Practice in Daily Life:
Interview with Will Kabat-Zinn
Will Kabat-Zinn has practiced Insight Meditation for more than 15 years and has been teaching since 2007. He is on the Spirit Rock Board of Directors and is a member of the Spirit Rock Teachers Council. Will lives in the East Bay with his wife and two children and leads a weekly sitting group on Sunday evenings in Berkeley.
Spirit Rock: How is practice in daily life different from retreat practice?
Will Kabat-Zinn: Fundamentally, it is not any different, but people relate to it differently. When you are on retreat there are constant reminders to be present, to treat whatever arises as practice. Everywhere you look there are people meditating, walking around silently, and looking mindful; there is a Buddha on the altar, you hear meditation instructions repeatedly. It is easier to have awareness be primary when you have so many external supports, so many reminders. Fundamentally, however, life out of retreat is not any different than life on retreat. In both situations there is awareness and what is happening in awareness, period. But somehow it seems very different to people, and it probably seems different because there is not yet enough stability in present moment wakefulness to have it be available in as continuous a way when they are out of retreat.
I think the real question for all of us is how do we make awareness a priority all the time? And not only a priority but perhaps even our first priority, in the midst of everything else we are doing. It does not take extra time. You are already living whether you are aware and awake or in sleepwalking mode. It is this remembering that at first has to be reinforced by external supports, whether it is coming on retreat regularly or having some touchpoints throughout your day to remind you to be mindful. So you’re actually being prompted to remember. After a while those outer reminders aren’t as important because the reminders become internalized. The experience of being pulled into unawareness has a feeling to it and your body-mind system starts to long for wakefulness. Wakefulness has its own gravitational pull.
On some unconscious level a lot of people think that practice really happens on retreat or that the Dharma is more in one place than another — “It’s really in Asia, or at Spirit Rock, not at home, at work or with my crazy family.” But the nature of your mind is no different on retreat than it is in the middle of your workday. We have to recognize this. It’s a big job for us as teachers to help people to understand this and to emphasize this non-separation of life and practice.
SR: It seems like you’re also saying that it’s important to have that foundation of retreat practice to nurture practice in daily life.
Will: It’s super-important. That’s why I believe in all of these structures and forms that we have, these external supports, because people can hear what I just said and think, “Oh, so I just have to be mindful.” And this conclusion is right but also wrong. You can really develop a momentum of presence and present-ness on retreat that becomes a foundation for everything else. Of course you can also do this off of retreat with strong intention, a real fire for practice, but it is probably easier on retreat at least initially, because of the supports.
The momentum of practice is not a momentum that goes anywhere, it is here and now. Even if you have some kind of insight or awakening that comes spontaneously, without some cultivation it is very hard to make it stable. There is a complementary relationship between retreat practice and living your life as practice.
SR: Where does a daily sitting practice at home fit in?
Will: Having a daily formal practice is essential for many years, until there is enough momentum in wakefulness that it’s carrying over, whether you’re doing sitting meditation or not. It’s a time every day that you strip away all of the outer complexity and attend to the way things are, which are fundamentally the same when you’re not meditating, but in a simplified form.
It is very useful to do some formal practice every day. I remember reading an interview with Tony Bennett in The New Yorker some years ago. He said something like, “If I don’t practice my scales every day, if I miss one day, I notice the difference. If I miss two days, my band notices. And if I miss three days, the audience will notice.” I like that as a reminder. Why would Tony Bennett need to practice his scales? After all, he is Tony Bennett! This is a good reminder for all of us.
Daily practice keeps awareness close. For a lot of people, awareness is something that can seem far away or unavailable, something that can be accessed only through some special environment or on the other side of some endeavor, including formal practice. But awareness is fully functioning all the time. It is always here and now, the ground of all experience. Once it is familiar, once you realize the implications of this awareness, you don’t have to go anywhere and you don’t have to make so much effort. You literally just have to remember to notice, and you are already home.
SR: You said that as a teacher your job is to help people to make that transition. So how do you bring someone along?
Will: This is what’s hard, actually. I don’t know how to bring someone along! They have to be really motivated, right? I think our job as teachers is to inspire and to help people get a taste. Sometimes on retreat people get a taste of what it’s like when their mind is quiet. Then they become motivated. It’s like, who are you when you’re not caught up in all your worries and thoughts? When you’re not in your story about yourself or about your life or about the world, it’s really different. Who are you then? So when people get a taste, often they become motivated. Once we do, there’s a positive feedback loop. When we’re awake and aware, difficult situations become workable. There’s a sense of agency because you are present. You’re in relationship to what’s happening as opposed to things just happening to you. Beautiful moments become more beautiful because you’re present. You’re really here for your life. And all these neutral, in-between moments become vivid. So much of our life is like this, and we start to be awake in these “ordinary moments” and to notice how much of life we’re normally missing. Once this starts to happen, it’s very reinforcing. People want to be awake. When we have some practice momentum, we start to notice sooner when we’re caught up, or on automatic, or just acting out conditioning, and we long for presence. That longing is very wholesome.
SR: What are the challenges to bringing mindfulness into daily life?
Will: One of the challenges is time. When do you actually do any formal practice? Everyone is so busy. If you’re sleep deprived, waking up even earlier than you already do is hard. So that’s a big challenge. How do you find time? We have to get creative. Sometimes I think of it as stealing time. You have to steal moments in the shower or during your workday. You take moments at lunch or on your train commute to practice. Or maybe you do get up ten minutes, half an hour, or an hour earlier than everyone else in your household to practice.
Another challenge for people is momentum. We develop a tremendous amount of momentum with all the activity in our lives. And one of the hardest things for people is checking this momentum just for a moment. That’s a big part of the practice — how do you just stop for a moment? This stopping is something that we can practice. That’s why we tell parents, “Sit for one minute each day.” Because the hardest thing is to sit down, to just stop the momentum and sit for a moment. The next 29 minutes are much easier. This is so useful to do throughout the day, to step out of the momentum of mind again and again. This in itself takes practice.
Thinking has momentum to it. So do worry and fear, striving, becoming, etc. But presence can have momentum too. It is not a momentum that is directional in time. It’s a momentum of presence, of present-ness, a dimension that opens up, opens out and reveals itself as the ground of everything.
SR: It sounds as though you’re suggesting shifting momentum from everyday productivity momentum to the momentum of practice, which is a very different kind of momentum.
Will: Presence can have momentum even when there is activity happening, even when you are acting, moving, dynamic. Stillness and motion are not opposites. Movement happens within stillness, the stillness of wakeful awareness. Stillness is an aspect of presence or being. Time seems to be moving so quickly that moments of presence at first seem insignificant. But as we stabilize in presence, we realize time — our experience of time — has a lot to do with our thoughts about it. It’s not like the present is this narrow little thing between the past and the future. Past and future arise as thoughts in your mind right now. That’s all. And yet, the past and future that we imagine and remember seem so real that they run our lives and we orient everything around them. This is delusion. And this is what most of us are living in. And so it feels like there is this massive movement, but it’s really the mind that’s moving. Thinking is moving.