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The Science Of Mindfulness And Meditation

NYC commuters during a Meditation Moment in Times Square in celebration of the Westin Well-being Movement (partnered with Headspace) launch on March 20, 2014 in New York City.  (Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Westin Hotels & Resorts)
NYC commuters during a Meditation Moment in Times Square in celebration of the Westin Well-being Movement (partnered with Headspace) launch on March 20, 2014 in New York City. (Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for Westin Hotels & Resorts)

Here & Nowspoke yesterday with Andy Puddicombe, the one-time Buddhist monk turned entrepreneur whose Headspace meditation app has been downloaded millions of times around the world. Yes, there is an app for that, and it’s good for people with any level of meditating experience. The app includes meditations for when you’re cooking, running, or even having a melt-down. It’s huge in Silicon Valley.

Today we turn to Jon Kabat-Zinn, who is credited with bringing the concept of meditation and mindfulness into the American consciousness in the late 1970s. He was a grad student at MIT earning his PhD in molecular biology when he met and eventually studied with a Buddhist monk.

Zinn became a devotee of meditation and mindfulness, developing the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program for patients at the University of Massachusetts hospital. It’s now used throughout the medical world. Zinn joins Here & Now‘s Robin Young to discuss mindfulness and how it intersects with science.

Interview Highlights

How far has mindfulness come since the 1970s?

“The technology has evolved, so now we can look at what happens in the brain, and the brain structure – that’s a whole field called neuroplasticity. There’s also what goes on in the chromosomes and gene expression – that’s a whole new field called epigenetics. And there’s what goes on at the ends of all our chromosomes, the telomeres, which are associated with aging. There are very interesting things that happen when people shift from doing to being, in that you can see major changes in brain structure within eight weeks. The reason we’re into this is because of the results. The real reason that mindfulness is valuable is that it’s intrinsically valuable for its own sake – your life improves.”

On transitioning from doing to being

“How to learn to rest in the domain of your own being, that’s what meditation really is, which involves wakefulness. Relatively speaking, we’re all more or less zoning along on autopilot in the consensus hypnotic trance. So we think we’re awake, but we’re not actually awake in the way I’m speaking about it. Are you in touch with being embodied, or are you mostly living in your head above your neck. Are you feeling the sensations of the air on your skin, the breath moving in and out of the body? What mindfulness does, it’s like exercising a muscle, it continually recognizes, ‘oh I’m not fully present, let me come back.’ The devices make it much worse, because you can say, ‘why would I want to be in this moment it’s so boring, let me read the newspaper to fill up the moment with something more interesting, let me check my messages, or Twitter, to just see’ – we’re continually distracting ourselves.”

On how to start meditating

“Get an app! Get the Headspace app and play with it. I’m being slightly facetious but I think if that’s what works for you, it’s like – how do you fight a forest fire, you fight it with another fire – in the same way you can use the technology to actually extinguish the addictive elements of the technology. I mean, guided meditations are nothing new, we use them all the time with people, and my guided meditations are iPhone apps and on Google Play as well.”

On the topic of meditation easing chronic pain

“For somebody who’s in chronic pain, very often they’ve had all the various medical treatments and so forth, and when they come to us they basically haven’t worked so well. There’s no alternative other than in some sense do what seems counterintuitive – you put the welcome mat out and turn towards the sensations in your body you call pain and say, in this moment, could I just be with these sensations for just one in breath, or just half an in breath, and just feel it. People will say, I don’t want to feel my pain, I want someone to cut it out or give me a pill. But the irony is, with hundreds of chronic pain patients that we’ve done studies with, when we invite them to put the welcome mat out for whatever the stressor or pain is they’re experiencing it, they actually befriend it. And they learn, you can live with this. Sometimes the actual pain will go away, but even if it doesn’t, you can transform your relationship to it so that it no longer erodes your life.”

On doubts about meditating incorrectly

“All of those things are just called thoughts. We sort of suffer from the disease of mistaking our thoughts for the truth. And this is a huge sort of suffering and huge source of stress – so once you recognize a thought is an event in the field of awareness, then those thoughts are like weather patterns, and they’re like storms of the mind, and you no longer have to be in their mercy. And you just notice, that’s a thought, and you come back to the experiencing of the body sitting here breathing. All that neuroscience and epigenetics and new science is saying, if you cultivate this quality of nonjudgmental, moment to moment awareness, the brain, your organ systems, they will actually transform. You can learn to actually modulate or surf the waves of those kinds of comings and goings. It doesn’t mean you won’t be utterly nonjudgmental, but you don’t have to judge the judging.”

Is it true you have people sit and look at a raisin for an hour as a first meditation?

“For first experiences of meditation, I have people take two raisins and eat them over a period of 15 minutes, one at a time. First you look at it, and you actually see it. Most of the time when you eat, we’re not actually looking what we’re putting in our mouths. So, then you can feel it and get a sensory experience of the landscape of this thing that you’re going to take and put in your body. Most people say, I don’t think I’ve ever really tasted a raisin in my life. If we can hold an awareness, a deep interconnectedness, as some Buddhist teachers might like to say when they do similar exercises, they might ask you ‘Can you see the rain in that shriveled up raisin?’ ‘Can you see the sunlight?’ because these are all preconditions for that raising going into your mouth.”


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