On meeting Jon Kabat-Zinn

by Miro Cansky on 13 November 2010

It’s 3 AM in the morning and my mind is racing round and round, immersed in the whirlpool of random images and thoughts. I SHOULD BE SLEEPING! I managed to sleep for a couple of hours, falling in and out of consciousness, enveloped by the thick darkness of the night and the rhythmic sounds of my wife’s breathing.

I’m awake but I would rather be asleep. What keeps me awake is the anticipation of what’s ahead – in three hours I will be heading to Oxford, to take part in a two-day workshop on mindfulness, led by Jon Kabat-Zinn.

Rainy OxfordI get up, eat a small breakfast and make sure I packed my sitting cushion and a mat. Still annoyed with myself for spilling hot tea over my trousers, I leave the house and notice how quiet and empty the streets are at six in the morning.

After almost two hours of driving, the rainy Oxford suburbs welcome me with a massive cue of cars, all rolling in the same direction, my direction.

Eventually I made it to the large car park at the gates of the city and from here I have to walk to the venue. ‘Why didn’t I leave earlier? I hate coming late to things like this. Damn, now I have to run’. With the backpack dangling on my back, stuffed with a mat and a meditation cushion I’m pushing through the crowds on the narrow pavements of Oxford. Some people curiously turn their heads towards me as I overtake them, noticing the rattling sound coming from within my backpack. ‘It’s the herbal supplements I took with me to combat my sore throat’ I reply to them silently with a stressed-out expression in my eyes.

I arrive on time. The large building appears suddenly in front of me and I am reminded of the Czechoslovak architecture of the 1980’s – functional but not very elegant.

Finally I can relax and let my heartbeat slow down to a comfortable level. The meditation hall is huge and I wonder how many people will be attending. I’m one of the first participants but the whole atmosphere is already suffused with slight nervousness and excitement. ‘I have to be in the first row’, pops up in my head and before I know it, I’m claiming a chair almost directly in front of the small platform from where Kabat-Zinn will be teaching.

As I exchange a few words with a person sitting next to me, something, or rather someone, catches my attention. IT’S HIM. But I somehow hesitate to believe my eyes at first. He looks much smaller and older than I thought, he limps and comes across rather ‘ordinary’ in his washed out black jeans. After re-adjusting my mental image and replacing it with a more updated version of reality, I observe his face. It is wrinkled and weathered, but what really stands out is his sense of composure, calm and relaxed concentration. He smiles gently as he acknowledges the presence of the few participants and climbs up the platform after taking off his shoes. ‘Jon Kabat-Zinn in his socks’, I’m thinking to myself, struck by the no-big-dealness of his arrival and the general ordinariness of his presence.

Go to the toilet mindfully

Mindfulness of all activitiesWe start on time. In the introduction Kabat-Zinn points out to us that the next two days will not be about him conveying information and knowledge, but rather about sharing wisdom and understanding coming from our own experience. His main message was that the curriculum happens all the time, whether we sit on the cushion or go to the toilet, because the curriculum is actually our whole life and all that happens within it.

Practice, practice, practice

Over the two days, 250 people who came from all over the world and from different professions are given an opportunity to taste the practice of mindfulness experientially, rather than intellectually. Kabat-Zinn takes us through different kinds of mindfulness practice, including lying, sitting and walking meditation. It is as if looking through a magnifying glass at our thoughts, impulses, emotions and physical sensations and bathing whatever we discover in acceptance, kindness and curiosity. The gentle and almost hypnotic voice of Kabat-Zinn keeps continually reminding us that whatever experience we encounter is exactly what is and as such does not need to be altered, or transcended in any way, but rather looked at dispassionately and without judgement. The main message seems to be one of non-striving, of letting go of and letting be the desire to reach some other state of mind, some better place where peace is abundant.

Seeing myself clearly

We are encouraged to maintain awareness throughout all activities of the day and our lunch breaks are also in silence. As I stand in the cue to get my food I’m struck by the power of my impulses and thoughts when it comes down to eating. The space created around my thoughts during the meditation practices allowed me to see clearly the impatience, pushiness and craving of my mind and body. I feel irritated with all those people who are taking ages to pick their food and who are in my way. I devour the fried chicken pieces, the tuna sandwiches and carrot sticks and as I eat, I catch a thought telling me to get up and get some more in case I don’t have enough. Now is the time to practice mindfulness, I remind myself with a smile, aware of the challenge of applying meditation to every situation.

By the middle of day 2 the meditation hall appears to have transformed into a silent spaceship floating with dignity across the cosmos of time and space. More importantly, the passengers themselves have changed on their journey from past and future to the present moment. Their faces have softened and their bodies became supple and more embodied.  The transformative power of the simple act of returning to the present moment is palpable. I feel privileged to have the opportunity to share this experience with others, even if in silence.

Radical act of love

Jon Kabat-ZinnAt the end of the programme Jon Kabat-Zinn described mindfulness as a radical act of love. By giving ourselves the attention and care of staying with what is rather than jumping and racing into what could be, we are nourishing our heart, mind and body in the most fundamental way. We are giving ourselves the gift of life, of being alive, now, in every moment, because that is all we have – this very moment.


Top tips on how to find the right counsellor (part 2)

by Miro Cansky on 4 November 2010

In part 1 of this article, we have covered a number of practical issues regarding our search for the most suitable counsellor or psychotherapist. After considering the aforementioned points, we made our choice and now are ready to make the first contact with our prospective counsellor. What follows are some further suggestions to help you make your counselling experience as positive as possible.

Bristol counselling and mindfulness1. Your counselling starts when you pick up the phone
Many of us wouldn’t think that the therapeutic relationship begins as soon as we call the counsellor to make our first appointment. Those few minutes on the phone, however, have a great importance and can help us in gathering a lot of information about the practitioner. My suggestions here would be twofold:

  • First, it is very helpful to have some clarity about what you would like to address in your counselling . The counsellor might ask you a general question about this to see if he or she will be able to offer the appropriate service you are looking for. Some therapists, for example, wouldn’t feel well equipped to work with trauma, so it is important to be clear about this question from the start. You might then be signposted to a colleague or an organisation specifically dealing with your particular issue.
  • The second important point is to be aware of your immediate reaction as you speak to the counsellor. What is your ‘gut feeling’ as you listen to his/her voice? How are they approaching the conversation? Is your impression that they are rushed, relaxed, reassuring, slightly challenging, direct, pleasing or distracted? What impact does their tone of voice have on your immediate mood? If you feel generally pleased with the way the counsellor communicated with you and with their manners, that is a good sign. If, however, you felt uneasy, distant or irritated during and after the phone call, take those reactions into account. Your intuitive responses matter and can serve you as a compass not only while looking for a counselling professional but also in your day-to-day exchanges with other people.

2. Details matter – don’t be shy to ask
After making your first appointment, the time has come to meet your prospective counsellor in person. During the initial session, I would suggest to focus on the following:

  • Fees - some counsellors offer concessionary rates for people on a low income so don’t be shy to ask (if you haven’t done so already during your phone conversation). A five pound discount can make a significant difference over a longer period of time.
  • Your issue - make sure you spend enough time describing what particular area of your life you want to work on, including your expectations and goals. Find out about the counsellor’s experience and training in the area you want to address in counselling.
  • Holiday arrangement - will your counsellor charge you for sessions even when you are on holiday? This question only needs to be considered if you plan a longer-term therapeutic work but it is better to clarify this point sooner rather than later. Some therapists will say that when you are on holiday, they can’t fill your regular slot with another client and will charge you the full fee.
  • Cancellation policy - usually you will not be charged for your session if you cancel more than 24 hours prior to your appointment, but practitioners differ so it’s helpful to be informed beforehand.

3. How do I know I found the ‘right’ person?
Well, you can never be absolutely sure that you discovered the ‘best’ therapist in your area. But here are some pointers: if, during your initial appointment, you felt respected, listened to and accepted for who you are, the likelihood is that you will feel comfortable enough to open the door to your inner world, let the other person share your fears, joys and confusion and help you re-orientate yourself in the maze of your life. If, on the other hand you felt unsafe, scrutinised or simply distant, take your time with your final decision (unless this is how you feel with everybody, and then this might be the issue for you to work on).

4. Finally – don’t rush your decision
And don’t forget – counselling is a service and you are a customer, which gives you the advantage of being in a position where you can compare the market and choose. It is absolutely acceptable to agree with the counsellor that you will take some time to think about your decision and will get back to them later. This actually shows that you are serious about your commitment to work on yourself. Therefore, I would suggest meeting more than one counsellor to see how they compare in terms of their particular styles of work, expertise, and knowledge and how they come across as people. If you trust your intuition, follow your heart and don’t give up easily, you will find the right support for yourself.


Top tips on how to find the right counsellor (part 1)

October 30, 2010

Looking for a counsellor or therapist is not as straightforward as it might seem at first. All of us naturally look for the most suitable ways to address our needs in all areas of our lives, be it a garage to repair our car, a school for our child or a doctor helping us with […]

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