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Coming to Our Senses
Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness
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“[The] journey toward health and sanity is nothing less than an invitation to wake up to the fullness of our lives as if they actually mattered . . .” –Jon Kabat-Zinn, from the Introduction
Jon Kabat-Zinn changed the way we thought about awareness in everyday life with his now-classic introduction to mindfulness, Wherever You Go, There You Are. Now, with Coming to Our Senses, he provides the definitive book for our time on the connection between mindfulness and our physical and spiritual wellbeing. With scientific rigor, poetic deftness, and compelling personal stories, Jon Kabat-Zinn examines the mysteries and marvels of our minds and bodies, describing simple, intuitive ways in which we can come to a deeper understanding, through our senses, of our beauty, our genius, and our life path in a complicated, fear-driven, and rapidly changing world.
In each of the book’s eight parts, Jon Kabat-Zinn explores another facet of the great adventure of healing ourselves — and our world — through mindful awareness, with a focus on the “sensescapes” of our lives and how a more intentional awareness of the senses, including the human mind itself, allows us to live more fully and more authentically. By “coming to our senses” — both literally and metaphorically by opening to our innate connectedness with the world around us and within us — we can become more compassionate, more embodied, more aware human beings, and in the process, contribute to the healing of the body politic as well as our own lives in ways both little and big.
COMING TO OUR SENSES
Healing Ourselves and the World
for Will, Naushon, and Serena
for Howie and Roz
for all those who care
for what is possible
for what is so
Introduction The Challenge of a Life’s Time—and a Lifetime
It may be when we no longer know what to do,
we have come to our real work,
and that when we no longer know which way to go,
we have begun our real journey.
I don’t know about you, but for myself, it feels like we are at a critical juncture of life on this planet. It could go any number of different ways. It seems that the world is on fire and so are our hearts, inflamed with fear and uncertainty, lacking all conviction, and often filled with passionate but unwise intensity. How we manage to see ourselves and the world at this juncture will make a huge difference in the way things unfold. What emerges for us as individuals and as a society in future moments will be shaped in large measure by whether and how we make use of our innate and incomparable capacity for awareness in this moment. It will be shaped by what we choose to do to heal the underlying distress, dissatisfaction and outright dis-ease of our lives and of our times, even as we nourish and protect all that is good and beautiful and healthy in ourselves and in the world.
The challenge is one of coming to our senses, both individually and as a species. I think it is fair to say that there is considerable movement in that direction worldwide, with little noticed and even less understood rivulets and streams of human creativity and goodness and caring feeding into growing rivers of openhearted wakefulness and compassion and wisdom. Where the adventure is taking us as a species, and in our individual private lives, even from one day to the next, is unknown. The destination of this collective journey we are caught up in is neither fixed nor predetermined, which is to say there is no destination, only the journey itself. What we are facing now and how we hold and understand this moment shapes what might emerge in the next moment, and the next, and shapes it in ways that are undetermined and, when all is said and done, undeterminable, mysterious.
But one thing is certain: This is a journey that we are all on, everybody on the planet, whether we like it or not; whether we know it or not; whether it is unfolding according to plan or not. Life is what it is about, and the challenge of living it as if it really mattered. Being human, we always have a choice in this regard. We can either be passively carried along by forces and habits that remain stubbornly unexamined and which imprison us in distorting dreams and potential nightmares, or we can engage in our lives by waking up to them and participating fully in their unfolding, whether we “like” what is happening in any moment or not. Only when we wake up do our lives become real and have even a chance of being liberated from our individual and collective delusions, diseases, and suffering.
Years ago, a meditation teacher opened an interview with me on a ten-day, almost entirely silent retreat by asking, “How is the world treating you?” I mumbled some response or other to the effect that things were going OK. Then he asked me, “And how are you treating the world?”
I was quite taken aback. It was the last question I was expecting. It was clear he didn’t mean in a general way. He wasn’t making pleasant conversation. He meant right there, on the retreat, that day, in what may have seemed to me at the time like little, even trivial ways. I thought I was more or less leaving “the world” in going on this retreat, but his comment drove home to me that there is no leaving the world, and that how I was relating to it in any and every moment, even in this artificially simplified environment, was important, in fact critical to my ultimate purpose in being there. I realized in that moment that I had a lot to learn about why I was even there in the first place, what meditation was really all about, and underlying it all, what I was really doing with my life.
Over the years, I gradually came to see the obvious, that the two questions were actually different sides of the same coin. For we are in intimate relationship with the world in all our moments. The give-and-take of that relationality is continually shaping our lives. It also shapes and defines the very world in which we live and in which our experiences unfold. Much of the time, we see these two aspects of life, how the world is treating me and how I am treating the world, as independent. Have you noticed how easily we can get caught up in thinking of ourselves as players on an inert stage, as if the world were only “out there” and not also “in here”? Have you noticed that we often act as if there were a significant separation between out there and in here, when our experience tells us that it is the thinnest of membranes, really no separation at all? Even if we sense the intimate relationship between outer and inner, still, we can be fairly insensitive to the ways our lives actually impinge upon and shape the world and the ways in which the world shapes our lives in a symbiotic dance of reciprocity and interdependence on every level, from intimacy with our own bodies and minds and what they are going through, to how we are relating to our family members; from our buying habits to what we think of the news we watch or don’t watch on TV, to how we act or don’t act within the larger world of the body politic.
That insensitivity is particularly onerous, even destructive, when we attempt, as we so often do, to force things to be a certain way, “my way,” without regard for the potential violence, even on the tiniest but still significant scale, that such a break in the rhythm of things carries with it. Sooner or later, such forcing denies the reciprocity, the beauty of the give-and-take and the complexity of the dance itself; we wind up stepping, wittingly or unwittingly, on a lot of toes. Such insensitivity, such out-of-touchness, isolates us from our own possibilities. In refusing to acknowledge how things actually are in any moment, perhaps because we don’t want them to be that way, and in attempting to compel a situation or a relationship to be the way we want it to be out of fear that otherwise we may not get our needs met, we are forgetting that most of the time we hardly know what our own way really is; we only think we do. And we forget that this dance is one of extraordinary complexity as well as simplicity, and that new and interesting things happen when we do not collapse in the presence of our fears, and instead stop imposing and start living our truth, well beyond our limited ability to assert tight control over anything for very long.
As individuals and as a species, we can no longer afford to ignore this fundamental characteristic of our reciprocity and interconnectedness, nor can we ignore how interesting new possibilities emerge out of our yearnings and our intentions when we are, each in our own way, actually true to them, however mysterious or opaque they may at times feel to us. Through our sciences, through our philosophies, our histories, and our spiritual traditions, we have come to see that our health and well-being as individuals, our happiness, and actually even the continuity of the germ line, that life stream that we are only a momentary bubble in, that way in which we are the life-givers and world-builders for our future generations, depend on how we choose to live our own lives while we have them to live.
At the same time, as a culture, we have come to see that the very Earth on which we live, to say nothing of the well-being of its creatures and its cultures, depends in huge measure on those same choices, writ large through our collective behavior as social beings.
To take just one example, global temperatures can be accurately charted back at least 400,000 years and can be shown to fluctuate between extremes of hot and cold. We are in a relatively warm period, not any warmer than any of the other warm eras Earth has experienced. However, I was staggered to learn recently, in a meeting between the Dalai Lama and a group of scientists, that in the past 44 years, atmospheric CO2 levels have shot up by 18 percent, to a level that is higher than it has been in the past 160,000 years, as measured by carbon dioxide in snow cores in Antarctica. And the level is continuing to rise at an ever-increasing rate.φ
This dramatic and alarming recent increase in atmospheric CO2 is entirely due to the activity of human beings. If unchecked, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts that levels of atmospheric CO2 will double by 2100 and as a result, the average global temperature may rise dramatically. One consequence seems to be that there is already open water at the North Pole, ice is melting at both poles, and glaciers worldwide are disappearing. The potential consequences in terms of triggering chaotic fluctuations destabilizing the climate world-wide are sobering, if not terrifying. While intrinsically unpredictable, they include a possible dramatic rise in sea level in a relatively short period of time, and the consequent flooding of all coastal habitations and cities worldwide. Imagine Manhattan if the ocean rises fifty feet.
We could say that this is one symptom, and only one of many, of a kind of auto-immune disease of the earth, in that one aspect of human activity is seriously undermining the overall dynamic balance of the body of the earth as a whole. Do we know? Do we care? Is it somebody else’s problem? “Their” problem, whoever “they” are … scientists, governments, politicians, utility companies, the auto industry? Is it possible, if we are really all part of one body, to collectively come to our senses on this issue and restore some kind of dynamical balance? Can we do that for any of the other ways in which our activity as a species threatens our very lives and the lives of generations to come, and in fact, the lives of many other species as well?
To my mind, it is past time for us to pay attention to what we already know or sense, not just in the outer world of our relationships with others and with our surroundings, but in the interior world of our own thoughts and feelings, aspirations and fears, hopes and dreams. All of us, no matter who we are or where we live, have certain things in common. For the most part, we share the desire to live our lives in peace, to pursue our private yearnings and creative impulses, to contribute in meaningful ways to a larger purpose, to fit in and belong and be valued for who we are, to flourish as individuals and as families, and as societies of purpose and of mutual regard, to live in individual dynamic balance, which is health, and in a collective dynamic balance, what used to be called the “commonweal,” which honors our differences and optimizes our mutual creativity and the possibility for a future free from wanton harm and from that which threatens what is most vital to our well-being and our very being.
Such a collective dynamic balance, in my view, would feel a lot like heaven, or at least like being comfortably at home. It is what peace feels like, when we really have peace and know peace, inwardly and outwardly. It is what being healthy feels like. It is what genuine happiness feels like. It is like being at home in the deepest of ways. Isn’t that somehow what we are all claiming we really want?
Ironically, such balance is already here at our fingertips at all times, in little ways that are not so little and have nothing to do with wishful thinking, rigid or authoritarian control, or utopias. Such balance is already here when we tune in to our own bodies and minds and to those forces that move us forward through the day and through the years, namely our motivation and our vision of what is worth living for and what needs undertaking. It is here in the small acts of kindness that happen between strangers and in families and even, in times of war, between supposed enemies. It is here every time we recycle our bottles and newspapers, or think to conserve water, or act with others to care for our neighborhood or protect our dwindling wilderness areas and other species with whom we share this planet.
If we are suffering from an auto-immune disease of our very planet, and if the cause of that auto-immune disease stems from the activity and the mind states of human beings, then we might do well to consider what we might learn from the leading edge of modern medicine about the most effective approaches to such conditions. It turns out that in the past thirty years, medicine has come to know, from a remarkable blossoming of research and clinical practices in the field variously known as mind/body medicine, behavioral medicine, psychosomatic medicine, and integrative medicine, that the mysterious, dynamic balance we call “health” involves both the body and the mind (to use our awkward and artificial way of speaking that bizarrely splits them from each other), and can be enhanced by specific qualities of attention that can be sustaining, restorative, and healing. It turns out that we all have, lying deep within us, in our hearts and in our very bones, a capacity for a dynamic, vital, sustaining inner peacefulness and well-being, and for a huge, innate, multifaceted intelligence that goes way beyond the merely conceptual. When we mobilize and refine that capacity and put it to use, we are much healthier physically, emotionally, and spiritually. And much happier. Even our thinking becomes clearer, and we are less plagued by storms in the mind.
This capacity for paying attention and for intelligent action can be cultivated, nurtured, and refined beyond our wildest dreams if we have the motivation to do so. Sadly, as individuals, that motivation often comes only when we have already experienced a life-threatening disease or a severe shock to the system that may leave us in tremendous pain in both soma and psyche. It may only come, as it does for so many of our patients in the Stress Reduction Clinic, once we are rudely awakened to the fact that no matter how remarkable our technological medicine, it has gross limitations that make complete cures a rarity, treatment often merely a rear-guard action to maintain the status quo, if there is any effective treatment at all, and even diagnosis of what is wrong an inexact and too often woefully inadequate science.
Without exaggeration, it is fair to say that these new fields within medicine are showing that it is possible for individuals to mobilize deep innate resources we all seem to share by virtue of being human, resources for learning, for growing, for healing, and for transformation that are available to us across the entire life span. These capacities are folded into our genes, our brains, our bodies, our minds, and into our relationships with each other and with the world. We gain access to them starting from wherever we are, which is always here, and in the only moment we ever have, which is always now. We all have the potential for healing and transformation no matter what the situation we find ourselves in, of long duration or recently appearing, whether we see it as “good,” “bad,” or “ugly,” hopeless or hopeful, whether we see the causes as internal or external. These inner resources are our birthright. They are available to us across our entire life span because they are not in any way separate from us. It is in our very nature as a species to learn and grow and heal and move toward greater wisdom in our ways of seeing and in our actions, and toward greater compassion for ourselves and others.
But still, these capacities need to be uncovered, developed, and put to use. Doing so is the challenge of our life’s time, that is, a chance to make the most of the moments that we have. As a rule, our moments are easily missed or filled up with stuff, wanted and unwanted. But it is equally easy to realize that, in the unfolding of our lives, we actually have nothing but moments in which to live, and it is a gift to actually be present for them, and that interesting things start to happen when we are.
This challenge of a life’s time, to choose to cultivate these capacities for learning, growing, healing, and transformation right in the midst of our moments, is also the adventure of a lifetime. It begins a journey toward realizing who we really are and living our lives as if they really mattered. And they do—more than we think. More than we can possibly think, and not merely for our own enjoyment or accomplishment, although our own joy and feelings of well-being and accomplishment are bound to blossom, all the same.
This journey toward greater health and sanity is catalyzed by mobilizing and developing resources we all already have. And the most important one is our capacity for paying attention, in particular to those aspects of our lives that we have not been according very much attention to, that we might say we have been ignoring, seemingly forever.
Paying attention refines awareness, that feature of our being that, along with language, distinguishes the potential of our species for learning and for transformation, both individual and collective. We grow and change and learn and become aware through the direct apprehension of things through our five senses, coupled with our powers of mind, which Buddhists see as a sense in its own right. We are capable of perceiving that any one aspect of experience exists within an infinite web of interrelationships, some of which are critically important to our immediate or long-term well-being. True, we might not see many of those relationships right away. They may for now be more or less hidden dimensions within the fabric of our lives, yet to be discovered. Even so, these hidden dimensions, or what we might call new degrees of freedom, are potentially available to us, and will gradually reveal themselves to us as we continue to cultivate and dwell in our capacity for conscious awareness by attending intentionally with both awe and tenderness to the staggeringly complex yet fundamentally ordered universe, world, terrain, family, mind and body within which we locate and orient ourselves, all of which, at every level, is continually fluxing and changing, whether we know it or not, whether we like it or not, and thereby providing us with countless unexpected challenges and opportunities to grow, and to see clearly, and to move toward greater wisdom in our actions, and toward quelling the tortured suffering of our tumultuous minds, habitually so far from home, so far from quiet and rest.
This journey toward health and sanity is nothing less than an invitation to wake up to the fullness of our lives while we actually have them to live, rather than only, if ever, on our deathbeds, which Henry David Thoreau warned against so eloquently in Walden when he wrote:
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.
Dying without actually fully living, without waking up to our lives while we have the chance, is an ongoing and significant risk for all of us, given the automaticity of our habits and the relentless pace at which events unfold in this era, far greater than in his, and the mindlessness that tends to pervade our relationships to what may be most important for us but, at the same time, least apparent in our lives.
But as Thoreau himself counseled, it is possible for us to learn to ground ourselves in our inborn capacity for wise and openhearted attention. He pointed out that it is both possible and highly desirable to first taste and then inhabit a vast and spacious awareness of both heart and mind. When properly cultivated, such awareness can discern, embrace, transcend and free us from the veils and limitations of our routinized thought patterns, our routinized senses, and routinized relationships, and from the frequently turbulent and destructive mind states and emotions that accompany them. Such habits are invariably conditioned by the past, not only through our genetic inheritance, but through our experiences of trauma, fear, lack of trust and safety, feelings of unworthiness from not having been seen and honored for who we were, or from long-standing resentment for past slights, injustices, or outright and overwhelming harm. Nevertheless, they are habits that narrow our view, distort our understanding, and, if unattended, prevent our growing and our healing.
To come to our senses, both literally and metaphorically, on the big scale as a species and on the smaller scale as a single human being, we first need to return to the body, the locus within which the biological senses and what we call the mind arise. The body is a place we mostly ignore; we may barely inhabit it at all, never mind attending to and honoring it. Our own body is, strangely, a landscape that is simultaneously both familiar and remarkably unfamiliar to us. It is a domain we might at times fear, or even loathe, depending on our past and what we have faced or fear we might. At other times, it may be something we are wholly seduced by, obsessed with the body’s size, its shape, its weight, or look, at risk for falling into unconscious but seemingly endless self-preoccupation and narcissism.
At the level of the individual person, we know from many studies in the field of mind/body medicine in the past thirty years that it is possible to come to some degree of peace within the body and mind and so find greater health, well-being, happiness, and clarity, even in the midst of great challenges and difficulties. Many thousands of people have already embarked on this journey and have reported and continue to report remarkable benefits for themselves and for others with whom they share their lives and work. We have come to see that paying attention in such a way, and thereby tapping into those hidden dimensions and new degrees of freedom, is not a path for the select few. Anybody can embark on such a path and find great benefit and comfort in it.
Coming to our senses is the work of no time at all, only of being present and awake here and now. It is also, paradoxically, a lifetime’s engagement. You could say we take it on “for life,” in every sense of that phrase.
The first step on the adventure involved in coming to our senses on any and every level is the cultivation of a particular kind of awareness known as mindfulness. Mindfulness is the final common pathway of what makes us human, our capacity for awareness and for self-knowing. Mindfulness is cultivated by paying attention, and, as we shall see, this paying attention is developed and refined through a practice known as mindfulness meditation, which has been spreading rapidly around the world and into the mainstream of Western culture in the past thirty years, thanks in part to an increasing number of scientific and medical studies of its various effects. But if, in even hearing the word “meditation,” you are all of a sudden feeling that it sounds either weird, strange, Pollyannaish, or just not for you because of the ideas and images you have of what meditation is or involves, consider that—whatever your ideas about meditation, and however they were shaped—meditation, and in particular mindfulness meditation, is not what you think.
There is nothing weird or out of the ordinary about meditating or meditation. It is just about paying attention in your life as if it really mattered. And it might help to keep in mind that, while it is really nothing out of the ordinary, nothing particularly special, mindfulness is at the same time extraordinarily special and utterly transformative in ways that are impossible to imagine, although that won’t stop us from trying.
When cultivated and refined, mindfulness can function effectively on every level, from the individual to the corporate, the societal, the political, and the global. But it does require that we be motivated to realize who we actually are and to live our lives as if they really mattered, not just for ourselves, but for the world. This adventure of a lifetime unfolds from this first step. When we walk this path, as we will do together in this book, we find that we are hardly alone in our efforts, nor are we alone or unique even in our difficulties. For in taking up the practice of mindfulness, you are participating in what amounts to a global community of intentionality and exploration, one that ultimately includes all of us.
One more thing before we embark.
However much work we do on ourselves to learn and grow and heal what needs healing through the cultivation of mindfulness, it is not possible to be entirely healthy in a world that is profoundly unhealthy in some ways, and where it is apparent how much suffering and anguish there is in the world, both for those near and dear to us, and also for those unknown to us, whether around the corner or around the world. Being in reciprocal relationship to everything makes the suffering of others our suffering, whether or not we sometimes turn away from it because it is so painful to bear. Rather than being a problem, however, that can be a strong motivating factor for both inner and outer transformation.
- On Sale
- Jan 1, 2005
- Page Count
- 656 pages
- Hachette Books