories and our incessant thinking, however deep and important it sometimes is. There, we reside in the seeing of what is here to be seen and the direct, non-conceptual knowing of what is here to be known, which we don't have to seek because it is already and always here. We rest in awareness, in the knowing itself which includes not knowing as well. And since we are completely embedded in the warp and woof of the universe, there is really no boundary to this benevolent gesture of awareness, no separation from other beings, no limit to our being or our awareness, or to our openhearted presence. In words, it may sound like an idealization. Experienced, it is merely what it is, life expressing itself, sentience quivering within infinity, with things just as they are.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen master, aptly points out that one reason we might want to practice mindfulness is that most of the time we are unwittingly practicing its opposite. Every time we get angry we get better at being angry and reinforce the anger habit. When it is really bad, we say we see red, which means we don't see accurately what is happening at all. In that moment, you could say we have "lost" our mind. Every time we become self-absorbed, we get better at becoming self-absorbed and going unconscious.

Without awareness of anger or self-absorption, or ennui, or any other mind state that can take us over when it arises, we reinforce those synaptic networks within the nervous system that underlie our conditioned behaviors and mindless habits. It becomes increasingly difficult to disentangle ourselves from these, if we are even aware of what is happening at all.

But, and this is a huge "but," there is simultaneously a potential opening available here as well, a chance not to fall into the contraction– or to recover more quickly from it– if we can bring awareness to it. For we are locked up in the automaticity of our reaction and caught in its downstream consequences only by our blindness in that moment. Dispel the blindness, and we see that the cage we thought we were caught in is already open.

Every time we are able to know a desire as desire, anger as anger, a habit as habit or an intense sensation in the body as an intense sensation, we are correspondingly liberated. Nothing else has to happen. We don't even have to give up the desire or whatever it is. To see it and know it as desire, as whatever it is, is enough. In any given moment, we are either practicing mindfulness or, de facto, we are practicing mindlessness.

So meditation is both nothing at all– because there is no place to go and nothing to do– and simultaneously the hardest work in the world, because our mindlessness habit is so strongly developed and resistant to being seen and dismantled through our awareness. And it does require method and technique and effort to develop and refine our capacity for awareness so that it can tame the unruly qualities of the mind.

Everybody I have ever met who has gotten into the practice of mindfulness has expressed the feeling to me, usually when things are at their absolute worst, that they couldn't imagine what they would have done without the practice. It is that simple really. And that deep. Once you practice, you know what they mean. If you don't practice, there is no way to know.

When I say that meditation is the hardest work in the world, that is not quite accurate, unless you understand that I don't just mean "work" in the usual sense, but also as play. Meditation is playful too. It is hilarious to watch the workings of our own mind. It is much too serious to take too seriously. Humor and playfulness, and undermining any hint of a pious attitude, are critical to right mindfulness.

Beyond the ubiquity of stress and pain operating in my own life, my motivation to practice mindfulness is fairly simple: Each moment missed is a moment unlived. Each moment missed makes it more likely I will miss the next moment, and live through it cloaked in mindless habits of automaticity of thinking, feeling, and doing rather than living in, out of, and through awareness. Thinking in the service of awareness is heaven. Thinking in the absence of awareness can be hell. For mindlessness is not simply innocent or insensitive, quaint or clueless. Much of the time it is actively harmful, wittingly or unwittingly, both to oneself and to the others with whom we come in contact or share our lives.

If we sum up all the missed moments, inattention can actually consume our whole life and color virtually everything we do and every choice we make or fail to make. Is this what we are living for, to miss and therefore misconstrue our very lives? I prefer going into the adventure every day with my eyes open, paying attention to what is most important, even if I keep getting confronted, at times, with the feebleness of my efforts. If we are not grounded in our being, if we are not grounded in wakefulness, are we not actually missing out on the gift of our very lives and the opportunity to be of any real benefit to others?

As Thoreau put it at the end of Walden, Only that day dawns to which we are awake.

The preceding was excerpted with permission from the book, Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness by Jon Kabat-Zinn. (Hyperion, 2005, $24.95.)
Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., is the founding director of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He is the bestselling author of
Wherever You Go, There You Are and Full Catastrophe Living, and, with his wife, Myla Kabat-Zinn, Everyday Blessings. He was featured in the PBS series “Healing and the Mind” with Bill Moyers. For more information, please visit, www.writtenvoices.com