Ifyou have reaped the profound benefits mindfulness offers, chances are you have Jon Kabat-Zinn (JKZ) to thank. He is the father of mindfulness in America. Because this article focuses on the wisdom behind these four quotes, I’ll hold off on a lengthy description of his life and work for a future piece.
With that, here are four things Jon Kabat-Zinn has said that can help to anchor your meditation and mindfulness practices.
1. “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf.”
The waves of life come at us all the time. Large waves, in the form of the death of loved ones, the painful ending of relationships, being fired from a job; and small waves, like your teenager swearing at you then charging into her room and slamming her door, spilling an entire bowl of cereal on the floor and a driver honking you the riot act because you didn’t signal when you changed into their lane.
These waves are inevitable. They’re part of life.
But these waves don’t have to drown you. As JKZ says, you can learn to surf these waves. How? How does one ‘surf’ the waves of life?
By meeting any and all challenges in the moment. Head on. By not resisting the waves or fighting the waves. That’s a losing game. The waves always win. But if you surf the waves of life by treating them mindfully, that is, by experiencing them in the fullness of the moment, without judgment, the waves will eventually crash and peter out.
And then you’ll paddle out again, catch another wave and surf that. And then another. And another. And guess what? Like golf, playing the piano or learning Mandarin, the more you surf, the better you get at it. And the better you get at it, the better, richer person you become.
2. “In meditation practice the best way to get somewhere is to let go of trying to get anywhere at all.”
I’ve been teaching a meditation and mindfulness course online and I just sent an email to my class this morning emphasizing exactly this sentiment. Meditation is not about trying to “get somewhere.” It’s about experiencing and accepting anything and everything happening in the present moment.
How does one do that? As JKZ so simply and eloquently states, by letting go of trying to get anywhere. The paradox here is self-evident: Only by letting go of trying to get somewhere in meditation can we actually get somewhere.
3. “We take care of the future best by taking care of the present now.”
One could make the case that much of the suffering humans endure is caused by worrying about the future. “Will I get laid off in the next round of cuts?” “Will my restaurant survive the pandemic?” “Will this Covid-induced distance learning result in permanent damage to my ten year old son’s education?”
Worry, worry, worry. As Eckhart Tolle says,
“Worry pretends to be necessary.”
It isn’t. Ever.
Which is easy to say, but much harder to actualize in one’s life. Why? Because like most human behaviors there is a logic (if flawed) to why we worry. We worry because we think if we don’t those bad future things will happen. But again, worry is ALL bad, no good.
So how do we stop worrying about the future? We do two things. First, we double down on our meditation and mindfulness practices that help to calm our worrying minds and bring our attention into the present.
Second, we screw up our courage and place our faith in life, the universe, God, or whatever or whoever you think is cosmically in charge. In taking that leap, though, we can take solace in the evidence all around us that worrying doesn’t work and that living presently does.
4.“Another way to look at meditation is to view the process of thinking itself as a waterfall, a continual cascading of thought. In cultivating mindfulness we are going beyond or behind our thinking, much the way you might find a vantagepoint in a cave or depression in a rock behind a waterfall. We still see and hear the water, but we are out of the torrent.”
I love this one. It’s a perfect metaphor to describe the meditation process. Why?
If we become mired in the torrent of our thoughts in our meditation, as we would if a waterfall were crashing on top of us, we become lost. But, as with the waterfall, all it takes is stepping back a short ways to get out of the way of the crashing water. In meditation we do this by seeing ourselves lean away from our thought producing minds and then just observing the water cascading down in the form of thoughts.
This leaning back into the seat of self, as Mickey Singer calls it, is the linchpin of all spiritual growth, whether in meditation or our daily lives. Because that self sitting in that seat, that witness, is our truest self. And the more our attention is fixed on that self sitting in that seat, the stronger, more intelligent, more powerful and more compassionate we become.