SAKI SANTORELLI is interviewed by AMIR IMANI as part of a webinar series about mindfulness, love, compassion and the way of the heart.

Q: Today we are very delighted to have my dear friend, mentor and teacher, Dr. Saki Santorelli, with us. Saki was the Executive Director of The Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health and Society at the University of Massachusetts, USA, for 17 years. I have been a witness to his deep contribution to bringing mindfulness to the public and the profession, globally.

Saki has been one of the main pulls for me into the mindfulness practice, through his loving presence and brotherly support from afar. He will be speaking to us on love, compassion and the heart in this way.

Thank you Saki, and welcome to this session with us.

SS: Thank you so much, Amir and Samaneh. It’s lovely to be with all of you.

Today I would like to begin by offering you the deepest sense of gratitude and appreciation for the work that you are doing in your part of the world, wherever you are. So how about if we begin by, each of us in our own way, setting an intention for what we hope for in this next hour together?

You know there are often surface reasons, then there are deeper reasons, and then there are deeper than that reasons. For example, you might feel at a professional level, which is a good thing. But if you drop down a little further into your heart: What’s really brought you to this, to give yourself over to this for an hour of your life, when you could be doing so many other things? And it’s that deeper seed that I’m suggesting you attend to.

People come for a whole range of reasons, but then there is some deeper reason for being there as well. For example – we never did a formal study about this – all of the 37 years that I was at the Center for Mindfulness, we saw people with cancer and heart disease and a huge range of medical and psychological issues. And while they came certainly for some relief from the psychological or physical suffering associated with those conditions, the single-most frequently stated goal was peace of mind.

So they knew something deep inside themselves, even in the midst of whatever they were suffering with, physically or psychologically, that was quite different than the symptoms that they were experiencing. So it’s that deeper reason that I am asking, or suggesting, that you invoke or intend and attend to as we continue.

Even right in this moment I feel that we are dear, dear companions, that we are joined together by a certain commitment, a certain dedication, and a certain view of human beings: in some very real way, the view that human beings are actually filled with a certain kind of genius. They are capable far more than they might imagine or certainly far more than most cultures would suggest is possible. It’s as if there’s a treasure that they are, that they have forgotten. You know what I mean? You know that in yourself how easy it is to forget?

So you could say that in a very real way the true and real work of any of us, as teachers of mindfulness-based programs, is to remember. And that remembering is deeper than the intervention. In fact I don’t even like to call MBSR an intervention; we avoided calling it an intervention from the beginning. And we avoided calling it a therapy as well. Rather we said it’s an approach or a path. I don’t know what the word is in Farsi, but I think in Arabic it is tareeq; it’s a way.

That doesn’t mean all of the competencies that have been described as central to MBSR or MBCT teacher development are not important. They are important. I’d read the paper by my dear colleagues, Rebecca Crane and Mark Williams, when it came out years ago, about the competencies, and I asked myself, “Are these competencies all an aspect of MBSR?” My answer was yes. Then I asked myself another question, “Will these competencies be enough to walk into the classroom and teach?” My answer was no.

That doesn’t make them unimportant. It’s just that the central competency in my view, in my experience, is the cultivation of the human heart. And that has everything to do with the quality of embodiment. And every one of us will embody it in a different way. And it expresses itself probably universally as a kind of sympathetic nature, a kind of tenderness and softness – not passivity, but softness – and a kind of mercy.

So maybe for a moment you can just be attentive to that part of yourself. It’s right here. You might say it actually shows up as a kind of assertive kindness, warmth and friendliness towards oneself and one’s experience. In a very real way we’re asking the people that we work with to come to our courses or classes, to cultivate the same quality towards themselves and their experience.

In that, of course, on one hand we’re talking about the quality of tenderness or softness of the heart. On the other hand, you probably know well that that the heart is fierce, it can take everything, and it can keep giving. I’m not talking about something romantic, but it takes just that kind of an organ, if you will, of sensitivity and sensibility, to actually help people meet and in some way be relieved from their own suffering and their own pain.

So if we look a little more deeply into mindfulness itself, there are two dimensions to it. On one hand there is what’s often called the instrumental dimension. It has to do with the development of skills and competencies, in a sense of effort and improvement over time. Maybe in our modern vernacular we’d say that has to do with acquisitional learning. For example, if I have to learn Farsi, I’d learn from the very beginning. I’d have to go very slowly, and I would probably feel like a failure or that I’m not getting it. If learn to play the piano, I go slowly. I learn the notes then the scales before I can play any music.

It’s the same with learning to practice mindfulness. It is a practice in the sense that it has its own progression, and over time people often report changes. And if you’re a mindfulness practitioner, you discover that there are changes that take place over time. And it’s the same with the various competencies that have been identified in the development of MBSR teachers: over time people get more skillful at those competencies.

Then there is this other dimension of mindfulness practice that is non-instrumental. There’s nothing to get. There’s nothing to improve upon. There’s nothing to gain. It’s already complete. And you can see that instrumental is nested in the non-instrumental. For example, how could you love another human being if love wasn’t already a part of you? How could you appreciate beauty if beauty wasn’t innate? How could you appreciate the light of the sun if light wasn’t an innate part of you as a human being? This is what Rumi was talking about, several hundred years ago, when he talked about two kinds of intelligence: one acquired, one already complete.

So what’s it like to walk into the classroom knowing that you’re sitting in front of 10 or 15 geniuses, who are already complete but they don’t know it? You can’t tell them that, you can’t give them a lecture about that. You can’t tell them, “Just believe me, because I know.” Our job is to embody that in some way, and then help them over time, simply assist them to become familiar with the depth that’s already a part of them.

That’s why I have written – and I continue to know more than simply believe – that the central risk in MBSR or MBCT is that we’ll become blinded to the non-instrumental and the instrumental will take over.

The central competency in my view, in my experience,
is the cultivation of the human heart.

So maybe we’ll take a moment and just sit with this question: How is it inside me to hear this, to feel it in some way? Not because I’ve said it, but how is it for you?

This really means that our job is to be students. To listen. To serve. To see if we can meet every situation, or many situations, in a way that they provide us with a certain kind of learning, a certain kind of insight and understanding. We become kind of intoxicated, so we’re a little drunk. You could say in some real way that mindfulness, in its most universal form, expresses itself in a deep and powerful way in remembering that we’re actually sober. That our senses serve us. That our mind serves us.

And then, more centrally, the cultivation and the development of the human heart happen. It becomes the central characteristic of mindfulness, because it has everything to do with a slow disillusioning of this thing we call ‘myself’. So we move from that position of inhabiting and strengthening the self to recognizing that all human beings suffer, all human beings have the capacity to be free and liberated.

So thank you for letting your beauty shine out into the world. We know that there’s a lot of uncertainty in the world, a lot of darkness, and a lot of fear. And there’s no value in pretending otherwise. But in the middle of all of that, there is the capacity for us to shine forth, to feel this indelible bond between us, to touch deeply and know the deep, deep resources that we have within, and that the world has changed through very small numbers of people doing very radical things. By radical I mean fundamental. This is fundamental: the reality of what mindfulness is in the life of human beings is fundamental.

There is the capacity for us to shine forth, to feel this
indelible bond between us, to touch deeply and know
the deep, deep resources that we have within.

I would like to end with a few lines of Hafiz, as he’s dear to me. The soil of Iran has given the world a universal voice through this human being. At the end of one of his poems he says the following lines:

Be strong, Hafiz!
Work here inside time,
where we fail, catch hold
again, and climb.

So that’s what we’re all doing here: working inside time, failing, catching hold again, and climbing. And I thank you for climbing. We’ll reach out and help one another.

Q: Thank you, Saki, for showing us how to climb, just by sitting still and feeling.

To be continued 

Interview by AMIR IMANI

Saki Santorelli

About Saki Santorelli

Saki F. Santorelli, EdD, MA, is an educator, author and clinician. He retired as Executive Director of the UMass Medical School Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society. A professor of medicine, he was the very first intern at Dr Jon Kabat Zinn’s Stress Reduction Clinic, from where Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) originated. His entire career has been dedicated to the integration of mindfulness into public health and well-being, propelled by his recognition of and trust in the innate goodness of human beings.

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