I was expecting good things from Wherever You Go There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn. He is the developer of mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) therapy, and a founding director of the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. This book was a best-seller, yet 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 was laid out in a way that aimed to provide quick and easy access to the fundamentals of mindfulness meditation, with the message that anyone can meditate. However, for me the book didn’t live up to the goal of making mindfulness meditation more accessible, and to be honest I was very tempted to give up partway through.
The book was more focused on formal meditation practice than I was expecting. The author writes about sitting to meditate not simply as the physical act of sitting but as a sort of profound capital-S Sitting. I’ve heard that use of the term before and it has always somehow struck me as a tad pretentious. Walking meditation was also covered, with a lot of attention given to a formal practice that involves walking back and forth focusing on the motions of walking. I was disappointed by this, as one of my favourite ways to be mindful is to go out for walks and pay attention to the many small beauties of nature. At the stress reduction clinic where the the author practices, they have clients do an introduction to lying meditation that involves a 45 minute body scan while lying down, which is fine, but I don’t think that it’s something that’s necessarily a draw for people who aren’t wanting to make a considerable commitment to formal meditation practice.
There were some very good suggestions, including trusting your own ability to reflect and grow and being generous to yourself and others. Kabat-Zinn explains 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 that 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. He also likened sitting with our breathing to sitting by an open fire back in the caveman days.
At times the book tends to venture into more obscure territory, and this is where it really lost me. The author suggests contemplating “what is my Way?” as part of meditation practice, and adds that “as a human being, you are the central figure in the universal hero’s mythic journey.” A quirk that irritated me slightly was his apparent love-on for Henry David Thoreau’s book Walden, which is quoted frequently. I’m not familiar with that book, and am really not sure why I’m supposed to care about it.
I think my view on the book would have been different had I been looking for something heavily focused on formal meditation. However, that’s just not the way that I’m wanting to incorporate mindfulness into my everyday life. I’m not someone who has any desire to go to a silent meditation retreat; that’s not how I choose to go about my inwardly and outwardly mindful journey.
I will 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?”
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