Molecular biologist and author Jon Kabat-Zinn was a pioneer in applying the Buddhist concept of mindfulness to Western medicine and secular society. But he doesn't consider himself a Buddhist.
"Mindfulness, the heart of Buddhist meditation, is at the core of being able to live life as if it really matters. It has nothing to do with Buddhism. It has to do with freedom," Kabat-Zinn said in a telephone interview from Lexington, Mass. "Mindfulness is so powerful that the fact that it comes out of Buddhism is irrelevant."
Kabat-Zinn is the author of the bestsellers "Full Catastrophe Living" and "Wherever You Go, There You Are." He is scheduled to speak Wednesday at a breast cancer awareness event for the Susan G. Komen for the Cure group at UCLA's Royce Hall.
An emeritus professor of medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Kabat-Zinn developed the system known as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) and founded the first MBSR clinic at the university's hospital more than 30 years ago.
At the time, students of integrative medicine like Kabat-Zinn were considered radical, and meditation was viewed as a subject for religion scholars, not scientists. But in recent years, studies have shown that meditation can improve the conditions of patients dealing with diseases from psoriasis to cancer.
Today there are more than 200 medical centers in the United States and abroad that employ the MBSR model to complement conventional therapies.
Kabat-Zinn is reluctant to use the word "spiritual" to describe the approach to healthy living that he promotes, characterizing it instead as being "grounded in common sense."
"You don't have to have a belief system or faith of one kind or another," he said. "It's not in conflict with faith. It's about a profound connection with the universe … within a faith tradition or outside of any faith tradition."
Kabat-Zinn's father was an immunologist and chemist, and his mother was a painter. He believes that early exposure to science and art fostered in him a recognition that there are "multiple ways of knowing and being in the world."
When he took up Buddhist meditation in the late 1960s — he was a founding member of the Cambridge Zen Center — it helped bridge various interests in his life, including biology, the arts, even politics. And it sparked his research into the mind-body connection.
Mindfulness, he says, is to be aware of one's own experience as it is happening, not to be preoccupied with the future, the past or otherwise distracted from the essence of living. "It's really about paying attention; on purpose, in the moment and in a non-judgmental way."
Practices such as meditation, yoga or Eastern martial arts can aid the process, but mindfulness is fundamentally an "acceptance" or "coming to terms with things as they are," not in the sense of passive resignation but active awareness, says Kabat-Zinn.
"Your life becomes the meditation practice. It's not about sitting on a cushion in the lotus position," he said. "The Buddhist emphasis on enlightenment does not mean there is thunder and lightning and your mind is clarified once and for all on the mountain top. It is every little moment of letting go."
Kabat-Zinn says anything resembling religious vocabulary can be anathema to many people. He prefers to use a vocabulary that doesn't exclude anybody.
"I don't have to use the word 'spiritual,'" he said. "Part of it is the power of silence and stillness. And part of that power is the power of healing that happens when you move from the domain of doing to being. It's transformative."
In fact, there have been rabbis, priests and even an imam who have taken Kabat-Zinn's eight-week MBSR training course and told him that it deepened their experience of their own faiths.
The imam told him the practice was "totally consistent" with Islam, Kabat-Zinn said. Priests said MBSR reminded them of why they first went into the seminary and allowed them to transmit their faith more effectively to their flocks. Kabat-Zinn noted that even Mother Teresa described her conversations with God as mutual silence.
"Is silence Jewish or Christian or Buddhist? Is awareness Jewish or Christian?" said Kabat-Zinn. Mindfulness principles are found on every continent in every culture, he added."We're born with this capacity. It's about cultivating it."
In 2002, neuroscientist Richard Davidson studied the effect of meditation on Buddhist monks and found evidence that those who had logged 10,000 hours or more had different brain structures from those in a control group.
"It's like Lance Armstrong having different muscle fiber than someone who just rides a bike," Kabat-Zinn said. He and Davidson later reported findings that even 15 minutes of meditation three times a week can strengthen the immune system.
Research into mindfulness meditation dovetails with the new scientific fields of neuroplasticity, the brain's ability to change physically, and epigenics, how behavior can affect physiology.
"It's like an antioxidant for the mind," Kabat-Zinn said, laughing. "We have so much scientific evidence about how we can participate in our own well-being."
For those coping with cancer or other serious diseases, Kabat-Zinn said, a crucial element of mindfulness is to try to lessen attachment to outcomes: "It's not about how long you live but how well you live," he said.
And consciously connecting with experience goes beyond any religion or ideology or even a hectic way of life, he believes.
"It's about people waking up, not being confined by any belief system," he said. "Awareness is bigger than a belief system."