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.
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.
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.
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.