September 04, 2012

Anecdote: Jon Kabat-Zinn

I recently attended a CBT conference where I participated in a mindfulness meditation workshop led by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Kabat-Zinn is the founder of the Center for Mindfulness and the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts medical school and the founder of mindfulness-based stress reduction; he is widely credited with having pioneered the integration of mindfulness and Western medicine and psychology.

At the conference, I had the pleasure of speaking with Kabat-Zinn during the workshop lunch break.  During the hour, a small and funny incident related to mindfulness and acceptance occurred:

Kabat-Zinn, the two other workshop attendees sitting with us, and I had finished eating and were discussing mindfulness applications. It was a hot day and the noon sun was beating down on our unprotected table. After a few minutes, Kabat-Zinn suggested moving to a nearby empty table in the shade. This prompted teasing from me and the two others: after all, the non-judging aspect of mindfulness prescribes not labeling some experiences (e.g., being in the sun) as bad and others (e.g., being in the shade) as good; mindfulness also involves letting go and accepting experience as it is, rather than struggling to change things all the time.

Teasing aside, this tiny incident demonstrates an important point about acceptance and about problem-solving. Acceptance doesn't mean that you don't do anything about your problematic situation--it just means that you try to maintain a non-judgmental and relatively objective perspective about what's happening (e.g., It's really hot and sunny at this table versus Oh my God I'm melting, I'm in hell); you try to maintain an awareness of your reaction to the problem (e.g., I'm having a hard time concentrating because I'm physically uncomfortable); and if there's a reasonable solution (e.g., switching tables), you go for it.

In the problem-solving quadrant, being unable to concentrate because of the heat was a "taking charge" type of problem, and there was nothing unmindful about switching tables. If we had sat in the sun sweating and being unable to connect due to physical discomfort, we would have been mistakenly placing the problem in the "giving up" quadrant and failing to take action in a situation over which we had control.

This is a minor but poignant example of identifying the type of situation and making a mindful choice about what to do. That it happened with a renowned authority on mindfulness only makes it more fun for me to retell.

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