I recently finished my second reading of “Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life,” by Jon Kabat-Zinn. I should note that, had I brought this book with me when I was abroad this past year, this probably would have been my third or fourth reading. As its title says, this book is about the difficult yet rewarding practice of mindfulness meditation. Simply put, mindfulness meditation is the practice of bringing one’s attention to the present moment. You can do this in many ways, though my favorite – and the way most talked about in this book – is by simply focusing on your breath.
As anyone who has tried mindfulness meditation (or any other form of meditation, for that matter) knows, this is much easier said than done. The author does a great job of not just breaking down mindfulness in an easy to understand way, but also giving a context for why you would even want to practice it. What I like most though, is that it doesn’t sugarcoat the subject. He explains that mindfulness meditation isn’t some instant fix for all of life’s problems. It’s an intensive, lifelong quest for more clarity and truth in your life; and the truth can often be deeply uncomfortable to face.
Instead of writing a traditional book review, I’m just going to offer three of my biggest takeaways from this book.
1) There is no “End Goal” in Mindfulness Meditation
When I first started meditating I viewed it just like any other skill you might try to develop. Having experimented with it, and experiencing a little of what some would call “presence,” I assumed that the goal of meditation was to reach a relaxed and focused state. But this goal-oriented mindset actually made meditation a somewhat grueling practice because I was often disappointed when I couldn’t reach that desired state. I started to view any meditation session that didn’t have a “good” result as a failure.
From what I’ve heard, this is one of the most common struggles “Westerners” face when it comes to meditation, and it’s completely understandable. I can’t think of anything I’ve done in my life that wasn’t meant to achieve some kind of result. In fact, the idea of doing something with no goal in mind almost seems insane, or at the very least a waste of time.
Yet, as this book repeatedly emphasizes, the whole purpose of meditation is to just BE in the moment. There is no ideal state to reach, no feeling that is supposed to be felt. Meditation, Kabat-Zinn writes, “is the only intentional, systematic human activity which at the bottom is about not trying to improve yourself or get anywhere else, but simply to realize where you already are.” He then goes on to say that meditation may be better described as “being” rather than “doing.”
So why meditate then? Well I can personally attest that meditation, while not meant to achieve anything, can provide plenty of benefits, such as a clearer state of mind, increased self-awareness, better moods, and improved concentration. But more important than any of that, meditation allows you to experience life in the most authentic way possible: in the present moment. Grounding yourself in the present moment may not be easy or pleasant all of the time, but I would argue that it’s the only way to truly live.
2) Staying with Uncomfortable or Even Painful Feelings/Moments
When most people think of meditation, they probably associate it with feelings of peace and happiness. These feelings can definitely be experienced with continued practice, but they are only superficial benefits. Using the analogy of our minds being like oceans and our thoughts waves, the author says, “People who don’t understand meditation think that it is some kind of special inner manipulation which will magically shut off these waves so that the mind’s surface will be flat, peaceful, and tranquil. But just as you can’t put a glass plate on the water to calm the waves, so you can’t artificially suppress the waves of your mind…”
He further emphasizes that meditation is not some quick fix for your problems in life. It’s a practice that requires you to fully face each moment, the good ones and the bad ones. This means not running away from painful emotions like sadness or anger. Meditation requires that you stay with those emotions, not reacting to them, but observing them instead.
One of the amazing benefits of this practice is that those “negative” feelings will often dissipate after a while. It’s like a paradox: by not trying to get rid of the feelings, they tend to get rid of themselves. Of course, this isn’t always true, and that’s part of what makes meditation such a challenge.
3) Non-Harming (Ahimsa)
I thought this part of the book was a nice break from all the talk about meditation and its challenges/benefits. It explains that ahimsa is a Sanskrit term which essentially means “not to injure.” We all know that it’s important to be kind to others. We also know that this is usually easier said than done. What I love about this idea of “non-harming” is that it frames kindness in a way that requires less effort from us. Instead of forcing yourself to be kind to someone, it’s a lot easier to ask yourself, “Am I doing someone harm right now?” If the answer is yes, then just stop what you’re doing. Of course, proactive kindness is always preferable. But I’ve found that trying to force yourself into action can create a lot of internal resistance.
Not doing harm to others or yourself may seem like an obvious idea – though often difficult to put into action – but this chapter also emphasizes that ahimsa applies just as much to how we treat ourselves. Starting from the awareness involved in mindfulness meditation, we can start to see that the thoughts in our heads often do even more harm to ourselves than to others. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, this is something I’ve always struggled with. Keeping ahimsa in mind has already helped me curb this tendency quite a bit.
If you resonated with any of these lessons, or are simply curious about mindfulness meditation in general, I definitely recommend you check out this book. There are plenty of other great lessons to be found in it as well.