I was expecting good things from Wherever You Go There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn. He’s quite well-known within the mindfulness world as the developer of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) and a founding director of the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. This book was a best-seller, but it managed to fall short of my expectations.
Things started off well. I appreciated the lightheartedness of such comments as meditation “does not involve becoming some kind of zombie, vegetable, self-absorbed, narcissist, navel gazer, [or] space cadet”. The book attempted to provide quick and easy access to the fundamentals of mindfulness meditation, with the message that anyone can meditate. However, I didn’t find that it actually made mindfulness meditation more acceptable; to be honest, I was very tempted to give up partway through.
The book focused more on formal meditation practices and less on informal mindfulness practices than I was expecting. The author wrote about sitting to meditate not as simply the physical act, but a sort of profound capital-S Sitting. I’ve heard that use of the term before and it’s always somehow struck me as a tad pretentious, although I’m sure that’s not the intent. Walking meditation was also covered, with a lot of attention given to a formal practice focused on the motions of walking. I was a bit disappointed by this, as one of my favourite ways to be mindful is to walk outside and pay attention to the beauty of nature.
At the stress reduction clinic where the author practices, they have clients do an introductory 45-minute body scan while lying down. That’s fine if it works for them, but it’s a pretty serious commitment that I suspect the average person isn’t prepared to make.
There were some good suggestions, including trusting your own ability to reflect and grow, and being generous to yourself and others. Kabat-Zinn explained that it’s possible to find understanding and transformation in the present moment. He wrote, “You cannot escape yourself, try as you might”. A variety of metaphors were used to illustrate important concepts. Some of these seemed quite intuitive, such as you can’t stop the waves but you can learn to surf, and awareness is like a pot that is able to contain strong emotions. Other metaphors made less sense to me, like the idea that we are dancing mountains or that parenting is like an extended meditation retreat, with the child as the Zen master. The author also likened sitting with our breathing to sitting by an open fire back in the caveman days, which struck me as a bit of an connection.
At times, the book ventured into more obscure territory, which is where it really lost me. The author suggests contemplating “what is my Way?” as part of meditation practice, adding that “as a human being, you are the central figure in the universal hero’s mythic journey.” A quirk that irritated me slightly was Kabat-Zinn’s apparent love-on for Henry David Thoreau’s book Walden, which is quoted frequently. I’m not familiar with Walden, nor am I really sure why I’m supposed to care.
I probably would have viewed the book differently had I been looking for something heavily focused on formal meditation of the capital-s Sitting variety. However, that’s just not my preference for incorporating mindfulness into my everyday life. I’m not someone who has any desire to go to a silent meditation retreat; it’s just not how I want to approach my journey towards greater mindfulness.
I’ll leave you with this sentence from the afterword, which I think really captures the book as a whole:
Can we realize that wherever we go, there we are and that this “there” is always “here” and so requires at least acknowledgment and perhaps a degree of acceptance of what is, however it is, because it already is?
Wherever You Go There You Are is available on Amazon (affiliate link).