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Wherever You Go There You Are

Wherever You Go There You Are, by Jon Kabat-Zinn is a good book explaining one man’s view of meditation…

{Note: this article was originally published here on Elephant Journal}


 Meditation can be as simple as you like. Basically, we know meditation is all about clearing our mind for a time. It’s hard to not think about anything. So, we search for some guidance. Zinn’s book “Wherever You Go There You Are” satisfies me as a well-written, knowledgable guide to understanding and practicing by a degreed MD practitioner who happens to be a clear thinker and writer, too.

The book is divided into three sections: “The Bloom of the Present Moment”, “The Heart of Practice”, and “In the Spirit of Mindfulness”.  “The Bloom of the Present Moment” is Zinn’s explanation of meditation and some background.  “The Heart of Practice” talks about how to meditate.  “In the Spirit of Mindfulness” goes deeper in its exploration of what meditation is and its uses.

Zinn is an excellent writer. He uses simple words, concise statements and stays on point. Each chapter is a couple of pages. This is a book that takes the average reader about five hours to read. Zinn is a practitioner. He works in a clinic devoted to psychological issues. He’s writing from a perspective of years of experience.

Zinn includes quotes and reflections from students and timeless thinkers, both contemporary and ancient. For example, “New Yorker cartoon: Two Zen Monks in robes and shaved heads, one young, one old, sitting side by side cross-legged on the floor. The younger one is looking somewhat quizzically at the older one, who is turned toward him and saying ‘Nothing happens next. This is it’ ”

Another example is from Wu-men: “If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things, This is the best season of your life.”

Very often, Zinn’s chapters end with a “Try” section, which are little exercises that help you understand his points by doing something. For example “Try: Staying with one full inbreath as it comes in, one full outbreath as it goes out, keeping your mind free for just this moment, just this breath. Abandon all ideas of getting somewhere or having anything happen. Just keep returning to the breath when the mind wanders, stringing moments of mindfulness together, breath by breath. Try it every once in a while while you read this book.”

Here’s another example of a quote. This one’s from Kabir, one of Zinn’s favorites. “Kabir says: Student, tell me, what is God? He is the breath inside the breath.”

Zinn loves Thoreau and “Walden”. There are probably more quotes from Thoreau’s “Walden” than any other.

Here’s a statement Zinn quotes from Chuang Tzu that particularly aids understanding:

Prince Wen Hui’s cook

Was cutting up an ox.

Out went a hand,

Down went a shoulder,

He planted a foot,

He pressed a knee,

The ox fell apart

With a whisper,

The bright cleaver murmured

Like a gentle wind.

Rhythm!  Timing!

Like a sacred dance,

Like “The Mulberry Grove,”

Like ancient harmonies!

“Good work!” the Prince exclaimed,

“Your method is faultless!”

“Method?” said the cook

Laying down his cleaver,

“What I follow is Tao

Beyond all methods!

“When I first began

To cut up oxen

I would see before me

The whole ox

All in one mass.

After three years

I no longer saw this mass

I saw distinctions.
“But all I see now is nothing

With the eye.

My whole being


My senses are idle. The spirit

Free to work without plan

Follows its own instinct

Guided by a natural line,

By the secret opening, the hidden space,

My own cleaver finds its own way.

I cut through no joint, chop no bone.

“There are spaces in the joints;

The blade is thin and keen:

When this thinness

Finds that space

There is all the room you need!

It goes like a breeze!

Hence I have this cleaver nineteen years

As if newly sharpened!

“True, there are sometimes

Tough joints. I feel them coming,

I slow down, I watch closely,

Hold back, barely move the blade,

And whump! the part falls away

Landing like a clod of earth,
“Then I withdraw the blade,

I stand still

And let the joy of the work

Sink in.

I clean the blade

And put it away.”

Prince Wen Hui said,

“This is it! My cook has shown me

How I ought to live

My own life!”

Chuang Tzu

You can read Zinn’s writing and then look up the writers he quotes. That opens more doors.

Another part of the book that answers a common question discusses how long to meditate. “Q: Dr. Kabat-Zinn, how long should I meditate? A: How should I know?” Kabat discusses the concept of time and offers suggestions, basically that he has his patients meditate for 45 minutes at a time. He realizes that clinical settings and “in-patients” have different needs than people in everyday life. He takes into account that your surroundings may make it hard to sit 45 minutes. He suggests just trying to meditate, perhaps 5 minutes.

We have a tendency sometimes to study and not do. Anybody can try meditation for 5 minutes. And, anybody reading Zinn’s book can get in a few good attempts while reading it.

I did, and my whole concept of meditation changed as a result.

Very often, a book leaves you craving more. This one did it for me. I’ve already gone back and reread a lot of it several times. In fact, I went so far as to take it back to the library and instead, changed my mind and renewed it. I loved it. Hope you do, too.

If you have a sec, I’d love to hear anything you have to say about meditation. Have you read Zinn’s “Wherever You Go There You Are”? Did you like it? What did you learn from it? Were there things he said that you agreed with, not knowing before? Were there things in the book you disagreed with? Do you have anything to add? Were you a practitioner of meditation before you read Zinn’s book? Did it open new doors for you? Have you read any of the writers Zinn quotes? Did they have a particular impact on you and your practice? Do you know of writers that are similar to the ancient ones Zinn quotes, like Kabir, that we’d enjoy? Have you read anything else by Zinn? Have you read Zinn’s “Full Catastrophe Living”? If so, what did you think about it? Anything you have to add would be most appreciated. All the best to you! /m

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Replies to This Discussion

So, a useful comment I got on another page regarding this article was from Sawdatou Wane, who said "Thanks for sharing. I really enjoyed his session on Mindfulness. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3nwwKbM_vJc " What a gift!
Another comment I got elsewhere said "I really enjoyed the book Real Happiness by Sharon Salzberg. It a very simple meditation book that sparked me to start sitting."

Hi, Michael. I enjoyed Zinn's book. But as a practical guide to meditation, I find this one more useful, for me at least: 

'Effortless Wellbeing”: Meditation as Everyday Life

But the two are entirely compatible. They just approach it from different angles. 

Bob Weisenberg (from the Elephant Journal article comments)



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