Our taxi pulls up at Jon Kabat-Zinn's yellow colonial in a picturesque New England town and he is outside, preparing to chop wood. This seems so exactly what we might expect from the founder of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School that our curiosity is heightened. Wearing a fleece pullover, ruddy in the brisk autumn air, he approaches us with dignified reserve. We are curious about how he will relate to us, if he will act more as teacher than individual, more zealous message than man. We remove our shoes before we climb clean wooden stairs to his studio office. We did actually predict this, and even wore nice socks. This year Random House will bring out a 15th anniversary edition of Full Catastrophe Living, which made Kabat-Zinn a well-known proponent of the use of the Buddhist meditation technique of mindfulness—the moment by moment awareness of mind and body—to help patients deal with stress, illness and pain. Also this year, Hyperion is bringing out a tenth anniversary edition of Wherever You Go, There You Are, which has attracted 750,000 readers and counting by delving more deeply and more poetically into mindfulness. This is a man who might spend hours a day sitting on meditation cushions. We had a strong hunch that he would practice the Asian custom of not wearing shoes in the house.
We pad upstairs and into a spacious light-filled garret. There are stacks of papers on a big desk, stacks of books around the desk and in low bookshelves lining the walls. There is a single bed that is covered with a pile of paintings on paper, which look a little like Jackson Pollock, if Pollock had an interest in Zen. Kabat-Zinn explains that he has done these with his 90-year-old mother.
Kabat-Zinn pulls off his black fleece pullover and we settle opposite each other in wooden chairs. Wearing a black t-shirt and black pants, looking fit and at least 10 years younger than his 60 years, he looks ready to practice a kind of conversational akido if need be in order to help us open to the full import of Coming to Our Senses (due out from Hyperion on Jan. 5), the most personal, political, passionate of all his books.
Interweaving science with poetry, celebrating the wonders of each of the senses, his latest is more than a spiritual autobiography. It is Kabat-Zinn's personal unified field theory of mindfulness. He expands the embrace of what mindfulness is from the domain of the personal and the daily to the realms of science, poetry, psychology, philosophy, society. He is openly political. Outspoken in his opposition to the war in Iraq, he urges the people of America to wake up and see how far we have drifted from the goodness, generosity and moral wisdom that infused the Marshall Plan and all our sacrifices in World War II. Here, he urges people to cultivate mindfulness and the wisdom that flows from it as if our lives and the life of the planet depended on it.
"In terms of individual as individual he said his piece in his previous books," says Will Schwalbe, editor-in-chief of Hyperion and Kabat-Zinn's editor, in a phone conversation some weeks later. "But one of the questions he has grappled with for a decade now is how you can be a well individual in an ill society. There isn't anything in this book that can't be applied across the political spectrum. One of most powerful things he says in the book is that we should each take something that we know to be true and imagine that the opposite is true."
Schwalbe maintains that the hefty size of the book (656 pages) is an appropriate metaphor for the scale of Kabat-Zinn's ambition. "He is a scientist and a renowned teacher and for decades has been pondering the biggest question of all, which is what our responsibility is to the planet. In the great tradition of just going for it, he goes for it. In our advertising we've been saying that Coming to Our Senses is the most important work of our lives. If this doesn't deserve a big book, I don't know what does."
Robert Miller, president of Hyperion, edited Kabat-Zinn's first book when he was the editorial director of Delacorte. He sees a natural progression in the author's work from an initial focus on medical issues to a more philosophical and poetic treatment of mindfulness. In Everyday Blessings (Hyperion, 1998), according to Miller, Kabat-Zinn and his wife, Myla (whose last name he added to his birth name, Kabat, when they married), told personal stories about their relationships with their children.
"This is his magnum opus," Miller tells us by phone. "Here he gives us all the parts of the elephant of what it means to be mindful. I haven't worried about it alienating anyone with the political content. I did express a concern that since he refers to current events, it might date, but he reminded me that in Wherever You Go There You Are he mentions events of the day. But this is so much more than a call to arms politically. It is a call to awareness and responsibility. It is provocative and it is paradoxical, I'll give you that. On the one hand he is telling us that each person needs to find their own path, that each of us needs to learn to be aware. Then on the other hand, he's saying that having done that, here are my views."
Kabat-Zinn insists that Coming to Our Senses is not meant to be prescriptive. "I'm challenging everybody on every side of every divide to be more who they are, to cultivate their capacity for awareness."
The politics, he maintains, has to do with becoming aware of the effect that our views and our sense of entitlement is having on the rest of planet. The dangerous land that Americans really should be occupying for the sake of their own security and future happiness, in his view, lies between our own ears. "We have to see the fear and the anger and the hatred or live with the consequences. If we're not willing to face things as they are then chances are that we're on a trajectory that's going to give rise to something truly catastrophic."
Is he a teacher with an urgent message rather than a writer who relates his experience to the reader in intimate way, at eye-level?
"I'm a whole lot of things, I'm a scientist, writer, father, lover, but I'm more than that, that's what the book is all about, it's about the mystery of what it means to be human, beyond your name, beyond your age, beyond your form, beyond what happened to you and what's going to happen to you." But what does he write on the dotted line labeled "occupation"?
"Fair enough," he laughs. "I usually write "teacher/writer." Sometimes I write "professor," since I am a professor of medicine emeritus."
"But I don't want people following Jon Kabat-Zinn," he adds. "I want them following themselves. I do talk about universal aspects of Buddhism which I've never done before, including a chapter on the empty nature of self. But I realized that if I was going to speak about selflessness and not have it sound completely hollow or intellectual, I was going to have to be personal. I had to show people that we do take things personally, very personally, but we do it in a way that makes us miss our true nature and our sense of who we might be if we woke up to the hidden dimensions of our experience."
Kabat-Zinn is ardent. But there is no sense of strain, as if he is fighting to convince us. What he says sounds familiar from the book, but he says it without that rehearsed, canned quality that we often hear in famous authors who repeat themselves in one interview after the next. Kabat-Zinn looks and sounds fresh.
We ask him where he thinks his passion comes from.
"It's love of life," he says. "And love of the way life manifests in human form. We have all these capacities but they don't mean anything if we're not aware of them. We're always looking for happiness some place else but what if it were right here, but like the sun obscured by clouds."
"So in a way," we ask, "this big book is an autobiography of what you love?"
"That is fair, absolutely," he says.
We talk about the fear that comes up for many Western readers when they first read about what it means to live mindfully. One form it takes is a clutching kind of anxiety that, if we loosen the grip of our usual preoccupying thoughts and feelings and broaden our focus to the moment-by-moment awareness of everything that is happening in us and around us as we sit or walk or chop wood, we will somehow dissolve like salt in water. To Kabat-Zinn, however, mindfulness can lead us to our true individuality. It's as if we become more transparent, so that we can begin to discern the larger influences that have shaped us, so we can find our particular place in the universe.
Kabat-Zinn was born in the Washington Heights section of New York City on June 5, 1944, the day before D-Day. This was the day an armada of 6,000 allied vessels sailed from Britain to France, the day that 150,000 Allied troops prepared to fight and die on the beaches of Normandy. "It was a momentous time to be born, certainly," he says. "It was a time when the forces of light and the forces of dark were never more clear, or more clashing."
We ask him if he took inspiration from being born at the time of this great battle for liberation.
"There was some kind of feeling dimension, some kind of orientation for me, that I was born the day before D-Day."
Things change. This is one of the larger points in Kabat-Zinn's book. America, each of us. But some things don't die away completely so much as evolve and transform—including the author's understanding of what it means to be good now, and what it takes to be liberated.
Kabat-Zinn also admits that he was a scrappy kid.
"I was very much a tough New York street kid. I went to a school where you had to learn how to get along with everybody or fight with everybody and I did my fair share of both. But you have to learn how to get along. I did an awful lot of fighting. I was tough but I'm also relatively small so I learned very early on to use my mind."
Happily, it was a good mind, and it was nurtured by a father who was a scientist and a mother who was an artist. He was born Jewish but his true religion growing up was that fusion of science and art.
"Science gave me a cosmic religious feeling, and I would get the same feeling when I was dragged to the Met and the Museum of Modern Art."
He went to Stuyvesant, the Manhattan high school for very brainy kids. When his father decided to spend a year at the Pasteur Institute in Paris, Kabat-Zinn and his two brothers were put into French lycees. He attributes this experience with sparking his understand of what writing can be.
"I learned French in three months," he tells us. "Going to another culture like that and learning poetry in that language and having to learn it so quickly, it rearranges your nervous system. I learned that you can see things and say things and know things in one language that you can't quite in another."
Afterward came Haverford College, then a Ph.D. in biochemistry from MIT. In 1979, he founded the Stress Reduction Clinic in the basement of the University of Massachusetts Medical School.
"It's still there, run by my colleague Saki Santorelli, and now clinics have spread all over the country and the world. I'm flying to Hong Kong tomorrow to see a clinic that is being opened by a student of mine. We train many thousands of psychologists, physicians and social workers. There's a whole field of medicine now that is called mindfulness-based intervention, and it all started in that basement."
We tell him this history doesn't exactly scream "street kid" to us.
"Well, it sounds more privileged than it actually was, but ok, its true," he admits. "I've been blessed with all of this stuff for whatever karmic reasons but I still feel like a regular street kid."
We offer that writing, with its struggle to put words on a blank page, can be the ultimate rough neighborhood.
"Writing can be an incredible mindfulness practice," he adds. "I try to bring that level of awareness to writing so that by the time I get finished there isn't one word that I didn't really mean to be there."
He writes on a laptop while sitting on a meditation cushion on the floor.
"It's a perpetual challenge to say there is any domain of clarity in the midst of all this lack of clarity," he says. "I read it over and over again and I ask myself, 'What am I trying to say here? What am I trying to do? Is it hollow? Is it a cliché? Is it garbage? Have I said it 100 times already and am I just repeating myself?'"
"I must say, it's a tremendously clarifying process," he says. "I absolutely love it."
He tells us that the book took three and a half years. He likes to work best in big long stretches, writing for 10 and 12 hours at a time.
"I don't get to do this very often but I do go on retreats where I just write for weeks at a time. I go in and out of writing and meditating or walking and then going back to the cushion or chopping wood. But there are times when I'll sit at my desk for hours at a time, to the point where it takes me half an hour to straighten out my legs."
Before Jon Kabat-Zinn ushers us out of his office, he leads us over to an alcove and shows us some of his mother's exquisite watercolors. "She has an eye like Monet," he says as he gazes at them lovingly. "She sees form and color and reflections and she's perpetually delighted with the visual."
As he drives us in his Saab to our hotel, he can't help pointing out the sun as it breaks through a cloud.
"Just look at that," he exclaims.
We agree that it is truly beautiful to see.