Why Even Bother?
by Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D Massachusetts
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
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
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
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
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