Jon Kabat Zinn | Biography And Teachings Of A Modern Mindfulness Innovator

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Jon Kabat Zinn can be considered the pioneer of Western modern mindfulness. An American professor of medicine, he has also studied Zen Buddhism which heavily influenced his approach.

While mindfulness is a popular term today, it wasn’t until the late 1970s that work in this area began. In this article we’ll take a look at:

  • Jon Kabat Zinn: life and overview
  • What is mindfulness?
  • What is Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction?
  • The benefits of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction

Who is Jon Kabat-Zinn?

Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the “Stress Reduction Clinic” and the “Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society” based at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

As a practitioner of Zen Buddhism, he studied with the likes of Thich Nhat Hanh, Seung Shan and Philip Kapleau.

jon kabat zinn speaking at a conference
Jon Kabat-Zinn‘, by Mari Smith, licensed under CC BY 2.0

He also joined his practice of Soto Zen teachings with Hatha Yoga, Vipassana, and the philosophy of Advaita Vedanta. He fused these Eastern practices with Western science.

His teachings are what has come to be known as Mindfulness.

He claims that mindfulness is a tool to help people work with stress, anxiety, illness, and chronic pain. He created the technique Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction, which is the premise for his book Full Catastrophe Living.

Kabat-Zinn is a board member of the Mind and Life Institute. The organization is a mode of communication between Western Scientists and the Dalai Lama.

Early life

Jon Kabat-Zinn was born in 1944 in New York. His father was a biomedical scientist, and his mother was a painter. He was the oldest of three children.

He achieved a Ph.D in molecular biology in 1971 from MIT.

woman sat in a chair looking out her window

During his time at MIT, he campaigned against military research in relation to the Vietnam War. Along with Noam Chomsky, he was appointed to a committee regarding the university labs associated with the military.

It was during this time that he questioned his life’s purpose which he framed as his “karmic assignment”.


Jon Kabat-Zinn’s first introduction to meditation was through Philip Kapleau, who was a Zen missionary. In addition to studying with Seungsahn, he practiced Insight Meditation with Jack Kornfield.

After studying at the Insight Meditation Society, he later taught there.

In 1979 he set up the Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program and the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

He took the essence of Hatha Yoga, Vipassana, Advaita Vedanta, and Soto Zen teachings and formed the Stress Reduction and Relaxation Program, which he later developed into the eight-week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Program.

Kabat-Zinn took away religious and spiritual approaches and left out the soteriological goals and links with Buddhism in order to make the protocol as scientific and secular as possible.

zen buddhism stones in the sand

Therefore, Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction was framed within a scientific context and not a spiritual one.

Kabat-Zinn was particularly interested in the effects of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) on pain, psoriasis, brain function, anxiety, and immune function.

His Mindful Yoga, which is a combination of yoga postures and meditation, has become globally popular utilizing “moment-to-moment awareness.”

Kabat-Zinn received growing popularity with the publication of his first book in 1991; Full Catastrophe Living: Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness 

In 1993 he received national recognition when featured on PBS’s Healing and the Mind, and his second book released in 1994, Wherever You Go There You Are, became a national bestseller.

During the later 1990s, a number of MBSR centers were opened both as centers in their own right or in association with hospital facilities.

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction has been used by the US military which has proved controversial amongst MBSR practitioners. The protocol was adapted to improve “operational effectiveness”.

man walking his dog


Jon Kabat-Zinn has one several awards for his commitment to science including

  1. 2005: Distinguished Friend Award from the Association for Behavioral and Cognitive Therapies
  2. 2007: Inaugural Pioneer in Integrative Medicine Award from the Bravewell Philanthropic Collaborative for Integrative Medicine
  3. 2008: Mind and Brain Prize from the Center for Cognitive Science, University of Torino, Italy

Resources and books

Jon Kabat Zinn has written a number of best-selling books that feature on many a bookshelf. The full list of his works includes:

  • Full Catastrophe Living: using the wisdom of your body and mind to face stress, pain, and illness.
  • Mindfulness Meditation for Everyday Life.
  • Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life
  • The Power of Meditation and Prayer, with Sogyal Rinpoche, Larry Dossey, Michael Toms
  • Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting, with Myla Kabat-Zinn.
  • Coming to Our Senses: Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness.
  • The Mindful Way Through Depression: freeing yourself from chronic unhappiness, by J. Mark G. Williams, John D. Teasdale, Zindel V. Segal, Jon Kabat-Zinn
  • Arriving at Your Own Door.
  • Letting Everything Become Your Teacher: 100 Lessons in Mindfulness.
  • The Mind’s Own Physician: A Scientific Dialogue with the Dalai Lama on the Healing Power of Meditation, co-authored with Richard Davidson 
  • Mindfulness for Beginners: reclaiming the present moment – and your life.
zen buddhism garden with steps

What is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is the act of being present in each moment. It means that you are fully absorbed and engaged with whatever it is that you are doing.

It means that you are not drawn into distractions, and you approach your experience without judgment. Mindfulness is not getting caught up in your thoughts.

The skill of mindfulness is often built through meditation.

In teaching the mind to be present, we are teaching ourselves to be live more mindfully — in the present

It can be particularly helpful when we encounter difficult or challenging circumstances as it teaches us to be in the present moment.

Mindfulness is a way of living rather than a state, such as meditation, which is practiced at specific times throughout the day. It is about finding presence in every situation. Meditation is a great training ground for practicing and living mindfulness.

slow down written in the sand on the beach

The practice doesn’t stop our emotions from happening but rather helps us to see them more clearly; it’s a way of changing our mindset and our brains.

Generalized neuroimaging meditation studies found that 8 weeks of mindfulness meditation also changes our brains, rewiring them towards more positive thoughts and emotions.

Science and the work of Kabat-Zinn report that:

  • Meditation helps us to move from higher to lower brain wave frequencies.
  • It decreases the connections in the medial prefrontal cortex, which is where we think of “me” and the ego. This, in turn, can have a positive effect on stress and anxiety.
  • It develops neuroplasticity.
  • It reduces the size of the amygdala, which is how we feel stress and anxiety.

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction

Developed in the 1970s, Jon Kabat Zinn’s MBSR is the foundation of all mindfulness practices today.

Jon Kabat-Zinn developed his MBSR technique to help people struggling with physical and or mental illness. It was originally created to help hospital patients but it has proven beneficial to a vast range of people.

woman sat with her eyes closed being mindful

Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction is made up of two primary components, yoga and mindfulness meditation, and it’s completely tailored to the individual.

Jon Kabat-Zinn approached traditional principles of Buddhist Mindfulness and Meditation techniques through a Western scientific lens in order to develop a malleable approach to reducing and dealing with stress.

His work with MBSR brought an awareness to stress reduction and his commitment to his work forms his legacy.

Mindfulness is pretty much accessible to all people. Though, those with PTSD and complex PTSD should be cautious around the practice and ensure they work with a trained professional.

Approaches to mindfulness can include:

  1. Watching the breath
  2. Body scans
  3. Mindful eating
  4. Object meditation
  5. Mindful stretching
  6. Walking meditation
cup of tea with mindful or mind full written on a napkin

Benefits of Mindfulness

There are many benefits associated with Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction many of which are backed by science. They include:

  • General wellbeing
  • Decreased depression
  • Reduced anxiety
  • Emotional Regulation
  • Improved memory and cognitive improvements
  • Better relationships
  • Improved physical health

In combination with other therapeutic modalities MBSR has also be show to increase the positive results of treatment for the following disorders:

  • Anxiety and panic attacks
  • Fibromyalgia
  • Gastrointestinal issues
  • Grief
  • Headaches
  • Heart disease
  • Cancer
  • Chronic illness
  • Depression
  • Skin disorders
  • Insomnia
  • Eating disorders
  • High blood pressure
  • Chronic Pain
buddhist monk sat with hands in his lap

Staying mindful

If you’re using meditation to help you develop a mindful life or not, be sure to make time to pause throughout your day to check in with present-moment awareness. This could be while taking a shower or making a cup of tea.

These simple acts of mindfulness can teach us to live with more mindfulness through the moments that are challenging.

Keep looking for opportunities throughout your day to practice being mindful.

Mindfulness can be practiced at any time and anywhere and is a great way to work with stress and anxiety. Why not give it a go?

What next?

If looking at the life of Jon Kabat-Zinn and his mindfulness techniques has left you hungry for more then take a look at Mindful Awareness: 5 Ways to Tune into the Present Moment.

Photo of author
Sarah is a Brighton-based yoga teacher and teacher trainer with a passion for teaching self-inquiry and rest.

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