The 9 Attitudes of Mindfulness according to Jon Kabat-Zinn

Published by Olivier Devroede


In 1979 Jon Kabat-Zinn developed an eight week program to help terminally ill people to reduce their stress and anxiety. This program is now widely known as MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction).

As the name of his program suggests, mindfulness is at its core.

In this article I explore his definition of mindfulness but also the core attitudes that are necessary to cultivate mindfulness

These core attitudes are:

This article is based on a wonderfully deep and artistic series of videos made by Minds Unlimited.

I link here to the original videos by them. I noticed that there are a lot of people that copied their material, but I emphatically believe that credit should go to those who did the work. That is why I link to the original videos.

This series elaborates on what Kabat-Zinn wrote on these attitudes in his now classic book “Full Catastrophe Living

But first off, let’s start with the definition that Kabat-Zinn gives of mindfulness before we elaborate on the attitudes needed to cultivate in order to increase our mindfulness and well being.

The definition of mindfulness according to Jon Kabat Zinn

I think it is best to first look at the words Kabat-Zinn uses himself to define mindfulness:

Mindfulness is awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. I then sometimes add, in the service of self-understanding and wisdom.

Jon Kabat-Zinn

This definition has a number of key point that are not chosen haphazardly.

Mindfulness is just a special form of awareness. So it is not something mystical.

Obviously, unless we are sleeping, we are always aware of something. But, not always in a very conscious way.

That is why the second part of the definition states that is should be on purpose. It means that a certain volition is needed on our side. It is not merely spacing out or daydreaming.

Kabat-Zinn continues by saying it should be an awareness of the present moment. This means we should not be caught up in memories of the past or fantasies or fears about the future. We need to observe whatever is happening right now.

Lastly, it is added in what fashion we should be aware of the present moment: non-judgemental. This means we try to remain as open as possible to whatever is happening without putting an extra layer on top of it. This extra layer is often our own opinion about how things should be.

By doing this we often miss how thing really are.

And that is why Jon often add that the purpose of mindfulness is self-understanding and wisdom.

Wisdom is that capacity to see things as they really are. If we decide to act from this perspective, chances are much higher to have a reaction that is the most appropriate for the situation that is being presented to us.

TIP: If you want to know more, I have an article covering Jon’s definition of mindfulness in depth.

The Mindfulness 9 attitudes: introduction

In the introduction, Jon tells us that being aware is one of hardest things we as human being s can do. And anyone who tried it can surely relate to this.

Jon continues by saying that we need to bring certain qualities to our endeavour. The danger lies in us starting to believe we are already enlightened beings. Because we all have a false sense of who we really are. We are actually far more than the tiny ego we think we are.

So in regard to who is seeing or feeling or hearing, I encourage people to look deeply into it for themselves in meditation practice, by questioning, “Who is hearing, who is feeling, who is thinking?” This is a strong practice in the Zen tradition.

You inquire into the sensory phenomena themselves in the moment of their unfolding. What usually comes up is a personal pronoun, as in “I am seeing.” But if you ask, “Who is that?” you come to realize that the pronoun itself is just a thought—a very, very old habit of mind which is itself a construct, a fabrication, rather than an enduring, substantial and independent entity—the way we usually think of “who I am” when we pop out with our name or some information about ourselves.

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Non Judging

As an example, let’s say you are practicing watching your breathing. At a certain point, you may find your mind saying something like, “This is boring,” or “This isn’t working,” or “I can’t do this.” These are judgments. When they come up in your mind, it is very important to recognize them as judgmental thinking and remind yourself that the practice involves suspending judgment and just watching whatever comes up, including your own judging thoughts, without pursuing them or acting on them in any way. Then proceed with watching your breathing.

Jon Kabat-Zinn

The practice of non judging is not there to make us obedient slaves to some dictator or to mindlessly wander through the streets.

No, it is there to wake us up to the reality that we, as human beings, are quick to judge. Judge ourselves, judge others, judge situation. And more often than not, we are judging based on some ill-defined preconception we have about reality. And if one looks at the huge list of cognitive biases that were discovered by psychologists, one cannot help but wonder how much of our preconceptions are true. I’m afraid that not a lot are.

So, The fact to suspend our judgement, even for just the duration of the practice, gives us the opportunity to have a closer at our judgments. At our biases. And to assess them from a little distance. We then get the opportunity to use them or reject them. But we are no longer enslaved by them.

Acceptance

Acceptance is a very active process, there is nothing passive about it, it’s not passive resignation but an act of recognition that things are the way they are… Acceptance doesn’t mean we cant work to change the world, or circumstances, but it means that unless we accept things as they are, we will try to force things to be as they are not and that can create an enormous amount of difficulty

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Acceptance is not about resignation. It is about courage.

It is about the courage to look a situation right in the eye and say:” Yes, I have this problem”

Much like alcoholics first need to recognise that they have a problem before they can do something about it, so do we need to accept that we have an issue.

And not trying to cover it up. And by not covering it up, I do not mean for other people. But not covering it up for ourselves. Trying not to live in a self imposed denial.

The strange thing about acceptance though, it that by giving up on all the energy we were using to lie to or fight with ourselves, sometimes the situation changes all by itself. Our energy is freed to tackle the situation with some freshly gained insight.

For a more in depth discussion about acceptance, I recommend reading my article on how to practice acceptance for mindfulness.

Patience

Patience is a form of wisdom. It demonstrates that we understand and accept the fact that sometimes things must unfold in their own time. A child may try to help a butterfly to emerge by breaking open its chrysalis. Usually, the butterfly doesn’t benefit from this. Any adult knows that the butterfly can only emerge in its own time, that the process cannot be hurried.

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Patience is a fundamental quality of mindfulness practice.

Mindfulness does not unfold its benefits in one night or even after an hour of sitting in meditation. The process of getting more calm, more balanced, is slowly unfolding with our practice.

But it comes, as surely as we learn to walk and talk. The process is yields its results if we are patient enough to keep going on, even if things do not seem to progress.

Beginners Mind

The richness of present-moment experience is the richness of life itself. Too often we let our thinking and our beliefs about what we “know” prevent us from seeing things as they really are. We tend to take the ordinary for granted and fail to grasp the extra-or­dinariness of the ordinary. To see the richness of the present mo­ment, we need to cultivate what has been called “beginner’s mind,” a mind that is willing to see everything as if for the first time.

Jon Kabat-Zinn

One of the fundamental realities of our reality is that it always changing.

So we are not the same person as when we were children, or as we were 10 years ago, or even six months ago.

But we have the tendency to treat reality as if it is a fixed entity.

We judge ourselves and other based on what we think we know about our and their past.

This man is always angry. This woman is always cheerful….

But reality is different. We are always changing. Sometimes we have a bad day, and sometime we have a good day.

Recognising this in ourselves and other bring a lot of peace of mind. We realise that all goes up and comes down on rhythms we have no or little control over.

For me, realizing this is often enough to calm me down and cut the other person some slack.

Trust

Developing a basic trust in yourself and your feelings is an integral part of meditation training. It is far better to trust in your intuition and your own authority, even if you make some “mistakes” along the way, than always to look outside of yourself for guidance. If at any time something doesn’t feel right to you, why not honor your feelings? Why should you discount them or write them off as invalid because some authority or some group of people think or say differently? This attitude of trusting yourself and your own basic wisdom and goodness is very important in all aspects of the medita­tion practice.

Jon Kabat-Zinn

There are so many things that are happening in a perfect way in our body. We can trust that our breathing takes care of itself. That our heart continues breathing, that our metabolism keeps us alive.

And in the same way, we should trust in the ability of our mind to heal itself once we are give him the opportunity to do so. Once we get out of the way, not trying to intervene, the mind can indeed become healthy again.

We need to trust in this basic capacity and that we also have it. That we are capable of doing it.

For many people, it it also a leap of faith to start meditation. And I fully acknowledge that. But it is good to take it. At every sit. At every informal meditation exercise.

Non Striving

As you will see with practice, in the meditative domain, the best way to achieve your own goals is to back off from striving for results and instead to start focusing carefully on seeing and accepting things as they are, moment by moment. With patience and regular practice, movement toward your goals will take place by itself. This move­ment becomes an unfolding that you are inviting to happen within you.

Jon Kabat-Zinn

The biggest paradox of meditation is that by not doing a thing, you can fix a lot of problems.

Of course, you are doing something: you are observing the problem. You are not judging and accepting that there is a problems and you patiently look at how it unfolds.

All of this takes a lot of effort and perseverance in my experience.

But what is not included, is trying to actively fix the problem. Something we are so accustomed to.

And somehow, this cocktail yields great results. And there are many scientific studies to prove this.

Remark though that although we are not actively striving for something, the conditions for the correct result to ripen have been identified. The only thing we do next is to not focus on the end result but on the process that we have decided on.

It is so counter intuitive that even now that I have seen this mechanism in action, it still surprises me how this can be true.

Letting Go

Cultivating the attitude of letting go, or non-attachment, is fundamental to the practice of mindfulness.

When we start paying attention to our inner experience, we rapidly discover that there are certain thoughts and feelings and situations that the mind seems to want to hold on to. If they are pleasant, we try to prolong these thoughts or feelings or situations, stretch them out, and conjure them up again and again.

Similarly, there are many thoughts and feelings and experiences that we try to get rid of or to prevent and protect ourselves from having because they are unpleasant and painful and frightening in one way or another. In the meditation practice, we intentionally put aside the tendency to elevate some aspects of our experience and to reject others. Instead, we just let our experience be what it is and practice observing it from moment to moment

Jon Kabat-Zinn

A fundamental tendency of us humans is that we tend to want more of what we like and less of what we do not like.

That might seem like a perfect strategy for happiness, were it not that we have a far lesser impact on the reality around than we think we do.

We cannot always control the loud neighbours. We do not always decide when we go on this long longed for vacation.

Reality sometimes just intervenes.

Letting go is not about giving up. It simply recognises the the reality of the situation: I did all I could and there is nothing I can do more at this moment.

That is the moment to let go of all your attachments to the situation. Whether they be of the craving or aversion kind. Let them go.

You will see that this attitude will bring some spaciousness into your life. Not to mention a lot less of fretting over situations that cannot be helped at the moment at all.

In this context, usually the serenity prayer is cited:

Grant to us the serenity of mind to accept that which cannot be changed

Courage to change that which can be changed

And wisdom to know the one from the other

Reinhold Niebuhr

I find this such a powerful statement. One that I cannot remind me enough of.

Gratitude and Generosity

People who keep gratitude journals on a weekly basis have been found to exercise more regularly, have fewer physical symptoms, feel better about their lives as a whole, and feel more optimistic about their upcoming week as compared to those who keep journals recording the stressors or neutral events of their lives.

Daily discussion of gratitude results in higher reported levels of alertness, enthusiasm, determination, attentiveness, energy, and sleep duration and quality. Grateful people also report lower levels of depression and stress, although they do not deny or ignore the negative aspects of life.

People who think about, talk about, or write about gratitude daily are more likely to report having helped someone with a personal problem or offered emotional support to another person.

Jon Kabat-Zinn

Time and again, it is found in scientific studies that being grateful and giving thanks has an enormous positive impact on us.

Gratitude not only increases our mental wellbeing, it can also improve our physical health.

I always recommend this little practice to my students: before going to bed, list 5 things you are grateful for and go to sleep like this.

Try it, and let me know in the comments how it went for you.

Learning more

Applying these skills in life take a lot of practice. And by this I mean daily practice.

For this you might want to consider taking a course. You can read more on my page on how to choose the best online mindfulness course for you.

Happy reading!

If you liked this article, please let me know in the comments, or let google know you liked my page by checking out one of the other posts on my site (see a small smaple below)

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Olivier Devroede

Hi, I’m Olivier Devroede and I have been meditating seriously since 2009. Due to the great benefits I have seen in meditating, I decided to become an MBSR trainer myself and start a blog.

5 Comments

Jeienf · at 7:00 pm

This helped me a lot for my class! Much appreciated for this article 🙂

Lisa Marie Legault · at 8:29 pm

Just what I need to go more in depth before teaching my first module. Thanks!

Anjum Karimi · at 7:25 pm

I loved the article and have taken some points for my presentation mindfulness. Would cite the source! Thanks. I was brought up in a mindfulness atmosphere, so it comes naturally to me. Now it’s time to share the tips with others.

MBSR_Man · at 5:02 am

hey great way to be mindfull about all of these things

Linda Taylor · at 8:56 pm

Thank you Jon kabat Zinn
I am utilizing all of your amazing work,as I re-enter my life at 53 yrs old.
Have suffered trauma 45 yrs ago,that was never addressed.PTSD & MDD are prevalent every day.It has been a real challenge,as treatment/therapy for me (as for all folks)was suspended when covid shut our world down.I feel so bad for everyone suffering,& now many people are experiencing horrible PTSD/lack of mental health wellness.I was referred to your site,by a Canadian mental health worker,months ago when I didn’t think I had courage left to go on & have come to you for guidance many times since.Thank you.

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