Mindfulness or mood making?

I went to a lecture with one of the foremost spokesmen for mindfulness in the West, Jon Kabat-Zinn, in Oslo last week. There are many interesting parallels with Acem’s approach to meditation, and some interesting differences.

Malleable genes
Like Acem, he points out that meditation can build on basic traits of the human mind that are not culture-specific: “Buddha wasn’t a Buddhist.” And: “Anything ‘ancient’ in this lies in our DNA.

He is also concerned with recent research on neuroplasticity and knows, of course, that meditation may change both the size of the brain’s cortex and the way the brain functions. He is interested in epigenetics, the science of how even our gene pool is directly affected by our environment and experiences. For instance, he points out how stress degrades the telemores (the end parts of our chromosomes) and thereby makes us age before time, while meditation may do the opposite. In other words, many of the things we used to think were set from birth have been shown to be much more flexible and adaptable, and meditation seems to have a positive influence.


Embrace your thoughts!

Shifting attention
He even shares with some Acem teachers the reference to modern times as an “ADHD society”, because of its constant shifting of attention.

Furthermore, he is critical to the tendency in cognitive therapy to try to counter the negative effects of certain ways of thinking by replacing one thought (a “negative” one) with another (a “positive” one), instead of “embracing” (yes, he actually used his hands to embrace them!) all thoughts.

His main concern is with “awareness” or “attention”. He instructed the audience in directing the attention towards the breath, similar to the instructions found in Acem’s yoga book. One interesting formulation he had was about being more concerned with attention itself rather than the object of attention, the breathing, which is just an anchor.

There are also some contrasts with Acem’s approach to meditation. One thing is Acem’s use of a meditation sound, which the meditator produces in his or her mind, thereby providing a kind of training both in the effortless use of attention and in effortless action, in contrast to breathing meditation, which is only about the attention part.

Mood making
More problematically, Kabat-Zinn sometimes speaks of attention, awareness and mindfulness as if they were an almost fixed state of mind of intense and non-judgemental presence in the here and now, idealizing “being” over “doing”, “doing” over “thinking”, and “thinking” over “judging”. When instructing breathing meditation, he also tells the audience in a very suggestive way to imagine that they “surf” along on the “waves” of the breathing. It may seem paradoxical that a spokesman for the acceptance of all thoughts and feelings goes so far into what others have called mood making.

I talked to some people in the audience who agreed with me, and some left early. Others seemed to have no problem with what I thought was a paradox. One of the reasons why he himself has no problem with it may be that his style is so associative and digressive that there is very little attempt at building up a consistent line of thought. For me personally, this was actually a great disappointment. As a student I talked to said: “He didn’t seem so mindful.”

On the other hand, he seemed quite young for a man who will soon turn 67, so he must have done a lot of good things to his telemores.


  1. Kaif

    Interesting. It seems that it is very easy to understand mindfulness as a ‘state’ of mind in which one is equally distant to all thoughts and feelings. But then, what about being distant also to the aspiration to be in this state?

    Maybe what is problematic with Kabat-Zin’s approach is that he speaks of mindfulness and the distance it cultivates with too much sentiment, with too much “mood”, to use your word – which is very different from the kind of attitude the mindfulness actually seeks to cultivate.

    Acem’s distinction between ‘state orientation’ and ‘process orientation’ seems significant again.

  2. Gunnar

    Perhaps the distiktion of a “free mental attitude” get more blur when it rest on the breath?

  3. Hello! Very recently have I began reading about mindfulness and meditation, and although without seeking professional opinion, I have already identified that should I enroll in a meditation course, I will be unable to focus. As I learn more from books and blogs (like this one) I tend to think that I have been living life mindlessly, doing things merely because it has been my routine for my whole life. I seriously am considering going into a meditation class, changing my perspective in life and being aware of myself and the life I am living. I have always had questioned whether I will be able to sustain focusing my attention to just my breath by being mindful, but I guess I wouldn’t really know until I try.

  4. Hi Halvor, I’ve just dropped in on your website courtesy the power of google adwords (having just gmailed with the subject line ‘mindfulness meditation practice group’, I was drawn to check out ‘non-religious meditation’ which led me to your UK website) and thru further perusal to your provocatively titled blog entry “Mindfulness or Mood Making?” (a criticism I’ve had levelled at my own teaching)

    I’m a great fan of Jon Kabat Zinn and many other teachers, Thich Nhat Hanh especially. I believe JKZ has been a wonderful disseminator of the tool and practice of mindfulness, in particular in gaining therapeutic credibility for an ancient wisdom technique within the medical-scientific community.

    Of course, as an individual human being, Jon Kabat Zinn’s teaching is voiced through his own personality, and through his cultural background, just as mine or your’s or anyone else’s would be.

    The kernel of my comment is that I would hate to see mindfulness being fragmented, vis a vis ACEM’s version or Jon Kabat Zinn’s or Thich Nhat Hanh’s, etc. I would hope that the essence of mindfulness (and the reason I took time out to read up on ACEM’s ‘non-religious meditation’) is larger than individual or particular group ownership.

    I very much welcome your article in that it engenders debate, and that even Jon Kabat Zinn may be constructively criticised.

    It is natural that there will be cultural differences in approach to mindfulness and I look forward to keeping in touch with your site.

    Best wishes from an Irish mindfulness student.

    “Go n-éirí an bóthar libh”

  5. Katarina

    Telomeres Halvor – not telemores 🙂

  6. Halvor

    Thanks, Katarina. Telomeres!!!

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