25 Areas for Exploration for an Enlightened Life
Mindfulness and Jon Kabat-Zinn
JKZ and the Expanse of Mindfulness
I remember several years ago writing to Spirit Rock Meditation Centre in Marin County, near San Francisco, where perhaps 30% or more on an average retreat are therapists. I asked the centre to add a brief footnote to the description of my retreat. The footnote read: “Please do not bring your inner child. There is no adult supervision on this retreat.”
I expected the footnote to be censored out. To its credit, Spirit Rock published the footnote in its annual retreat programme. Dharma teachings and practices contribute to listening within, not creating dependency and neediness on external authority.
Teachers serve the Dharma to the Sangha with the authority of their experience, insight and the power of empathy with others. We do not centralise ourselves as gurus in need of devotion, nor take interest in empire building to develop a following. Such an approach converts practitioners and seekers into devotees of the self of the other. The devotion to the other forms a primary block to liberation and an awakening life.
There are parallels between father and children (occasionally mother and children) and guru and devotees, which inhibit the opportunity to grow up into the fullness of being. Devotees can spend years in the kindergarten of spirituality while the guru smiles endlessly in the glory of the attention, he receives at satsang (gatherings).
The Dharma offers calm and insight (samatha and vipassana) as features of the Way to liberation, but not as the only way. Some secular teachers treat mindfulness and daily meditation as an aid to living a well-adjusted life, but a well-adjusted life also indicates the early stages of the path to full awakening. If our priority goes primarily to only one or two specific features of the path, then these features will act in time as shadows minimising the richness and diversity of the path and goal.
Teachers who know liberation speak about liberation. It comes effortlessly and naturally. Those who only know mindfulness, concentration and meditation will gravitate towards talking about that more than anything else. What we talk about most in the Dharma reveals where we are in the Dharma.
We cannot talk about the deepest aspects of the Dharma if we have not experienced them. This applies to deep meditation absorptions, the formless realms and the realms of God. Teachings also address the understanding and realisation of specific conditionality, emptiness, liberation and nirvana. Teachers cannot show the goal if they have no idea what it is. It is the task of teachers to articulate the path and goal.
There are teachers who offer the path of ethics, mindfulness/meditative concentration and wisdom with a trust that it leads onwards to full liberation. Such teachers have the authority to encourage others to develop the path to awakening.
Teachers and practitioners, whether Buddhists or strict secularists, must keep checking in with themselves and each other as to whether there is real depth in the available teachings. Can the approach take the practitioner all the way? Some yogis have profound experiences on retreats despite the relatively lightweight approach of their teacher.
The mindfulness/meditation teacher may have a minor or major influence on the practitioners in front of them. Dharma teachings certainly include with respect the words of the teacher, but the trust in the experience of the practitioner may matter more. Teachers do not always know how to respond to a person’s experience.
Teachers show no service to the Dharma by clinging to a narrow view about the supremacy of themselves or their tradition. Some teachers will inflate the importance of mindfulness and meditation at the expanse of the diverse exploration of the practices. Mindfulness and meditation consist of two features of Dharma practice in a treasure trove of commitments to wake us up.
We can sense the immensity of the challenge of the Way by reading, reflecting and meditating on all the subtle and deep communications from within and without. In classical Dharma language, the teachings/practices inquire into the experience of the Noble Eightfold Path, Seven Factors of Awakening, Twelve Links of Dependent Arising, Four Applications of Mindfulness, Five Ethics, Five Compositions of a human being and much more.
Sitting on a cushion or walking slowly up and down to meditate on our existence reveals a fine and profound exploration into ‘self’ and ‘non-self.’ What is going on with the rest of our lives? Dependency on meditation is not the way. Mindfulness/meditation contributes to a liberating wisdom and provides a valuable condition towards awakening. There is much to explore in meditation, various depths of experience through calm, insight and shifts in consciousness and perceptions.
An exaggerated emphasis on mindfulness (being in the moment) and consciousness (who am I?) easily leads to a deception about a truly enlightened life. Spiritual teachers, Buddhist and others, can talk with eloquence and conviction about knowing enlightenment without making a single reference to important areas listed below.
This is not willful on the part of the teachers/master/gurus but revealing a lack of depth of wisdom about a profound understanding of what enlightenment really means.
25 Areas for Exploration for an Enlightened Life.
In Alphabetical order.
- Addictive or habitual patterns
- Contact with nature
- Contact with realised teachers
- Contact with the Sangha
- Dharma reading, writing
- Emptiness of self/ego/I and my
- Ethics of body, speech and mind
- Generosity through service/money/skills/time
- Healthy ways for mind and body
- Inquiry into diet and exercise
- Insights/realisations into truth, awakening, liberation, the Deathless, the Immeasurable
- Investigation into meaning
- Mindfulness of Moderation in Lifestyle
- Nature of awakening
- Nature of Causation/Dependent arising
- Relationship of the material world
- Skilful effort
- Strengthening of immune system
- Use of resources
Mindfulness applies to meditation, childbirth, parenting, prisons, social work, pain, sickness, dying process and deep values in the public and private sector. There is much to explore in meditation, various depths of experience though calm, insight and shifts in consciousness and perceptions.
Such application supports expansion of the heart and mind and the exploration of the deepest levels of Dharma. The way is vast with a potential to contribute to clarity of being. The liberating potential of mindfulness in conjunction with the body of the teachings offers a genuine sense of a fulfilled life.
Mindfulness and Jon Kabat-Zinn
Psychology and psychotherapy show tremendous interest in the potency and the power of mindfulness to deal with stress, depression and physical pain. The various programmes of MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction), MBCT (Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy), and similar courses offer a variety of invaluable and important exercises, under the guidance of a mindfulness teacher.
Mindfulness practices has proved effective in enabling many patients and clients to handle psychological problems, including insomnia, chronic pain, migraine, life threatening illnesses, depression and anxiety. Mindfulness practices provide resources and tools enabling people to handle physical pain. Hospitals, health centres and private practices know the importance of mindfulness training for the staff as well as patients and their loved ones.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of MBSR and MBCT pioneered the application of mindfulness in daily life for people suffering from stress and physical pain. He adapted the Dharma teachings and practices offered on Buddhist insight meditation retreats and transformed them into practices suitable for people of all ages and background in society.
Prior to setting up his mindfulness programmes in 1979, Jon sat retreats with various Mindfulness/Insight Meditation teachers including Christine Feldman and myself at the Insight Meditation Society (IMS) in Barre, Massachusetts. He went to IMS regularly to sit weeklong or 10-day retreats, as well as Zen retreats. His wife, Myla, supported his practice and their young children while he was away from home.
In The Psychology of Awakening, sub-title: Buddhism, Science and our Day to Day Lives, (edited by Gay Watson, Stephen Bachelor and Guy Claxton (Random House, 1999, page 226), Jon wrote about the way he “has been deeply touched by the Dharma.” In the book, he described his introduction to meditation as “love at first sight.”
He wrote: “The implication was clear. It made no sense to withhold the Dharma, which we know to be fundamentally universal, so that its teachings are accessible to Buddhists. The challenge is to make it accessible to all human beings, do it in ways that are authentic, true to the heart of Dharma but at the same time not so locked in or wedded to tradition and vocabulary that prevents the practice from assuming new forms over the years, to grow and deepen (as it always has done) as it encounters new cultures,”
“Much of the direction our work at the hospital (University of Massachusetts Medical Center) came to me in a flash, maybe lasting 15 seconds, on a retreat in the Spring of 1979 at the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. The retreat was led by Christopher Titmuss and Christina Feldman, who were guiding teachers at Gaia House in Devon.
“The flash had to do with something of how to take the heart of something as meaningful, as sacred if you will, as Buddha Dharma and take it into the world in a way that doesn’t dilute, profane or distort it, but at the same time is not locked into a culturally and traditionally-bound framework that would make in penetrable to the vast majority of people, who are nevertheless suffering and find it extraordinarily useful and liberative.”
In October 2017, The Guardian, a daily newspaper in the UK, interviewed Jon on a visit to London to speak about mindfulness to Members of Parliament. In the interview, he referred to his experience on the 1979 retreat. In the introduction to the article, the newspaper wrote: “A 10-second vision in 1979 led to a change in the world’s consciousness.”
Jon told the interviewer: “I feel it’s my responsibility, since to a large degree, people blame me for starting this whole ball rolling to participate in whatever way I can.
“This is, in some sense, the fruition of that 10-second vision I had in 1979.”
“I saw in a flash not only a model that could be put in place, but also the long-term implications.
“It was so weird, I hardly ever mentioned this experience to others. But it was so compelling I decided to take it on whole-heartedly as best I could.”
Jon realised the importance of making the teachings available to people who would never dream of attending an intensive silent Buddhist retreat, become Buddhists or learn about the teachings of the Buddha.
I could not agree more. His “flash” on the retreat confirms one of the vitally important purposes of retreats to release insights and vision out of the process of meditation.
I remember Jon Kabat-Zinn, a seasoned meditator, coming to my room for the regular teacher-practitioner interview in that 1979 retreat at IMS. Jon reported his sudden flash on the retreat to bring mindfulness and insight meditation practices to the lives of people experiencing stress and pain.
Jon told me he had a vision to bring mindfulness practices to thousands of hospital patients in the USA. I offered him full encouragement. He had the depth of meditation experience, emotional intelligence and was very articulate. He was also very handsome with a face made for television. It was inspiring to listen to Jon.
I remember a mutual friend, Larry Rosenberg, a Dharma teacher and drop-out professor of sociology living in Cambridge, Mass. Larry said to me a year before Jon’s flash: “One day Jon is going to be on the cover of Time magazine, either as a Dharma teacher or because of his research as a medical scientist.” In 2014, Time magazine had on its cover The Mindful Revolution with a lengthy essay on Jon’s work.
After the retreat, I spoke to some of the teachers about Jon’s flash and my strong encouragement to him to take the Dharma to hospitals and others with stress and pain issues. While having immense respect for Jon’s practice, a couple of teachers expressed some doubt. One said Jon had not spent time in the East engaged in long retreats, nor had the opportunity in the West to make any personal retreats for a few months. One teacher said Jon should wait a year or two before starting alone to teach. Another asked me if my friendship with Jon influenced my judgement.
I listened and took no notice. I did not have a moment of doubt about his readiness to teach mindfulness to those severely challenged with issues of mind and body. A year or two later, Jon’s precious work had expanded far more than his original vision. I told the Insight Meditation teachers. “You would never have invited me to teach. You consider me far too opinionated.” They agreed. (Venerable Ajahn Dhammadharo and Venerable Ajahn Buddhadassa of Thailand encouraged me to go to the West and teach the Dharma).
Jon and I became friends on my first visit to IMS in 1977. He was born in early June 1944 in New York to a non-practicing Jewish family. I was born in late April on a farm in the north of England in the same year. His father worked as a biomedical scientist. I never met my father. We went jogging together during the retreat at around the three-mile loop on the country lane outside IMS.
On another retreat in the USA, a psychologist, who participated in the retreat, requested a meeting. She told me it was “unprofessional” to go jogging or take walks with a retreatant.
I said: “I did not go for refuge in professionalism. I took refuge in the Sangha.”
She also said it was ‘unprofessional’ to speak about the family and my personal life in the Dharma talks.
I said: “A Dharma teacher works outside the category of professionals. I teach non-self. The personal is not personal. The personal is dependent arising. No more and no less. Sharing of experiences supports the practitioners.
I stayed at Jon’s home in Boston on my visits to the USA. In 1981, Gwanwyn, my partner, got pregnant despite our large calendar on the bedroom wall with ticks for the safe days and crosses for the unsafe days for lovemaking. We had forgotten to factor in international flights, time zones and changes in biological rhythms. We were looking for a name.
I remember waking up bolt upright in the middle of the night. Gwanwyn lay besides me and around six months pregnant. “It’s a girl,” I said out loud with absolute certainty. Gwanwyn whispered: “Are you sure?”
“Absolutely,” I replied and then went right back to a sweet and deep sleep. I really wanted a daughter. Gwanwyn and I had already decided on her middle name ‘Satya’ – Sanskrit for ‘Truth.’ But not her first name. I spoke to Jon about this. He told me he and Myla gave their daughter the name Naushon afteran island with the name, four kilometres from the island of Martha’s Vineyard, off the south east coast of Massachusetts. Naushon comes from the American Indian hertiage meaning ‘Spring’ or ‘Planting Season.’
Gwanwyn and I had found the name for our daughter. Gwanwyn means Spring in Welsh (her parents are Welsh). We did not know the spelling of Jon’s daughter when we got back to England. A day or two after our daughter’s birth, we received a congratulations card from Gwanwyn’s older sister. She spelt the name of our baby daughter ‘Nshorna.’ We liked the sound and spelling of the name and kept it.
Jon took his family to Martha’s Vineyard for a holiday every year. He strongly recommended we go there for a holiday. Gwanwyn, Nshorna and I took the boat, also named Naushon, to Martha’s Vineyard for a short holiday a couple of years later. We experienced glorious summer days on the island. Beautiful.
In the late summer of 2019, Nshorna, 38, founded the Mindfulness Support Service (www.mindfulnesssupportservice.org) in Hertfordshire, England for children and adults who have experienced domestic violence and for those engaged in public service to reduce stress and tension in the work place. Starting as a midwife in her late teens, Nshorna has around 20 years of experience in public service, as well as being a single mother with four children.
JKZ and Expansion of Mindfulness
Jon returned home from our retreat determined to actualise his vision for the deep welfare of others. He spoke to the doctors at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where he worked. He expressed his wish to initiate mindfulness courses for patients. The hospital gave him a large room in the basement of the hospital for his weekly meetings with patients to practise mindfulness of breath, body, feelings and movement.
Jon told me the doctors were happy to send him their patients. Patients reported to their doctor that pain killers and anti-depressants were not getting them through their stress and pain. Word travelled quickly among hospitals in the USA about the benefits of mindfulness. Jon made short films on mindfulness, its benefits along with guided meditations and instructions for daily life. He engaged in detailed interviews with patients before and after their mindfulness training. His training as a scientist enabled him to offer evidence-based charts and analysis on the benefits of mindfulness.
There is concern among Buddhists that such mindfulness practices with its specific benefits has suffered the same fate as yoga – reduced to a system of healthy mind/body exercises, extricated from its context as a profound inner discipline addressing the whole person.
I believe it is important to take a positive approach, namely that these programmes offer an invaluable and effective resource to alleviate pain and stress. The Buddha said: “I teach that there is suffering. I teach there is the resolution of suffering.” Jon employed mindfulness to uphold the essence of the teaching.
Jon Kabat-Zinn makes it clear in his books the significance of the Buddha’s teachings in his work. His training and practices in the Buddhist tradition inspired his initiative to offer such programmes. These programmes are a valuable early step of the path. They have become a springboard for some mindfulness teachers, facilitators and clients of MBSR and MBCT to go even deeper.
Mindfulness teachers and other practitioners can take a huge leap in commitment to practices, retreats, short and long term and exposure to teachers and teachings. Some may make pilgrimages to the East and spend a lot of time in contact with the wisdom of the Sangha. The Sangha consists of women and men, Oriental and Occidental, ordained and householders in monasteries, centres and households. Differences between people in the Sangha relates to wisdom not age nor culture.
I once voiced the view that perhaps one day hundreds of teachers will offer MBLP (Mindfulness Based Liberation Programme) to those determined to know the beginning, middle and end of the path.
Such programmes might well include a very direct inquiry into the Four Truths of the Noble Ones, every link in the Noble Path, Triple Gem, ethics, renunciation, three characteristics of existence, factors for total awakening, long retreats, the depths of calm and insight, divine abiding, dependent arising, emptiness of “I” and my”, sangha, pilgrimages, meditative absorptions (jhanas), the five realms, emptiness, truth, the deathless, liberation and much more. That exploration challenges every cell in the whole being.
The Buddhist language from the East can change and adapt for the West. Teachers of the Dharma have a duty to ensure the potential for one and all to experience and know the depth and breadth of the teachings/pracices. Flashes of great insight and application of vision confirm the power of the Dharma to shift human consciousness in radical ways.
Realization of the ultimate Dharma reveals the end of stress. Contemporary mindfulness courses make a significant contribution in the right direction. Founders of mindfulness programmes, courses and retreats contribute to the expansion of expression of the teachings. There is much to be grateful for.
We are human beings endowed with a consciousness of infinite potential to reveal in infinite ways what is deep.
This article is a chapter from an upcoming book
Title: The Buddha in the West.
Sub-title. A View of Transmission over 45 years.