Meditation Is Not What You Think

Mindfulness and Why It Is So Important


By Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD

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Welcome to a master class in mindfulness.

Jon Kabat-Zinn is regarded as “one of the finest teachers of mindfulness you’ll ever encounter” (Jack Kornfield). He has been teaching the tangible benefits of meditation in the mainstream for decades. Today, millions of people around the world have taken up a formal mindfulness meditation practice as part of their everyday lives. But what is meditation anyway? And why might it be worth trying? Or nurturing further if you already have practice?

Meditation Is Not What You Think answers those questions. Originally published in 2005 as part of a larger book entitled Coming to Our Senses, it has been updated with a new foreword by the author and is even more relevant today. If you’re curious as to why meditation is not for the “faint-hearted,” how taking some time each day to drop into awareness can actually be a radical act of love, and why paying attention is so supremely important, consider this book an invitation to learn more — from one of the pioneers of the worldwide mindfulness movement.



What Is Meditation Anyway?

It is not uncommon for people to think they know what meditation is, especially since it is so much in the common parlance now and images and passing references to it, as well as podcasts and online summits on the subject, abound. But actually and quite understandably, most of us still may be harboring fairly narrow or incomplete perspectives on what meditation is and what it can do for us. It is all too easy to fall into certain stereotypes, such as that meditation is limited to sitting on the floor while effectively banishing all thoughts from one’s mind; or that it must be practiced for long periods of time and often, for it to have any positive effect; or that it is inextricably linked to adopting a specific belief system or spiritual framework from an ancient tradition. People may also think that it has almost magical benefits for our bodies, our minds, and our souls. None of this is really the case, although there are elements of truth in all of it. The reality is much more interesting.

So what is meditation, really? And why might it make a lot of sense to at least experiment with bringing it into your life? This is exactly the subject of this book.

Meditation Is Not What You Think was originally published in 2005 as part of a larger book entitled Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness. Since its initial publication, mindfulness has improbably gone mainstream in a big way. Millions of people around the world have taken up a formal mindfulness meditation practice as part of their everyday lives. To my mind this is a very positive and promising development, one that I had hoped for and have tried to help catalyze over the years along with many other people, in spite of the fact that along with this entering into the mainstream, there inevitably comes some degree of hype, commercial exploitation, opportunism, and people claiming to teach it who have little or no background or training in it. Still, even the hype can be seen as a sign of success, although hopefully one that will be relatively short-lived and contained, as the significant healing and transformative power of mindfulness as a practice and as a way of being in relationship with our lived experience becomes more widely understood and adopted.

While meditation is not all about sitting still on the floor or in a chair, taking your seat both literally and metaphorically is an important element of mindfulness. We could say that in essence, it is a direct and very convenient way to cultivate greater intimacy with your own life unfolding and with your innate capacity to be aware—and to realize how valuable, overlooked, and underappreciated an asset that awareness actually is.

A Love Affair with Life

The act of taking your seat in your own life, which could also be seen as taking a stand of a certain kind, on a regular basis, is in and of itself a profound expression of human intelligence. Ultimately it is a radical act of sanity and love—namely to stop all the doing that carries us through our moments without truly inhabiting them, and actually drop into being, even for one fleeting moment. That dropping in is the exceedingly simple, but at the same time, hugely radical act undergirding mindfulness as a meditation practice and as a way of being. It is easy to learn. It is easy to do. But it is also equally easy to forget to practice, even though this kind of dropping in takes literally no time at all, just remembering.

Happily, this intimacy with our own capacity for awareness is increasingly being taken up and nurtured in one form or another by more and more people as it makes its way into various domains of society: from school children to elders, from academics to business professionals, from tech engineers to community leaders and social activists, from college students to medical and graduate students, from—believe it or not—politicians, to athletes at all levels of sport. And for the most part, mindfulness is being nurtured and cultivated not as a luxury or passing fad but with the growing recognition that it may be an absolute necessity for living life fully and for living life with integrity—in other words, ethically—in the face of the starkly looming challenges we are all confronted with every day and with the equally enormous and compelling opportunities and options that are available to us as well at this particular moment in time—that is, if we can see through and transcend at least for a moment, our mind’s own self-constructed and habitual limitations, the narratives we tell ourselves that are not true enough if they are true at all, and our endemic blindnesses. This enterprise is ultimately one big and extremely vital adventure—full of ups and downs, just as life itself is full of ups and downs. But how we choose to be in relationship to it makes all the difference in how this adventure, the adventure of your life, unfolds. And you have a lot more say in it than you might suspect.

There are many different ways to cultivate mindfulness through both formal meditation practice and in everyday living and working. As you will see, formal meditation can be practiced in any number of positions: sitting, lying down, standing, or walking. And what we call informal meditation practice, which when all is said and done is the real meditation practice, involves letting life itself become coextensive with your meditation practice and recognizing that everything that unfolds within it, the wanted and the unwanted and the unnoticed, is the real curriculum. When we see meditation in this big way, nothing that arises in our own mind or in our own life or in the world is excluded, and any moment is a perfect moment to bring awareness to what is unfolding and thereby learn and grow and heal.

Over time, what is most important is for you to find your own authentic way to practice, a way that feels intuitive and trustworthy, that is true for you while at the same time staying true to the essence of the ancient traditions out of which mindfulness emerged. This book is aimed to help you to do just that, or at least to get started on this lifelong adventure. You will learn how to develop a daily mindfulness practice if it is new to you, or hopefully, to deepen your practice if you already have one. In either case, you will also learn how to see it as a love affair rather than as a chore or a burden, one more “should” in your already-too-busy day, and so, ultimately, a deep inhabiting of the life that is yours to live. As decades of research have shown, mindfulness can serve as a powerful ally in facing and transcending the challenges of stress, pain, and illness throughout life.

Doing and Non-doing

Sometimes being mindful looks like doing something. And sometimes being mindful looks like doing nothing. From the outside, you can’t always know. But even when it looks or feels like doing nothing, it isn’t. In fact, it isn’t a doing at all. I know this sounds a bit crazy but mindfulness meditation is much more a matter of non-doing, of simply dropping into being in the only moment we ever have—this one—than it is of doing something or getting someplace. How you are—and wherever you are in any moment—is good enough, at least for now! In fact, it is perfect, if you are willing to hold the moment in awareness while being gentle with yourself and not forcing things.

The regular practice of mindfulness meditation helps us to access within ourselves the openhearted spaciousness characteristic of pure awareness and to express it in how we act in the world. Mindfulness as a regular practice can literally and figuratively give your life back to you, especially if you are stressed or in pain, or caught up in uncertainty and emotional turmoil—which of course, we all are to one degree or another in some moments or times in our lives.

But, in spite of its trendy popularity or notoriety at this moment, mindfulness is above all a practice, and at times, an arduous one. For most of us, it requires intentional and ongoing cultivation. And that cultivation is nurtured through the regular disciplined practice of meditation, pure and simple. And simple it is, although not necessarily easy at times. That is one of the reasons that it is worth doing. The investment of time and energy is profoundly beneficial. It is healing. It can be totally transformative. That is one of the reasons people often say that the practice of mindfulness “gave me back my life.”

Mindfulness Goes Mainstream

There are a lot of different reasons why meditation practice, and in particular, mindfulness meditation, has moved into the mainstream over the past forty plus years. One has to do with the work of an ever-growing community of colleagues from around the world that I have been privileged to be a part of who teach MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction), a program that I developed and launched in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. Over the ensuing years, MBSR has inspired the development and study of other mindfulness-based practices such as MBCT (mindfulness-based cognitive therapy) for depression, and a range of other programs modeled on MBSR for other circumstances that people find themselves in, and which have been shown through scientific research to be valuable and effective.*

The original aim of the MBSR clinic, an eight-week outpatient program in the form of a course, was to test the potential value of training in mindfulness to help reduce and relieve the suffering associated with the stress, pain, and illnesses of medical patients with chronic conditions who were not responding to the usual medical treatments and therefore falling through the cracks of the mainstream medical and health care system. MBSR was meant to be a safety net to catch them as they were falling and challenge them to do something for themselves to participate in their own trajectory toward greater health and well-being, starting from where they found themselves. MBSR was not meant to be a new medical treatment or therapy. Rather, it was meant to be a self-educational public health intervention that over time, as more and more people went through it in large numbers, might have the potential to move the bell curve of humanity in the direction of greater health, well-being, and wisdom. We were in some sense teaching people how to collaborate with whatever their physicians and the hospital could do for them by mobilizing their own interior resources through mindfulness practice and seeing if by doing so, they could stay out of the hospital, or at least use it much more sparingly as they learned to take better care of themselves and develop new ways of effectively dealing with and modulating their levels of stress and pain and their various health challenges and chronic conditions.

We were interested in seeing and documenting as best we could whether meditative practices emphasizing mindfulness, practiced regularly for 45 minutes a day, six days a week over the eight weeks of the program would make a significant difference in the quality of life and in the health and well-being of the participants. For the majority, there was no question right from the start that it did. We could actually see the changes in people over the eight weeks ourselves. They happily shared in class some of the changes they were experiencing and felt empowered by, and our data collection confirmed this.

We began sharing our findings in papers in the medical literature, starting in 1982. Within a few years, other scientists and clinicians took up the increasingly rigorous study of mindfulness as well, adding to the now extensive body of knowledge on this subject in the scientific community.

Today, there is a flourishing exploration of mindfulness and its potential uses in medicine, psychology, neuroscience, and many other fields. In and of itself, this is quite remarkable because it represents the confluence of two domains of human knowledge that have never before encountered each other: medicine and science on the one hand, and ancient contemplative practices on the other.

When Coming to Our Senses was published in January of 2005, there were only 143 papers published at that time in the medical and scientific literature that had the word “mindfulness” in the title. That represents 3.8 percent of the 3,737 papers published on mindfulness through 2017. In the interim, an entire field has emerged in medicine and in science more broadly, looking at its effects on everything from our brain’s remarkable capacity to reshape itself (what is called neuroplasticity), to its effects on our genes and their regulation (what is called epigenetics), on our telomeres and thus, on biological aging, and on our thoughts and emotions (especially in terms of depression, anxiety, and addiction), as well as on family life, work life, and our social lives.

A New Format for a New Time

I mentioned earlier that Meditation Is Not What You Think was originally published in 2005 as part of a larger book, Coming to Our Senses. Given everything that has transpired since, I thought that it might be useful to divide that book into four shorter volumes for a new generation of readers. Since you are holding the first of those books in your hands right now, I am guessing that you must be at least a bit curious about meditation in general and mindfulness in particular to have picked it up and read this far. But even if you are not that curious, or it scares you a bit to think about adding meditation to your life—one more thing that you are going to have to do or that would take up time, precious moments you don’t think you have, or you are concerned about what your family and friends might think, or even if the very idea of formal meditation turns you off or seems farfetched and impractical—no need to worry. That is not a problem. Because meditation, and in particular mindfulness meditation, truly is not what you think.

But what meditation can do is transform your relationship to your thinking. It can help you befriend that capacity as one, but only one, of a number of different intelligences you already have and can put to use rather than be imprisoned by, as we so often are by our thoughts when we forget that they are merely thoughts, events in the field of awareness, rather than the truth. So you might say that this book covers the what and the why of mindfulness.

The next book in the series, Falling Awake, explores in detail how to go about systematically cultivating mindfulness in your everyday life. The healing and transformative power of mindfulness lies in the practice itself. Mindfulness is not a technique. It is a way of being in wise relationship to the entirety of your inner and outer experience. And that means that your senses, all of them—and there are far more than five, as you will see—play a huge and critical role. So we could say that this second book covers the how of mindfulness in detail, both as a formal meditation practice and as a way of being.

The third book, The Healing Power of Mindfulness, is really about the promise of mindfulness. It explores the potential benefits of mindfulness from a very broad perspective, including two studies that I was directly involved with. I have not fully documented the results of all the new scientific studies that have come out since 2005. That would be overwhelming, and more are coming out every day. But the major trends are summarized in the foreword to that volume, with references to books describing some of the most exciting recent research.

Beyond the science, this third book in the series also evokes some of the beauty and the poetry inherent in a whole range of perspectives and circumstances that might be both illuminating and healing for us. Some are based on meditative traditions, in particular Zen, Vipassana, Dzogchen, and Hatha Yoga that personally touched me deeply and propelled me to integrate mindfulness into my own life beginning when I was twenty-one years old. They all point to the value of embodied wakefulness and of our intrinsic interconnectedness. Their powerful perspectives, insights, and practices have been transmitted down to us over the centuries—a remarkable human lineage that is very much alive and flourishing today.

The fourth book, Mindfulness for All, is about the realization of mindfulness in your own life—realization in the sense of making it real and embodying it as best you can in your own way, not just as an individual but as a member of the human family. This book focuses less on the body and more on the body politic and what we have learned in medicine over the past forty years and in the contemplative traditions over the past several thousand years that might be of essential value to us as Homo sapiens sapiens at this moment on the planet. It also evokes your own potential as a unique living and breathing human being and your place in the larger world when you persist in inhabiting your own capacity for wakefulness and taste the creativity, generosity, caring, ease, and wisdom doing so naturally gives rise to. So this volume includes not only individual realization, but also a more societal and species-wide waking up to our full potential as human beings.

My hope with these four books is to introduce a new generation to the timeless power of mindfulness and the many different ways in which it can be described, cultivated, and applied in the world as we find it today. In fact, I trust that many new applications and approaches will be developed and implemented by future generations in their own ways, appropriate to the circumstances they will find themselves in. Today, those circumstances include a new awareness of global warming, the unconscionable human costs and the destructiveness of war, institutionalized economic injustice, racism, sexism, agism, implicit bias, sexual harassment and assault, bullying, the challenges of gender identity, cyber-hacking, endless competition for our attention—the so-called “attention economy”—an overall lack of civility, and extreme polarization and demagoguery in government and between governments, along with all of the other horrors as well as the exquisite beauty that have always been part of life unfolding with us humans since the dawn of history.

At the same time, and it is important to keep this perspective in mind as well, nothing has really changed. As the French are fond of saying, “Plus ça change, plus s’est la meme chose.” The more things change, the more they stay the same. Greed, hatred, and delusion have been operating since the dawn of time in the human mind, and have given rise to endless violence and suffering. So we have our work cut out for us in this moment on the planet, that is, if you choose this path for your own sake and for the sake of the world. At the same time, when the human mind knows itself in a deep way, we have also known beauty, kindness, creativity, and insight since the dawn of time. Generosity and kindness, tenderness and compassion have also always been an essential part of human nature and the human condition, as have transcendent works of art, music, poetry, science, and the possibility of wisdom and of inner and outer peace prevailing.

The Power of the Present Moment When Embraced in Awareness

There is no question that mindfulness, compassion, and wisdom are more important than ever before—even though the essence of mindfulness is and has always been timeless, having to do with our relationship to this moment and to any moment as it is, however it is. The past is only available to us in this present moment. And so is what is yet to unfold in a future we try endlessly to envision and control. If you want the future to be different, the only leverage you have is to inhabit the present moment fully, and that means mindfully and heartfully. That itself is an action, even though it looks like non-doing. Then, the very next moment will be full of new possibilities because you were willing to show up in this one. Inhabit this moment fully and the very next moment (the future) is already different. Each moment of now is a branch point. Anything can unfold in the next moment. But what unfolds depends on whether and to what degree you are willing to show up fully awake and aware in this one. Of course it is important at times to take action in the service of wisdom and compassion and justice and freedom. But actions themselves can be mindless or ineffective unless we let our doing come out of our being. Then an entirely different form of doing emerges… what we could call “wise doing,” or “wise action,” an authentic doing molded in the furnace of mindfulness.

If you check your watch, you will always find, wonder of wonders, that it is now again. What better time to take up mindfulness as a practice and as a way of being, and by doing so, begin or resume or re-energize a lifelong journey of learning, growing, healing, and transformation? At the same time, paradoxically, you will be going nowhere, since you are already whole, already complete, already who you are in your fullness. Mindfulness is not and cannot be about improving yourself, because you are already whole, already complete, already perfect (including all your “imperfections”). Rather, it involves recognizing that you are already whole, already complete in this very moment, in spite of any counter-arguments that some clever part of your thinking mind might be mobilizing in this very same moment. It is about reclaiming the full dimensionality and possibility of the one life that is yours to live while you have the chance. And then embodying it in one or more of a potentially infinite number of creative ways that will inevitably collapse down in any and every moment into how it actually unfolds in that moment in awareness. There is tremendous freedom of choice and creativity in this way of being both awake and aware moment by moment by moment in our lives.

An Evolutionary Arc

The practice of mindfulness dates back thousands of years in the civilizations of India and China, even predating the Buddha, although it was the Buddha and those who followed in his footsteps over the centuries who articulated it most clearly and in the greatest detail. The Buddha spoke of mindfulness as “the direct path” to liberation from suffering. As we have seen, mindfulness can be thought of as a way of being, one that is continually reexamining and rearticulating the essence of human wakefulness and how it might be embodied in new times and cultures and in the face of new challenges. The word “mindfulness” is coming to represent an evolutionary arc of human wisdom that has been developing for centuries and is now finding new ways and taking on new forms to help us recognize the intrinsic wholeness of our lives as highly interconnected planetary beings, and thus, nurturing the ongoing development of our exceedingly young and highly precocious species. Through ongoing research and exchanges and dialogue between scientists and contemplatives, and through the work of an increasingly large number of diverse, dedicated, and well-trained mindfulness teachers from many different traditions and cultures, we humans are finding ever-more-valid ways to understand mindfulness and its potentially healing and transformative effects, as well as new ways to implement them in different domains. Even politicians and governments around the world are beginning to take notice and engage in its cultivation and practice and develop policies based on its potential to galvanize the health of a community or a nation—not that we should put too much stock in politicians, except that they are human beings too, and are capable of acting for the greater good under some circumstances in ways that could be hugely helpful to those who are systematically disenfranchised and disempowered in society.

The Challenge and the Aspiration

In the end, you might say that the most important challenge is for all of us to wake up at least a little bit more, and to come to our senses both literally and metaphorically to whatever degree we can and to whatever degree we care to, especially if we do realize that mindfulness is fundamentally a love affair with what is deepest and best in ourselves as human beings. Then we will be in a better position to see what is here to be seen, to feel what is here to be felt, to become more aware via all our senses. All of human experience is waiting to be invited more fully into your life, to be held in awareness and, as the experiment or adventure of a lifetime, to see what might unfold while you have the chance. Welcome to an increasingly expanding circle of intentionality and embodied wakefulness.

May your interest in and understanding of mindfulness grow and flower, nourishing and enlivening your life and work, your family and community, and this world we all belong to, from moment to moment and from day to day.

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Northampton, MA

January 24, 2018


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 as I see it 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, even in the face of the many challenges the world is facing. 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.


On Sale
May 1, 2018
Page Count
240 pages
Hachette Books

Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD

About the Author

Jon Kabat-Zinn, PhD, is founding Executive Director of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He is also the founding director of its renowned Stress Reduction Clinic and Professor of Medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He teaches mindfulness and Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) in various venues around the world. He received his Ph.D. in molecular biology from MIT in 1971 in the laboratory of Nobel Laureate, Salvador Luria.

His work in the Stress Reduction Clinic was featured in Bill Moyers' PBS Special, Healing and the Mind and in the book of the same title, as well as on Good Morning America, the Oprah Winfrey Show, and Oprah's Super Soul Sunday, as well as NPR. he has contributed to a growing movement of mindfulness into mainstream institutions such as medicine, and psychology, health care and hospitals, schools, corporations, the legal profession, prisons, and professional sports.

He is the author of numerous bestselling books about mindfulness and meditation: Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness; Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life; Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness; and Arriving at Your Own Door: 108 Lessons in Mindfulness. He is also co-author, with his wife Myla, of Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting; and with Williams, Teasdale, and Segal, of The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness Overall, his books have been translated into over thirty languages. He lives in Massachusetts.

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