I was disappointed to have missed Jon Kabat-Zinn’s visit to the UK this month as part of a Mindfulness and Education event. As Kabat-Zinn is deemed the father to western mindfulness practice, it would have been amazing to have seen the man in person. Whilst I sadly was unable to attend, it did give me a chance to note that I hadn’t got round to writing a post about Kabat-Zinn’s book, Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation for Everyday Life. So here comes my take on the book.
My overarching view of Wherever You Go, There You Are, is that it is an excellent starting point for anyone who has not meditated or practised mindfulness before. The book is split into three parts. Firstly, The Bloom of the Present Moment, which acts as an introduction to developing a mindful mindset. Secondly, The Heart of Practice, which gives a thorough guide to how to meditate. Thirdly, In the Spirit of Mindfulness, which is all about deepening the understanding of mindfulness and meditation and life itself. Each part is split into several ‘chapters’ which is up to around five pages per ‘chapter’. Each chapter ends with a practical guidance on how to actively practise the content. The book is very easy to pick up and put down, easy to consume, and acts as a friendly guide. The content gives practical coverage of the main emotions, thoughts and events we may encounter during mindfulness and meditation practice. For those who have been meditating for a while, the book is a good reference point to keep practice on track.
One aspect that really leapt out to me was how Kabat-Zinn captures the paradoxes that can be encountered when meditating. An example is the chapter You Have to Be Strong Enough to Be Weak. Here, Kabat-Zinn explains how meditating for some time and feeling like you’re ‘getting somewhere’ can result in becoming inflated about your experiences to yourself and others [Kabat-Zinn, 1994, P65-67]. Whilst mindfulness and meditation is about reaching a more balanced mental state, the pride that a practioner can gain from feeling more centred can sometimes cause an Ego imbalance. What was a perceived strength can sometimes in fact be a weakness in disguise. Kabat-Zinn advises to be aware of any inflated ‘strengths’ and to lean into why these may occur, accepting personal vulnerabilities and re-engaging with our humble, more centred nature.
Vulnerability and facing ourselves fearlessly, naturally, is a recurring theme in the book. Mindfulness and meditation in the west has often been promoted as a miracle cure to life’s problems and a practice that aids in bringing about a sense of peace and calm. What promotion sometimes fails to communicate is how difficult mindfulness and meditation can sometimes be as we face the very vulnerable aspects of ourselves that we perhaps don’t want to address. Kabat-Zinn captures this neatly in a sentence: “We must be willing to encounter darkness and despair when they come up and face them, over and over again if need be, without running away or numbing ourselves in the thousands of ways we conjure up to avoid the unavoidable” [1994, P85]. Essentially, to best achieve balance, we must listen to all aspects of ourselves and also not be afraid to realise when we feel lost and need a helping hand.
Kabat-Zinn includes a section for those who are parents. I felt this was a really nice touch as often parents tell me that they wish that they had the luxury of having time to be mindful. In this, I feel they miss the essence of mindfulness – you don’t need time to be mindful. Everything you do can be done mindfully. Kabat-Zinn includes a quote from Gary Snyder’s The Practice of the Wild, which well captures the busy parent’s life (and many non-parents too!): “Changing the filter, wiping noses, going to meetings, picking up around the house, washing dishes…” [1994, 171]. Our every day repetitions support our practice and are the perfect moments to practice. I personally do a ‘clothes hanging’ and ‘clothes folding’ meditation. I like to organise the clothes by length and carefully make sure each item is nicely hung. When dry, I fold them as if they were a piece of origami. The orderliness and repetition can become a practice, a moment to find space and a sense of calm. This being said from someone who used to hate doing the laundry!
Kabat-Zinn also encourages parents to look at their children as teachers [1994, 256]. This is very sage advice. The simplicity and innocence of what children say can be a learning to us all. My own recent encounter of this was with my niece. She is three years old. I was feeling a bit drowsy and she was adamant that she wanted me to take her to play in the garden. I wanted nothing more than to simply sit on the sofa and doze. Her sweet voice sang up to me, “But Aunty, the fresh air will wake you up! It will give you energy!” I was so surprised to have such sound advice from a three year old and yet I am sure children often say a lot more truths than adults.
Another aspect I found interesting is what Kabat-Zinn calls selfing. This is where individuals have a predisposition to think in terms of ‘I, me, mine, myself’. That’s not to say they are highly egotistical, rather than focused on social constructs and concepts. Kabat-Zinn highlights how our name, age, gender, etc. aren’t really who we are [1994, P236]. When you meditate, you practice observing yourself: your thoughts, emotions and being. So when you begin to break down the question, “Who am I?”, Kabat-Zinn highlights that as an observer of yourself, the question becomes “Who is the I who is asking who am I?”. It is then that you realise “I” is yet another construct or concept. This made me think back to my own crisis many years ago when I first had the experience of really questioning who “I” in fact was. It can be a challenging experience, but by continuing to ask this question, not only does it provide a good practice for dissolving the Ego, but also brings about a sense of unity as the wall between self and other begins to dissolve.
Finally, what was brilliant to see was the chapter Some Pitfalls Along the Path [1994, 260]. Here, Kabat-Zinn highlights that throughout your lifetime of mindfulness and meditation, you’re going to have days where you really engage and days where practice seems stagnant. Sometimes this could even be a few practices in a row. I found it really reassuring to see this chapter in the book as it can be really discouraging to practitioners when they reach that first practice that doesn’t make you ‘feel better’. And there-in lies the point that mindfulness and meditation is about being yourself at any given point of time rather than judging what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’. It is a place where you can find space to just ‘be’.
In conclusion, there’s a reason why countless copies of this book have been sold worldwide and why it is so highly rated. Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn is a staple book for any mindfulness and meditation practitioner’s library.
You can buy Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn on Amazon UK