The Most Important Tool We Have: In these exclusive interviews we speak to Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn (scientist, writer and meditation teacher), Matthieu Ricard (Buddhist monk, photographer and author), Andy Puddicombe (Founder of Headspace) and Dr. Danny Penman (award winning writer, journalist and meditation teacher). We explore the concepts of mindfulness and meditation, learning about how they impact every aspect of our lives, and discuss how mindful approaches can help us reach our full potential as human beings.
Our entire civilisation is a manifestation of the complex inner worlds we carry with us. Everything around us, our buildings, cultures, politics, economies, statues, art and music are reflections of who we were, are and want to be.
We are one of only a handful of species on our planet with the cognitive apparatus to time travel, thus we are able to not only have a past and a future but to contemplate them. It is this apparatus that has yielded the miracles of language and communication, and given us the ability to grow from being a slightly-advanced ape, to a species with the capacity to explore the universe in a remarkably short space of time.
This gift however has come at a high price. We spend a huge amount of our lives away from the immediacy of our existence, lost in reflections on the past or anxieties of the future. This misadventure in episodic memory takes a huge toll on us, leading to stress, anxiety, depression and exacerbating a range of complex medical and psychological conditions we may have.
It is no accident therefore that for thousands of years, the religions, movements and philosophers of the various iterations of ‘us’ have espoused mindfulness as being an essential life-skill, bringing us from wherever we may be to the here and now- where we are at our most alive.
In these exclusive interviews we speak to Professor Jon Kabat-Zinn (scientist, writer and meditation teacher), Matthieu Ricard (Buddhist monk, photographer and author), Andy Puddicombe (Founder of Headspace) and Dr. Danny Penman (award winning writer, journalist and meditation teacher). We explore the concepts of mindfulness and meditation, learning about how they impact every aspect of our lives, and discuss how mindful approaches can help us reach our full potential as human beings.
Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D. is internationally known for his work as a scientist, writer, and meditation teacher engaged in bringing mindfulness into the mainstream of medicine and society. He is Professor of Medicine emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, where he founded its world-renowned Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Clinic (in 1979), and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society (in 1995). He retired from his positions at the medical center in 2000. The Center for Mindfulness has been under the leadership of Dr. Saki Santorelli since that time, and during those years, it has grown remarkably and its programs have become more and more influential both in the US and internationally.
Jon is the author of two best-selling books: Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain and Illness (Dell, 1990; 2nd edition, revised and updated, Bantam, 2013), published in Spanish, German, Russian, Japanese, Italian, Dutch, Korean, Finnish, French, Chinese; and Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life (Hyperion, 1994, 2004), published in German, Italian, French, Spanish, Czech, Swedish, Danish, Dutch, Russian, Portuguese, Brazilian Portuguese, Hebrew, Polish, Vietnamese, Korean, Croatian, Bulgarian, Finnish, Chinese, Estonian, Turkish, and Norwegian. He is also co-author, with his wife Myla, of Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting (Hyperion, 1997; Hachette 2013 revised and updated. It is in print in numerous languages, the latest being Danish (2016). Everyday blessings was rated by Amazon.com as one of the top ten books of 1998 in the inspirational category.
Jon is also the author of Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness (Hyperion, 2005), The Mindful Way Through Depression: Freeing Yourself from Chronic Unhappiness (with Williams, Teasdale, and Segal – Guildford, 2007), Arriving at Your Own Door (Hyperion, 2007), a book of excerpts from Coming to Our Senses, and Letting Everything Become Your Teacher (Bantam Dell, 2009), a book of excerpts from Full Catastrophe Living. He is also the author of Mindfulness for Beginners (Sounds True, 2011) and co-editor (with Richard Davidson) of The Mind’s Own Physician: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama on the Healing Power of Meditation (New Harbinger, 2011) and (with Mark Williams) of Mindfulness: Diverse Perspectives on its Meaning, Origins, and Applications (Routledge, 2013).
His books and guided meditation programs describe meditation practice in such commonsensical, relevant, and compelling terms that mindfulness meditation practice has become a way of life for thousands of people. His work has contributed to a growing movement of mindfulness into mainstream institutions in our society such as medicine, health care and hospitals, schools, higher education, corporations, prisons, the legal profession, and professional sports.
Dr. Kabat-Zinn received his Ph.D. in molecular biology from MIT in 1971 with the Nobel Laureate in physiology and medicine, Salvador Luria. Dr. Kabat-Zinn’s research between 1979 and 2002 focused on mind/body interactions for healing, on various clinical applications of mindfulness meditation training for people with chronic pain and/or stress-related disorders, on the effects of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) on the brain and how it processes emotions, particularly under stress, and on the immune system; on the use and effects of MBSR with women with breast cancer and men with prostate cancer; on patients undergoing bone marrow transplant; with prison inmates and staff in multicultural settings; and on stress in various corporate settings and work environments.
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. In 1998, he and his colleagues published a research paper demonstrating in a small clinical trial, a four-fold effect of the mind on the rate of skin clearing in patients with psoriasis undergoing ultraviolet light therapy. Another study [Davidson, Kabat-Zinn, et al. (2003)], showed positive changes in brain activity associated with more effective emotional processing under stress, and in immune function in people taking an MBSR course in a corporate work setting in a randomized clinical trial. In 2008, he published, with Dr. David S. Ludwig of Children’s Hospital, an article in JAMA (Journal of the American Medical Association) called Mindfulness in Medicine.
During his career, Dr. Kabat-Zinn has trained groups of judges, CEOs and business leaders, lawyers, clergy, and Olympic athletes (the 1984 Olympic Men’s Rowing Team) in mindfulness. Under his direction, the Center for Mindfulness (CFM) at UMass conducted MBSR programs in the inner city in Spanish as well as in English from 1992 to 2000. From 1992 to 1996, the CFM delivered programs to inmates and corrections staff and officials in the Massachusetts Department of Corrections with support from the Massachusetts Committee on Criminal Justice. The CFM also offers a number of professional training opportunities in MBSR, some of which Dr. Kabat-Zinn co-led with Dr. Saki Santorelli during the years 2000 through 2015 (see Omega Institute for Holistic Studies, Arbor-Verlag, and Center for Mindfulness). Over 720 medical centers and clinics nationwide and abroad now use the MBSR model, including 17 in the Kaiser-Permanente system in Northern California. For a number of years, he conducted annual Power of Mindfulness retreats for business leaders and innovators through theCenter for Mindfulness.
In 1994, Dr. Kabat-Zinn received the Interface Foundation Career Achievement Award, and the New York Open Center’s Tenth Year Anniversary Achievement in Medicine and Health Award. In 1998, he received the Art, Science, and Soul of Healing Award from the Institute for Health and Healing, California Pacific Medical Center in San Francisco, and in 2001, the 2nd Annual Trailblazer Award for “pioneering work in the field of integrative medicine” from the Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine in La Jolla, California. In 2007, he received an Inaugural Pioneer in Integrative Medicine Award from the Bravewell Philanthropic Collaborative for Integrative Medicine and in 2008, the 2008 Mind and Brain Prize from the Center for Cogntive Science, University of Turin, Italy. He is a Founding Fellow of the Fetzer Institute and a Fellow of the Society of Behavioral Medicine, and the founding convener of the Consortium of Academic Health Centers for Integrative Medicine, a network of deans and chancellors and faculty at major US medical schools engaged at the creative edges of mind/body and integrative medicine. Until 2015, he served on the Board of the Mind and Life Institute, a group that organizes dialogues between the Dalai Lama and western scientists and scholars to promote deeper understanding and harnessing for beneficial purposes different ways of knowing and probing the nature of the mind, emotions, and reality. He was co-program chair of the 2005 Mind and Life Dialogue XIII: The Science and Clinical Applications of Meditation, held in Washington DC.
Born in France in 1946 as the son of French philosopher Jean-François Revel and artist Yahne Le Toumelin, Matthieu Ricard is a Buddhist monk, author, translator, and photographer. He first visited India in 1967 where he met great spiritual masters from Tibet. After completing his Ph.D. degree in cell genetics in 1972, he moved to the Himalayan region where he has been living for the past 45 years.
He is an international best-selling author and a prominent speaker on the world stage, celebrated at the World Economic Forum at Davos, forums at the United Nations, and ad TED where his talks on happiness and altruism have been viewed by over seven million people. He is a charismatic figure who has captured the minds and hearts of people all over the world.
“Matthieu Ricard brings together ancient wisdom and scientific insights to put forth a truly compelling global vision for the 21st century, and his voice, his message and his wisdom are greatly needed.” — Arianna Huffington
Matthieu Ricard is the author of Altruism: The Power of Compassion to Change Yourself and the World, Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, Why Meditate? (The Art of Meditation in the UK), The Quantum and the Lotus (a dialogue with the astrophysicist Trinh Xuan Thuan), and The Monk and the Philosopher, a dialogue with his father, Jean Francois Revel. His books have been translated into over twenty languages.
Matthieu Ricard has dedicated his life to the study and practice of Buddhism following the teachings of the greatest Tibetan spiritual masters of our time. He has been the French interpreter for the Dalai Lama since 1989. He is the author of several volumes of Buddhist texts translated from the Tibetan, such as The Life of Shabkar: The Autobiography of a Tibetan Yogin, The Heart Treasure of the Enlightened Ones, and The Heart of Compassion: The Thirty-seven Verses on the Practice of a Bodhisattva (teachings by Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche).
For many years Matthieu Ricard has been photographing the landscapes, spiritual masters, and people of the magnificent Himalayan region. His work is exhibited in museums and art galleries throughout the world. He is the author and photographer of a number of photography books including Bhutan: Ode to Beauty, The Land of Serenity, Motionless Journey: From a Hermitage in the Himalayas, and Tibet: An Inner Journey.
Matthieu Ricard is an active member of the Mind and Life Institute, an organization dedicated to broadening the understanding of how the mind works by exploring the intersection between contemplative traditions and contemporary scientific inquiry.
He contributes to the research on the effect of meditation on the brain at various universities in the USA and Europe and is the co-author of several scientific publications.
All proceeds from Matthieu Ricard’s books, photographs, and events are donated to Karuna-Shechen), the humanitarian association he created. Based on the ideal of ‟compassion in action”, Karuna-Shechen develops education, medical, and social projects for the underprivileged populations of the Himalayan region.
Andy Puddicombe is a meditation and mindfulness expert. An accomplished presenter and writer, Andy is the voice of all things Headspace.
In his early twenties, midway through a university degree in Sports Science, Andy made the unexpected decision to travel to the Himalayas to study meditation instead. It was the beginning of a ten year journey which took him around the world, culminating with ordination as a Tibetan Buddhist monk in Northern India.
His transition back to lay life in 2004 was no less extraordinary. Training briefly at Moscow State Circus, he returned to London where he completed a degree in Circus Arts with the Conservatoire of Dance and Drama, whilst drawing up the early plans for what was later to become Headspace.
Andy is the author of three books, now available in 25 countries and 10 languages. He has been featured widely in international press, appearing in Vogue, NYT, FT, Entrepreneur, Men’s Health and Esquire, to name but a few. He also makes regular appearances on TV and online, having been featured on BBC, Netflix and TED.
Dr Danny Penman is a qualified meditation teacher and award-winning writer and journalist. He currently writes features for the UK Daily Mail, having previously worked for the BBC, New Scientist and the Independent newspaper. He is co-author of the international bestseller Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World. He has received journalism awards from the RSPCA and the Humane Society of the United States. In 2014, he won the British Medical Association’s Best Book (Popular Medicine) Award for Mindfulness for Health: A Practical Guide to Relieving Pain, Reducing Stress and Restoring Wellbeing (co- written with Vidyamala Burch). His books have been translated into more than 25 languages.
Danny’s most recent book, ‘The Art of Breathing’ looks specifically at how mindfulness and breathing can form a foundation for our life. Mark Williams, Emeritus Professor of Clinical Psychology, University of Oxford says, “This book is inspiring. Against a backdrop of beautiful art, Danny Penman’s gentle words explain clearly how breathing, known since ancient times as the foundation for living mindfully, can become, for any of us, a way to reclaim our lives“.
Q: What is mindfulness?
[Jon Kabat-Zinn] In all Asian languages, the word for mind and heart are the same. If you’re not hearing ‘heartfulness’ when you hear ‘mindfulness’ you’re not understanding. Mindfulness is not about the cognitive, cold, clinical mind, it includes the heart. Mindfulness is not merely about empathy- which borders on pity and ‘othering,’ but about a compassion that really responds to the deep, interior, genetic interconnectedness of all beings. It’s about a profound appreciation of life, and about bearing witness to the beauty and suffering in life.
Mindfulness is spoken of as the heart of Buddhist meditation. There are quotes directly attributable to the Buddha to do with mindfulness- and it’s four foundations- as being the primary path to alleviate human greed, hatred, delusion and suffering. He [the Buddha] taught for 45 years non-stop and to say the heart of his teaching was mindfulness bears a deep listening to the openness of the proposition. You can take the entirety of the Buddha’s teaching and put them under the umbrella of mindfulness-at-large. It does- in many ways- make those Buddhist principles of Dharma (the teachings of the Buddha and the lawfulness of the universe) accessible to people who will never become Buddhists and who may feel alienated by the terminology and complex teachings- but who are still suffering, and in need of the rudimentary yet profound, unifying, perspective of meditative practices.
For me, mindfulness is the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally. Mindfulness is not necessarily something that can be understood merely through the intellect, it requires first-person experience over long stretches of time.
Mindfulness is not Buddhist, although it’s spoken of in the heart of Buddhist meditation. It’s universal- it’s about attention, and the awareness that arises from paying attention in a way that is non-judgemental, open, impartial and loving.
[Dr. Danny Penman] Mindfulness is full, conscious awareness of whatever is going on around you, inside your own mind and body. In a state of mindfulness you have full awareness of all the thoughts and emotions streaming through your mind whilst also being aware of- perhaps- the air flowing over your skin, what you can see and what you can smell.
Being fully aware of whatever is going on in the present moment, in the present world is at least as important (if not more so) than meditative practices.
People often see mindfulness either as a religion in its own right, or as a religious practice. There is some truth in that, insofar as all religions have used forms of mindfulness for thousands of years. However… mindfulness is not inherently religious! People may break bread and drink wine as part of a religious ceremony, but that doesn’t mean if you have a sandwich and a glass of wine that you’re praying in some way – the two are not the same.
[Andy Puddicombe] At Headspace we define mindfulness as the intention to be present in the here and now, fully engaged in whatever is happening, free from distraction or judgement, with a soft and open mind.
It is often confused with meditation, which is a simple exercise of the familiarisation with the qualities of mindfulness. It helps optimise conditions for training the mind to be calmer, clearer and kinder.
Mindfulness can be applied to all aspects of life. From brushing your teeth to eating your lunch. It’s all about being present in the moment. Of course, the more you meditate, the easier it becomes to apply mindfulness to these activities
Q: How did mindfulness come into your life?
[Jon Kabat-Zinn] My father was a world-class scientist, my mother was a very prolific painter and I grew up in the 1940’s and 1950’s sandwiched between these two cultures of humanities and hard-science. I realised at a very young age that these two epistemologies had a great deal of difficulties in seeing through each other’s lenses.
My father was (what we would call today) a molecular immunologist at Columbia University Medical School and my mother, alongside being a prolific painter in many different medium- was a flautist and musician. They didn’t understand each other’s world views, even though they were very close.
As a child I felt there had to be a unifying perspective. As Wordsworth said, “Like harmony in music; there is a dark inscrutable workmanship that reconciles discordant elements, makes them cling together in one society.”
I was at MIT when I first came through meditation at a talk, it was almost an ‘A-Ha!’ moment… this was it! This was what I’d been looking for.
In the mid-1960’s I was taking an Okinawan Karate class, and there was a young-guy, a Vietnam war veteran who was teaching the class. The warm-ups were something I’d never seen before… it was Hatha Yoga! It blew my mind, and I wound up loving the yoga more than the karate! I see yoga as a form of meditation- and Hatha Yoga, if not done mindfully, is pointless.
Both these routes were different doors to get to the same room of our vast potential of awareness and insight.
[Andy Puddicombe] I certainly didn’t take a conventional path. I dropped out of university because I was having a really tough time. I didn’t know how to deal with my thoughts and emotions, and I had a very busy mind. Just before going to university I’d been involved in an accident, in which a couple of friends of mine died, and that left me with a lot of questions. And while I enjoyed university and all the normal student stuff, I didn’t feel like it was answering any of these questions – so I ended up having a sort of early mid-life crisis. One day I just found myself thinking, “I really want to become a Buddhist monk”. I had been introduced to meditation earlier in life as my mum was interested in it, and done a fair bit on and off throughout my teens. In retrospect it sounds crazy, but at the time it felt like the most natural thing in the world and a very easy decision to make.
[Dr. Danny Penman] Around 10 years ago, I was paragliding over the Cotswolds (just north of Bristol). My canopy collapsed and I tumbled head over heels into the hillside. The final leg of my fall was around 30 feet and luckily I landed on my feet. Unluckily however, the lower half of my right leg was driven through my knee into my thigh… I was really badly injured, and absolutely desperate, just lying there in unbelievable pain. The only pain relief I had was a meditation that I learned when I was in secondary school, at the age of 16-17.
I’d heard somewhere that meditation had been used for pain-relief so I tried this really simple breathing meditation and visualisation technique in desperation. Astonishingly… the pain began to recede substantially enough that I could call an ambulance and function until the ambulance arrived.
I spent 3-4 weeks in hospital and had a huge steel frame holding the fragments of bone in my leg together. It was 4 concentric rings around the outside of my leg, with 16 bars and wires holding the bones together. For 5-6 months, I was in an awful lot of pain and invariably very anxious and stressed. I used breathing meditation more and more to keep control of things, and managed to reduce my painkiller intake by two-thirds! My healing actually astonished the surgeon- he was expecting it to take 18-24 months to remove the frame, and they removed it after 5 months!
I came across the work of Professor Mark Williams at the University of Oxford and- by now- I’d learned that what I’d been doing was mindfulness (and not just meditation). I was desperate to get the story of Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) to print- it had been proved clinically for depression, anxiety and stress and had huge benefits. Eventually I managed to get a piece into the health pages of the Daily Telegraph, but I couldn’t let go of the concept.
I became good friends with Mark, and eventually we decided to take these techniques to a wider audience. He had all the academic proof, I had my skills as a journalist, we collaborated and produced ‘Midfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World.’
Q: What makes mindfulness so effective?
[Andy Puddicombe] Research has shown how the brain changes in response to training and experience like meditation. It’s a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity. It’s early days for the cognitive neuroscience of mindfulness, but studies point to some very exciting outcomes, showing that meditation can cause certain parts of the brain associated with learning and memory to grow in size and those connected with stress and anxiety to shrink. There are also a lot of quantifiable outcomes to mindfulness training from the physical, like improved immune function or lower blood pressure, to the psychological, like increased compassion and depression prevention.
Q: Should we all be engaging in mindfulness?
[Andy Puddicombe] In short, yes!
We like to call Headspace ‘a gym membership for the mind’. We hope that what we are seeing is the same kind of cultural shift that brought about widespread gym going, but in respect to looking after the mind.
Q: What are the benefits of mindfulness and meditation?
[Andy Puddicombe] Meditation can benefit you physically, emotionally and mentally. If you want more peace of mind, better sleep, to be more productive at work, to feel happier or have better relationships with others, you should give it a try.
Q: How does mindfulness help with mental health?
[Dr. Danny Penman] Mindfulness is proven to be at least as good as counselling and drugs for depression and anxiety. Some studies even show it can be more so, placing mindfulness as being around 60% effective, therapy around 40% and drugs around 30%.
The bigger benefit of mindfulness is actually for people who are not clinically depressed, stressed or anxious, but are heading in that direction. If you can get people early before they tip over into illness, it can make a huge difference to their outcomes and prevent lives being badly affected by these conditions.
Mindfulness in schools is hugely important. If we can teach people in their early teens the techniques of mindfulness, we could be heading off a lifetime of suffering for an awful lot of people. Kids and teens are rebellious and may just see mindfulness as something old-people do, but those seeds are planted- and a decade from the class they may just remember the technique, give it a try, and find it helps them. Even if young people dismiss it at the time, those seeds have been planted.
Q: How can mindfulness impact the workplace?
[Dr. Danny Penman] We need to teach mindfulness to people regardless of their age or background, and the workplace is a great place to do it. Few people may want dedicate an evening a week to do a mindfulness course, but if courses are offered in the workplace they’re more likely to do it- even if (initially) they see it as a way of bunking off work for an hour!
Mindfulness in the workplace makes people happier, more productive, more creative, more efficient at making decisions and better at making decisions. Companies may spend a few hundred pounds per person on training, but will get paid back many times over.
The focus on materialism in business is a double-edged sword. We needed that to lift billions of people out of poverty (at least hundreds of millions in the West). We needed that materialistic drive to lift us out of poverty, but we’ve gone past the point of diminishing returns and we need to look at quality of life too.
Q: How can mindfulness aid creativity?
[Dr. Danny Penman] The biggest killer of creativity is stress and anxiety. Bizarrely, lots of so-called ‘creative industries’ pile immense pressure on those very people who they want to be creative. You can’t just turn a tap on creativity, the whole environment has to incline people towards that direction.
My old industry (news journalism) was phenomenally highly stressed and pressured. Stress can be highly motivating for news journalists, but if you don’t switch off at the end of the day, as the months turn to years you’ll suffer immensely and your creativity will plummet. Huge numbers of journalists I know have just burned out- the media react by getting in a whole new generation of people and while this is good on one level (they may be cheaper) the quality of the output is suffering as those new people haven’t had the chance to learn the ropes and become good journalists! A whole generation of journalists is burning out and not passing their skills to the next generation.
This is not just a problem seen in newspapers- it’s seen across all media channels and across creative industries.
People need to take time-out to focus on breath, to enjoy life and to allow themselves to be creative.
You have your best ideas when you’re not thinking about things; you’re in the shower, you’re driving to work, you’re out for a walk in the country, you’re having a pint with your friends… those are the times you’re at your most creative and most productive.
Steve Jobs used to take his executives for walks in the hills and saw it as a way of dissolving boundaries so people could talk freely and have better ideas.
Q: How can mindfulness impact the healthcare setting?
[Dr. Danny Penman] Mindfulness is one of the more common treatments we see for chronic long-term depression however there simply aren’t the trainers out there. When an individual sees their Doctor with depression, the physician may want to prescribe a mindfulness based cognitive therapy course but often there’s a 6-12 month waiting list. That’s a big problem…. And I hope it will change in coming years.
Mindfulness is also being used to treat chronic pain, with many pain clinics now using mindfulness to work with patients who have a broad range of conditions to manage pain.
Q: Will our world ever be led mindfully?
[Jon Kabat-Zinn] You can’t just decree that our world should be led mindfully. Whilst we know our world would be kinder and more compassionate if it were more mindful, how we get there is non-trivial.
There are however, examples of mindfulness being adopted deep within many of the power centres of society. In the United Kingdom Parliament, House of Commons and House of Lords is an 8-week mindfulness programme and over 130 members and several-hundred staff have been through it. This programme has led to government wanting to apply and amplify mindfulness into many domains of society including business, education, criminal justice the National Health Service (NHS).
Let’s be frank. We have the world as it is. We have to deal with all the players, geopolitics, mistrust between countries, overt and covert motivations – but there is a wider narrative at play.
We decided to call ourselves, as a species, homo sapiens (which in Latin means ‘wise man,’ or ‘man that is able to taste, or know’). Arrogantly and prematurely we named ourselves the species that knows, and knows that it knows.
We have to grow ourselves into the definition we have given for ourselves.
We have to recognise all the ways that culture has supported the rise and concentration of wealth in the hands of fewer individuals and corporations who are playing by their own rules while ordinary people are perpetually squeezed and barely make a living. The way our society works is the result of laws we have written for ourselves, in our collective minds, about how things can and can’t be done, and things that should or should not be done. Our world- to a large extent- is driven by people who are driven by self-centred and greed motivations, and not by people who want to optimise wisdom and well-being. Our society has rampant inequalities, and not just financial. We live in a society where you can drive around with a lightbulb out on your car, and depending on the colour of your skin? You may wind up getting shot, and killed, by the police.
It will take generations before we reach a situation where our society is able to live mindfully- and compassionately- with each other. We can’t legislate for this, we have to grow into it as a species and realise the potential we have- while we still have time. We are at a critical point in our journey where we are seeing more separation of ‘them and us,’ scapegoating, blaming, the herding of people into groups and so forth. This could set us back hundreds of years.
Mindfulness is the ‘muscle’ we have to exercise compassion, and we’re seeing it more and more in the world of business, work, leadership and government. Mindfulness is not about religiosity, nor spirituality, it is about wisdom.
Imagine the human species as viewed from the Moon or Mars. In a very-real way, we [humanity] are the auto-immune disease of the planet. We are the disease vector that is causing our planetary harm, yet we are also the first victims of this agency. The only way we can stop this is by understanding our true selves.
I hope we have a global renaissance on our planet that brings together globalisation, growth, science, art, the humanities and politics- bringing them together with social policies that genuinely help every human being on the planet- helping them to grow, heal, and contribute across their whole lives.
[Andy Puddicombe] There’s a quote from the Dalai Lama, he said that if every child under the age of eight meditated in the future there would be no war. It’s a very optimistic statement, but the sentiment is beautiful, and I feel like now, more than ever, coming together rather than being divided is a really important message.
Q: How can mindfulness change lives?
[Jon Kabat-Zinn] Mindfulness has a profound impact on people’s lives.
I’ve been privileged to offer mindfulness in a medical setting for people who are suffering enormously with almost every kind of medical diagnosis and falling through the cracks and chasms in the healthcare system. The message that there is more right than wrong with you… that you can actually pour energy in the form of attention and mindfulness into what’s right with you and- in collaboration with your healthcare team- experience profound healing… is inconceivable through the thinking mind. Science is demonstrating that even 8 weeks of mindfulness training in a hospital setting can actually re-wire your brain- changing the real-estate organisation of your brain in the direction of greater health and well-being. Science is also showing the same is true of the genes that make up your epigenome and determine the length of your life.
There’s never been a better time. Science is giving us a deeper understanding of the mind-body relationship, and allowing us to interrogate our hypotheses and assumptions to make evidence based conclusions.
We can harness our own energies for our own well-being, and for the greater good and there is a profound ethical basis for this. When you work in healthcare (at least in the United States) you take the Hippocratic Oath. This is not a religious undertaking, but a vow that means they will put their patient’s needs and interests above their own. This means someone else’s suffering is above your own needs for recognition and gain, and your own suffering. Clasically this oath starts with the phrase Primum non nocere (Latin: First, do no harm). How would you even have the slightest idea if you were doing harm if you were not mindful? We are generally so mindless, and so lost in the certainty of our minds that we don’t allow ourselves to observe mindfully.
Mindfulness works for any body politic, whether that’s a parliament, a corporation or otherwise. Don’t forget the word ‘corporation’ comes from the Latin ‘corpus’ (body). What’s the first foundation of mindfulness? The body.
Human beings are driven by multiple forces and motivations, and if you allow groups to operate mindlessly- things like greed can dominate. Look at what happened during the housing bubble- which almost brought down the global financial system. These were 20-30-something year old people going out selling products they didn’t understand, to people that didn’t understand, motivated only by greed with no consideration of the impact of their actions on their corpus.
[Matthieu Ricard] Tania Singer, with whom I’ve worked for the past 5 years, is a Director of the Max Planck institute in Leipsig – focussing on cognitive sciences. She’s just completed a study financed by the European Commission, with 300 subjects. It’s the largest ever scientific study undertaken on meditation. She studied 300 people in several groups; some did 3 months of mindfulness, 3 months of loving kindness meditation and 3 months of perspective taking. There was also a control group (this is science of course!) and among those who were meditating, she varied the structure of the meditations to avoid any order effects. Her findings were striking…
Doing mindfulness for 3 months increased your mindfulness and attention but had no impact on your pro-social behaviour. Doing perspective-taking for 3 months makes you smarter at understanding behaviours and with theory of mind, but again had no impact on pro social behaviour and stress. When the group did loving kindness meditation? You saw an increase in pro social behaviour and a significant reduction of cortisol (a key stress marker). In just 3 months, people had changes to their physical brain structure in areas linked to belonging, attention, love, affiliation, positivity and so on.
We also did a study with Richard Davidson and Antoine Lutz which clearly showed that altruism and loving kindness meditation trigger the biggest activations in the areas of the brain connected with well-being.
Meditative states change the brain structurally, and you can train that skill.
Q: How can we bring (and keep) mindfulness in our lives?
[Jon Kabat-Zinn] Mindfulness is not a good-idea, a catechism or a philosophy. It’s a way of being. The most important word there? Way. This Way is the lawfulness of the universe and the deep enquiry into what it means to be human and the nature of our own minds.
Who are we? Who am I? We say we have a body, but who is it that has the body? Well, most people may say ‘the mind.’ If I ask you to point to your mind? You will probably point to your head, your mouth or your eyes. There’s a deep mystery into how we come into being, what is the ‘I’ when you think of yourself? These are questions which we have been pondering for thousands of years and which keep pointing us to lives free of greed, hatred and delusion.
Mindfulness can only happen in one moment- the now. That’s all we ever get, we’re only ever alive now.
For students of mindfulness, often the first step is to be aware of breath- trying to bring the mind to the present moment. The first thing most people notice is that the mind doesn’t want to stay in one place! It will go into the future, the past, anywhere but the present moment. Mindfulness is exercising the muscle of wakefulness; it’s about non-judgemental, moment by moment attending.
You can read and learn all you want about mindfulness, but unless your butt is on a cushion or chair, practicing sitting for longer than you feel like it…. Unless you’re doing your walking meditations… unless you’re doing your morning waking meditations… unless you’re doing these things? You’re not going to cultivate the muscles that are required to adequately face the levels of delusion and suffering in our minds, our work and our world.
Millions of people are now doing this curious thing that looks like nothing but plonking themselves down for a period of time, moving from the domain of doing to the domain of being. Learning to inhabit the domain of being with awareness is powerful, and helps you to see your narrative, and understand the nature of your true self. It helps you realise that your true intelligence is far more powerful than mere thought.
As humans, we’re lucky to get one or two profound thoughts in our lifetime. Most of our thoughts are kinda’ pathetic and very self-centred.
Who you think you are is so diminished to the actuality of your being.
In any moment, no matter what is happening you can experience the full catastrophe of human living which is both beautiful and horrible simultaneously.
Many people also think mindfulness is about knowing. This isn’t true. Mindfulness is about knowing and not knowing, it’s about being aware of that you don’t know. This is about intelligence that is multi-dimensional, not just cognitive. We all have this capacity, we each have a unique constellation of intelligence and how beautiful would our world be if we tapped into that.
[Andy Puddicombe] Our introductory course, Take10, is a great place to start. It’s just ten minutes a day, for ten days, best of all it’s completely free. We made it Take10 because ten minutes is less than 1% of your day so even busy people can fit it in. Paradoxically it’s often the busiest people who need meditation most of all.
When meditating, once a day is about right. It helps to make it part of your routine so if you find it easiest to meditate in the morning before breakfast, try to stick to that (and it’s completely fine if that means sitting on a Saturday about 3 hours later than you do on a weekday).
We need to try to let go of those expectations of clearing the mind, we can’t force ourselves to stop thinking. The aim is acceptance, learning to step back and get a different perspective on thought, rather than stopping thought altogether.
Meditation is a bit like falling asleep or falling in love…you can’t make it happen! In fact the harder you try the further it gets away. It is a natural process of unwinding which requires surprisingly little effort.
[Dr. Danny Penman] Here’s the problem… as soon as you start to get the benefits from mindfulness, you tend to stop doing it. That’s the irony…. On the one hand, you need a real motivating factor to dedicate even 10-20 minutes a day to practice mindfulness, you can always find something to do!
As soon as you’ve fixed your problem (for example, acute stress about a project deadline) you stop meditating, you no longer have the stressor! This was my experience actually, before I had my paragliding accident. I used meditation to deal with stressful crunch-points in my life, but as soon as the stress went? I stopped meditating.
Once people have used mindfulness for a huge life event, they see the rationale for continuing to do it every day- or at least most days.
I try to dedicate a certain amount of time each day for mindfulness, I build it into my routine and that helps it become a natural part of my life.
The most important thing you can do is to live as mindfully as you can. If you’re going to work and your commute involves walking- even just to a bus stop- you should pay attention to whatever is going on around you. When you step out of your front door, pay attention to the sky, the clouds, the temperature of the air, the moisture in the air, the way your body moves when you walk…. If you’re eating or drinking, spend time savouring the textures, flavours and smells of your food and drink… you can notice what people are wearing, the details in the buildings around you…
Mindfulness is about being non-judgementally aware. You’re not finding fault or reason in things, you’re just observing. I do believe you need a regular(ish) meditative practice to anchor yourself, but the most-important thing is to be aware of what’s around you.
Even in the dirtiest, most broken down city, you can find immense beauty by viewing things mindfully. The world is full of beauty.
Part of being human is that we stop noticing the ordinary. We live in a complex and fast changing world, and that means our mind blanks out huge-swathes of our environment. That’s fine if we just blank out the bad stuff, but we blank out the good stuff too- and that’s a problem.
Q: Is art mindful?
[Jon Kabat-Zinn] Writing poetry is akin to mindfulness and meditation practice. You are sitting there with a blank page and an open mind. How do you take this and generate a poem that can deeply impact another human being? That has to come from somewhere deep within you with authenticity, that taps into our shared humanity.
I use a lot of poetry in my meditations. It has an emotional impact when it’s voiced; it’s not without reason that we talk about committing poems to be read by heart. Poetry is a form of love, manifesting as a snapshot of deepened connectedness and insight. It moves us! That’s what emotion means after all.
The Buddha is famous for having said all his teachings could be encapsulated in one sentence. On the off-chance he wasn’t joking, we should commit this sentence to memory: Nothing is to be clung to as I, me, or mine.
Maybe we don’t know who we are as a species, and we only know to some degree- shaped by thinking and experience. Maybe who we are is much larger than we could possibly comprehend with thought. Mindfulness and MBSR can decouple our narrative with our awareness and take people to this place.
One of the greatest poets of history, Emily Dickinson wrote:
Me from Myself — to banish —
Had I Art —
Impregnable my Fortress
Unto All Heart —
But since Myself — assault Me —
How have I peace
Except by subjugating
And since We’re mutual Monarch
How this be
Except by Abdication —
Me — of Me?
If you read it aloud, you can palpably feel the depression, the loathing, the self-hatred in the poem. Another poem I would like to share with you is by the Nobel Laureate, Derek Walcott which is perhaps the opposite of Emily Dickinson’s piece:
“Love After Love”
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was yourself.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
Mindfulness is a love-affair with embodied wakefulness. It’s a love affair that gives all of us the chance to understand the beauty of who we (as a species) really are.
Q: How important is mindfulness for children and youth?
[Andy Puddicombe] We think this is incredibly important, so important in fact that we’ve just launched Headspace For Kids on the app. Created to teach children the basics of meditation and mindfulness in a fun and engaging way, we designed it for kids and their parents to enjoy together. Maintaining a healthy and happy mind is essential throughout life, but there is no better time to learn than when we are young. As adults we tend to want to understand things intellectually, but kids don’t need to do that, they just want to focus in on that moment. That quality of mindfulness, a playful curiosity, is naturally present for children.
I think that meditation has the potential to bring about a greater sense of calm, a greater sense of ease, but also a greater sense of connection with others.
Q: How can we get young people excited about meditation and mindfulness?
[Andy Puddicombe] If you look at way that kids are living, the kind of world they’re growing up in, so much more is expected of them now. And I think technology has added another layer. More and more children are being diagnosed with mental health issues, like stress and depression, some even requiring medication, very early on. So why don’t we equip our kids with preventative techniques, that will help them to handle these things before they come up?
We just don’t know what the future will hold for our kids. If you can get them to experience some of the benefits of meditation early on, establish the healthy habit of checking in with themselves, getting some perspective on their thoughts and feelings, they’d have this resource to return to for the rest of their lives. I think that is something to get pretty excited about!
Q: How can we introduce mindfulness into the lives of children?
[Andy Puddicombe] Well of course Headspace For Kids would be a great place to start. We designed it for parents and children to do together, it’s really the best of both worlds, you get to spend quality time with your little one, while teaching them a valuable skill for life.
I’d really recommend finding a time where it can naturally fit into your child’s routine, like before bed, when they’ve already had a full day. You might find that there’s just a bit less of struggle when it comes to getting their head down for sleep.
For younger kids, it’s worth thinking about shorter periods of time. Headspace for Kids includes just a few minutes, and it’s playful.
Q: How is technology enabling mindfulness and meditation?
[Andy Puddicombe] Really the whole Headspace project depends on technology. We just happen to be using it to communicate a practice that’s 3000 years old. In a way it’s beautiful.
We spend most of our time these days with our phones. So, why not find a way to make good use of the technology that is available and give people the freedom to get their headspace when they want it and where they want it?
There’s never been a way to spread the practice to so many people so quickly. We’re really grateful for that opportunity.
Q: What outcomes have you seen from people who have introduced mindfulness and meditation into their lives?
[Andy Puddicombe] We have had some incredible feedback from our users, everything from people using Headspace to overcome their anxiety, to dealing with trauma and bereavement. This really what makes the job worthwhile, knowing that we are achieving our goal of making the world a happier and healthier place, one meditator at a time.
Q: Is happiness the true purpose of life?
[Matthieu Ricard] To look for happiness in the right place, you must know what it means.
Everyone would agree that nobody wakes up in the morning hoping they suffer for the whole day and their whole life. This is something we share with all sentient beings, including small animals.
You may escape the most obvious suffering- not being harmed physically or psychologically, not having an obvious sickness and so on, but is that flourishing? Is that happiness? That’s difficult to decide.
The absence of obvious visible, obvious, suffering doesn’t necessarily mean that the individual is without suffering. It’s a relative respite.
There are latent causes of suffering to do with mental confusion, ignorance and things like anger, hatred, grasping, envy, jealousy, pride and so on. As long as these exist? We cannot really be free from suffering.
Happiness is a way of being that is characterised by a number of qualities. The first is inner freedom from those mental afflictions (anger, hatred, ignorance, envy and so on), and then you have a number of positive qualities such as unconditional altruism, compassion, inner peace, discernment, wisdom and so on.
There is no ‘Happiness’ (with a big ‘H’)… there is no ‘happiness centre’ in the brain… these are skills we can learn to cultivate…
Happiness is a graded freedom from suffering, even levels of suffering that you don’t normally call suffering. If you see a billionaire arriving in a stretched limousine with a cigar, your initial reaction is not to say ‘oh, poor thing!’ but the seeds of suffering can very much be with that person.
Q: How do qualities like desire, envy, jealousy and so on impact us?
[Matthieu Ricard] If we are truly honest with ourselves, we must see that we are a mixture of light and shadow.
We may then say, ‘that’s the way I am, take it or leave it…’ or you may say, ‘that’s my unique personality, that’s the richness of human beings…’ – those are false excuses. Imagine you are walking in the snow under the stars…. Or somewhere beautiful with a loved one or alone… and you may feel a great harmony within, harmony without… there isn’t any inner conflict for a while. You don’t say, ‘oh my gosh, I miss the hatred and jealousy in my life… I miss the anxiety of the emergency room… I miss war and conflict.’
If you were to put together a weekend seminar, you wouldn’t advertise ‘we guarantee you will have 100% more ego, anger and jealousy at the end…’ nobody would come! If you said you were going to give people more inner peace, freedom and altruism however? I’m sure people would come.
Behind all of this is one key question – can we change? If we can’t, we have to accept ourselves (which is better than revolting against or hating yourself). However… there is an answer. We have 2,500 years of contemplative science (of which Buddhism is just one example) which deal with the causes of suffering. Over the past 20 years, I have collaborated with so many scientists who clearly tell us that if we try to change who we are; our brain changes structurally and functionally- you are not the same person anymore. This is absolutely clear, and many studies in prestigious scientific journals corroborate that. If you spend 20 years changing yourself- you will be quite different, but even if you just focus on change for 6 months, you will be somewhat different too – and that can only be a good thing.
Q: Is human suffering inevitable?
[Jon Kabat-Zinn] There’s no question that pain of all kinds is part of the human condition. Pain can be physical, and can last from a moment to a lifetime. Pain can be emotional… the pain we cause each other in our relationships… insecurity, anxiety, depression and the stress caused from the pace of life.
These are all forms of what the Buddhists call Dukkha – a word encompassing everything from anguish, to those things which are merely unsatisfactory. Dukkha is part of the human condition.
It’s important to see that anguish comes in two discrete forms. You could (for example) be part of a natural disaster or a man-made conflict that’s decimating the population. The latter is the kind of suffering that is caused by the human mind not knowing itself- separating the world into ‘them and us.’
Greed, hatred and delusion are endemic and we can’t wave a magic wand to eradicate them from humanity. We have to recognise these characteristics- not just in others, but also in ourselves- we can all fall into our own desire for ‘more for me,’ our own aversion against certain events and our tendency to generate stories about our world and ourselves that simply aren’t true.
If you have experienced war, famine, or natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes- you may experience what we call adventitious suffering where you struggle to make-sense of what has happened. You don’t have a choice in these events occurring (you didn’t ‘choose’ for the wave to hit, nor did you ‘choose’ for the bomb to be dropped on your house) yet you do have the capacity for choice about how you are in relation to those events.
This is our freedom; we can choose the uplifting, kind and compassionate when faced with monstrous levels of self-aggrandisement, self-involvement and suffering.
Q: How should we relate to the other species on our planet?
[Matthieu Ricard] The lack of altruism in our species is one of the last incoherencies of ethical system. We have made huge progress in some areas of civilisation… we’ve largely abolished slavery and torture… we have a universal declaration of human rights… and we’re now giving attention to the rights of women, children and groups who have been persecuted. Of course things aren’t perfect- we still have slavery, human trafficking and so on- but those activities are largely limited to the criminal sectors where you could say individuals put a ‘price tag’ on human life. For most of us however, life has no price tag- it’s limitless!
When it comes to other species however, we (as humans) have decided their lives have zero value- unless of course there is some intrinsic commercial or strategic value to us.
Evolution is a smooth transition, there are no ‘magic moments’ – we are, of course, the strongest and smartest (the most powerful I should say, because of our intelligence) but that doesn’t give us any right to instrumentalise other species- that’s the ethical gap we need to bridge.
People sometimes argue that we have so much to do for our species, why waste time on others? This is ridiculous… life is not a quantitative issue like that. We kill 60 billion land animals, and 1 trillion sea animals every year – that’s 20 million deaths each hour. To end this killing would be a huge benefit to our species, to their species’, to the environment and even our economy. Meat production is the 2nd largest source of greenhouse gas emissions and the 700 million tonnes of grains sent from the South to the North to feed these animals could feed over 1.4 billion people. Studies also clearly show that meat consumption is not good for our health!
The aim is not to love humans less but to include animals in that sense of love and kindness we have for life.
A very interesting study explored this… subjects were split into two groups; one who were concerned with animal rights and who were vegetarian or vegan for moral reasons, and one group who were- for want of a better phrase- ‘normal people.’ They studied these groups in fMRI machines and saw their reactions to human and animal suffering. They found that those who cared more for animals also cared more for humans, and those who didn’t care much for animals also had less empathy for human suffering.
You don’t have two hearts, one for humans and one for animals, you have a heart or you don’t.
Q: What is the impact of humanity’s focus on material and physical pleasure?
[Matthieu Ricard] Seeking material and physical pleasure is not good for humanity.
Studies show that if your priorities are consumerism and seeking extrinsic value (clothes, cars, and the trappings of wealth) and less intrinsic (friendship, enjoying your own company, and intellectual pursuits) you will be less happy, less healthy and will have fewer quality relationships in your life.
If you want to be happy, healthy, have friends and love in your life then you need to pay more attention to the intrinsic value of life.
Seeking material A lot of this is about education. Our education is focussed on materialistic achievement, resolving problems, jobs, and so on… but we need our education to help people become good human beings! We need education systems that help people to become happy, flourishing, kind, altruistic, caring and community minded. This isn’t on the agenda however, as it was previously the role of religion.
Rightly so, education is now secular – but it seems to have lost the component of values. The Dalai Lama has often said that if we focus on values in education, we will see a marked reduction in global violence, disillusionment, extremism and more; we need to deal with this from the start- from kindergarten. We need to ensure our secular education system understands and teaches the values we want from the citizens of our world.
Q: What would be your message to the generation after ours?
[Matthieu Ricard] You need to flourish in life. You need to find out what really matters to you and find things that make you feel fulfilled.
Your happiness and your suffering will always happen through, and with, others. There is no such thing as selfish happiness. You may think the world is huge and that it’s easier for you to be selfish and live in your bubble, but you’ll find yourself miserable in your bubble and you’ll make others miserable too.
Kids are so much happier when they do things with and for others. This shows its intrinsic in who we are, this is not a sacrifice we make, it’s a part of human flourishing and who we are.
We are all so closely interconnected that your well-being and that of others depend on each other. The most satisfactory state of mind is one where we cooperate and are kind to each other.
The period of ‘enlightenment’ gave us many great things, but also (as revolutions tend to) created its own dogma; two such principles being a deep reliance on reductive philosophy and scientific method. This shift from delegation to the supernatural to substantive enquiry has propelled us beyond what any of our ancestors could have predicted… apart from in one core area.
As Dr. Craig Hassed notes, “Ancient approaches to health have been, in essence, holistic. Well-being, illness and healing were strongly connected to the mind, society, morality, spirituality and ecology. No part of our life and experience could be walled off from any other. In the 19th and 20th centuries, however, with the rise of reductionist science and a generally more materialistic society, this holistic view has been replaced by a more mechanistic one. Most recently, with the rise of collaborative research and new fields of science such as mind-body medicine (MBM), there is gathering evidence that there was a practical wisdom in the ancient approach. Although the mechanisms which science attempts to elucidate now are infinitely complex than the ancients knew, the principles are extremely simple and, as such, they have enormous potential for successful integration into modern practice.” (Mind-Body Medicine: Science, Practice and Philosophy: 2007)
Mindfulness has also been the source of many of the greatest insights of our time. On pondering the greatest question of all- the existence of God, Descartes began…“I will now shut my eyes, stop my ears, and withdraw all my senses. I will eliminate from my thoughts all images of bodily things, or rather, since this is hardly possible, I will regard all such images as vacuous, false and worthless. I will converse with myself and scrutinize myself more deeply; and in this way I will attempt to achieve, little by little, a more intimate knowledge of myself. I am a thing that thinks: that is, a thing that doubts, affirms, denies, understands a few things, is ignorant of many things, is willing, is unwilling, and also which imagines and has sensory perceptions…” (Meditations on First Philosophy).
The fact that the ‘father of Western philosophy,’ gave mindfulness the front and centre role in answering the greatest questions of life should not be lost on us- we’ve forgotten, as Lao Tzu notes, that “…when you realize nothing is lacking, the whole world belongs to you.”
The only thing in our entire life we can be certain of is the now. It is the source of immense beauty, and should be the subject of immense curiosity and gratitude. It is the only truth we have, and spending more of our lives immersed in it brings us an authenticity and comfort that little-else in our mind can provide.
Now will never be more beautiful.
For as the winds move the clouds,
now dissolves into the next moment.
A flickering, immersive, masterpiece,
we will never see again.
Now will never be more truthful.
For memories fade,
and futures form,
from their shadows.
Now is the only moment you can be sure,
you are alive.