A Way of Being

Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, answers your questions about mindfulness in daily life.

Photo by Liza Matthews
Interviewee:

JKZ

My partner is very stressed out from his work and also has some annoying habits (computer gambling, for one). When I mention mindfulness, he says, “Yeah, yeah. I will,” but he never has. I don’t want to proselytize, but I think it would help our relationship.

Proselytizing would be mistake number one. When you get into something like mindfulness, you may suddenly feel that those closest to you should also practice, but this is very delicate and dangerous territory. It’s always better to practice yourself and embody mindfulness in your life, and let that speak to those around you.

In this case, his “annoying habits” may be much more than that. They may in fact signal serious addictions, in which case, sooner or later they inevitably lead to habitual patterns of behavior that are not healthy for anybody involved. Trying to use mindfulness to fix things is not a wise way to sort out a relationship—don’t let mindfulness become a dime-store solution to your challenging problems. Mindfulness is not about fixing anything, but about seeing things as they actually are and then being in wise relationship to them, even if it is difficult or painful. While “fixing” is not an option in such a situation, healing is, perhaps, through bringing wisdom and compassion to them without trying to force an outcome that you are attached to.

You can never change another person. They have to be willing to go through their own process of change. I would suggest not trying to convince your partner of anything. Just trust in your own commitment to the practice, and hold your partner and yourself in awareness with as much loving-kindness as you can, with no goal or agenda other than that.

Mindfulness has completely changed how I work. I am less stressed out, I work smarter, and my blood pressure has gone down! How can I encourage mindfulness around my workplace?

The best way is to embody mindfulness in your workplace yourself and then trust your instincts. It’s not necessarily a good idea to take on the responsibility of teaching others yourself, or advising them. It’s fine with a friend here or there to share your enthusiasm and even try out a little practice together, but particularly in the workplace, it could become messy and backfire. Do you want to be seen as the mindfulness proselytizer in your place of work?

I’d suggest inviting somebody well versed in mindfulness practice to give a talk on mindfulness in the workplace and in everyday life, and include a short guided meditation for those who are interested. These talks may stimulate further interest which could take various forms, including perhaps an early morning sitting and discussion group.

I just completed an MBSR course. What should I do next?

Practice! If you’ve taken MBSR, you’ve accumulated eight weeks of momentum. Keep nurturing that momentum because it can peter out, and then mindfulness just becomes a sweet memory or a nice idea. You need to figure out how long and how frequently, based on your life circumstances, and be flexible. One thing you can do to support practice is reading books about MBSR and books by people with strong practice experience. But read judiciously. Reading doesn’t replace mindfulness practice. It complements it. The idea that you have to do a lot of reading to get yourself inspired before you practice is a myth.

Another support can be to find a meditation group near you and go and sit with them at times when they have public meditation practice. Eventually, when you feel ready, find a place like the Insight Meditation Society and do a meditation retreat. That kind of immersion will make a big difference.

But the real meditation practice is your life. It’s not about 45 minutes each day and the job is done. It’s about letting the practice spill over into every waking moment of your life—cultivating a kind of love affair with the present moment without making it a big chore. It doesn’t take any energy to remember you’re breathing, seeing, smelling, hearing, tasting, touching. Sensing your body and your connection with nature, with your colleagues at work, with your family members, with your own heart—that is what builds the foundation of mindfulness that supports your formal practice. You’re no longer practicing a technique. It becomes a way of being.

I have three children (two, five, and seven). I started practicing mindfulness before they were born, but I don’t do it much now. I was thinking of picking it back up again. Do you have any advice?

If you find yourself thinking of picking it up, trust that impulse and start practicing. Of course, with all you’ve got going on, the question is, “When?”

The answer to that is two-fold. You have opportunities for formal practice, and for cultivating mindfulness “informally” throughout the day—mindful parenting, mindfulness with your family, etc. In terms of formal practice, everyone arrives at a routine based on their own situation. When we had small children in the house, I used to wake up long before they would so I could practice. Sometimes it worked out, sometimes it didn’t.

That said, you’re not likely to have all that much time for formal practice. The real practice, when you have a two-year-old, a five-year-old, and a seven-year-old is being with them fully. Mindfulness deepens just by consistently being in relationship to them and to yourself with awareness, no matter what is happening. It’s interesting, for instance, to watch how quickly a child’s emotions can shift. It’s also helpful to observe how much you might want to force a situation to be different, because you don’t like what’s happening. All sorts of challenging situations and insights will come into your awareness. It’s a very rich and fruitful time.

When you’re putting the children to bed or getting them up in the morning, those are fabulous times to really be present, to not be in a hurry to get on with your life, because this is your life, every moment of it. It’s high quality practice to just watch your own reactivity and short-temperedness at times, perhaps around bedtime or waking kids up in the morning —and to do it with tremendous kindness and compassion toward yourself. You couldn’t pay a person enough money to teach you those lessons, and your children are going to give them to you for free whether you want them to or not.

You might also take a few moments at times to really “take in” your children as they are and notice whatever feelings arise. This itself is a radical act of love.

My four-year-old won’t listen. I often get short with him right before I leave for work and I sit at work all day feeling awful—but I still need my child to listen, to prevent him from doing harmful things, like projecting himself out of his high chair.

Of course, we want to insure the safety of our childrenmore than anything else. But often our fears get the better of us in just these kinds of situations. We’ve all done something like this many times. A fear in the form of a thought (“My child will hurt himself”) arises. You are short with him because of it. Then you feel awful later, when you think about it. Then you rationalize it by saying, “But I have to prevent him from hurting himself.”

The lack of awareness of your own fear and the thought behind it usually triggers a reaction and limits your ability to see that you have a lot of options in that moment. One possibility would be to change the conditions by gently taking him out of his high chair, rather than trying to teach him a lesson he may not be ready to learn in that moment. After all, he is only four. There are many creative possibilities in such situations, but only you can come up with them, based on your willingness to be more aware in the present moment. Awareness is always the key. This episode is already motivating you to look more deeply at what happened and come to some understanding that may inform how you will see and respond to whatever the next challenge of the moment will be. That’s the beauty of this practice.

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