After my initial exposure to vipassana practice, I used to meditate secretly when visiting my family so as not to upset them. Each retreat I signed up for seemed to stir up confusion and anxiety in my parents. “What’s happening to our son? Another retreat!?” “Didn’t you get it last time?” they would ask. I would have loved to give them a book devoid of Buddhist jargon that could explain practically, cogently and convincingly the value of meditation practice. Twenty years later this book now exists.
Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn is a wonderful offering that makes mindfulness practice accessible to the neophyte and also reminds more experienced practitioners of the value of being present for our lives. Kabat-Zinn, who was featured in Bill Moyers’ Healing and The Mind PBS television series and book, is the founder and director of the highly successful Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. Since 1979 he has trained health professionals, judges, athletes and priests in mindfulness practice and has established thriving programs for bringing mindfulness to inner city residents and prison inmates (see Inquiring Mind, Fall ’93, vol.10, no.1).
Kabat-Zinn believes that everyone can, and is ready to, meditate if they understand in simple terms why and how to do it.
Meditation really is about human development. It is a natural extension of cutting teeth, growing an adult-sized body, working and making things happen in the world, raising a family, going into debt of one kind or another (even if only to yourself through bargains that imprison the soul), and realizing that you too will grow old and die. At some time or another, you are practically forced to sit down and contemplate your life and question who you are and where the meaning lies in the journey of life…your life.
Kabat-Zinn’s enthusiasm for practice grabs the reader’s attention, challenging us to wake up. His particular gift is to present dharma as both contemporary and timeless. He draws heavily on diverse non-Buddhist Western minds such as Thoreau, Martha Graham, Steve Allen, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Black Elk, Emerson and John Steinbeck. Quotations from these westerners are interwoven with others from classical eastern thinkers such as Dogen, Lao-tzu, Basho and Chuang-tzu. The result is what Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama have been urging Americans to create: a truly American dharma.
Written in a down-to-earth style, in short, easy-to-read chapters sprinkled with stories and poems, this book addresses the essentials of formal and informal mindfulness practice.
Guided meditation tapes are available as a companion to the book, so that anyone can get started regardless of how tentative they feel about meditating.
Wherever You Go, There You Are looks at all areas of our lives as practice. Married and father of three, Kabat-Zinn describes the the practice of parenting:
You could look at each baby as a little Buddha or Zen master, your own private mindfulness teacher, parachuted into your life, whose presence and actions were guaranteed to push every button and challenge every belief and limit you had, giving you continual opportunities to see where you were attached to something and to let go of it.
Kabat-Zinn purposely stays away from what may be considered spiritual trappings. Buddhist philosophy, language and concepts are minimized. Terms like the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-Fold Path are not used. In a chapter entitled “Is Mindfulness Spiritual?” he writes:
As much as I can, I avoid using the word “spiritual” altogether….The concept of spirituality can narrow our thinking rather than extend it. All too commonly, some things are thought of as spiritual while others are excluded. Is science spiritual? Are dogs spiritual? Is the body spiritual? Is the mind spiritual? Is childbirth? Is eating? … Obviously, it all depends on how you encounter it, how you hold it in awareness.
Mindfulness allows everything to shine with the luminosity that the word “spiritual” is meant to connote…Perhaps ultimately, spiritual simply means experiencing wholeness and interconnectedness directly, a seeing that individuality and the totality are interwoven, that nothing is separate or extraneous. If you see it this way, then everything becomes spiritual in its deepest sense.
Kabat-Zinn’s attitude towards the “spiritual,” as well as his approach toward Buddhism, may concern some who fear that when the teachings are popularized, the essence of the Buddha’s message is being abandoned. As a dharma teacher, I certainly would cringe at the thought that the possibility of awakening might be lost as the teachings find a larger audience. I don’t see that happening, however. Many people may be motivated to investigate mindfulness as a way to reduce stress who are not interested in exploring the spiritual teachings. Yet the practice itself can lead to deeper philosophical inquiry.
There is a story from the time of the Buddha about a monk who was having difficulty remembering all the rules and lists that bhikkus are supposed to learn. The Buddha realized that this man was so frustrated that he was ready to leave the order. So the Buddha asked the monk if he could remember just one rule. The monk, very relieved, said he could. The Buddha told him that the only rule he needed to remember was to be mindful. All the rest of the teachings would be revealed if he could stay with that task.
As we learn to slow down, to listen with honesty and to be present for our lives, seeds are planted. These practices can move us toward seeing the cause of suffering and the path toward inner peace. Jon Kabat-Zinn is a master plowman who will plant the seeds of dharma in the hearts of many through Wherever You Go, There You Are.