You know those thoughts that run in continuous loops through your head? The ones where you’re replaying something that’s happened or imagining something that might?
You know, the ones you’re having all the time?
Well, guess what? Contrary to what most of us believe, those thoughts are not the same thing as reality. They’re just thoughts. They’re stories we tell ourselves about reality, stories that may not even be true. And the most important thing to know about them is that they’re keeping us from dealing with what is real in our lives.
But we can change this. We can consciously choose to live mindfully instead, which means putting our attention on what is actually happening right now. And, as explained in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Wherever You Go, There You Are, the way we learn to do this is through the practice of meditation.
According to Kabat-Zinn, many of us go through our days preoccupied, meaning we never quite are where we are. “We look for someplace else to stand,” he says, “where we hope things will be better, happier, more the way we want them to be, or the way they used to be.”
But there is no place else to stand. Whatever moment we’re in is the only one available to us, not the past and the not the future. So right now is the only place where our lives can get better. The only place where we can answer what Kabat-Zinn says is the most important question we face, “Now what?”
As Kabat-Zinn explains, mindfulness can “help us see that this path we call our life has direction; that it is always unfolding, moment by moment; and that what happens now, in this moment, influences what happens next.” His point is that we need to wake up and pay attention to these moments. Otherwise, we remain distracted, not fully participating in our lives, and “the days, months, and years go by unnoticed, unused, unappreciated.”
This book doesn’t require a commitment to begin a regular meditation practice, only a curiosity about how it works. It includes suggestions for incorporating aspects of mindfulness practice into our lives, labeled “Try.” For example, “Just watch this moment, without trying to change it at all. What is happening? What do you feel? What do you hear?”
That’s all it takes to begin.
It’s not about shutting out the world. It’s about seeing the world clearly. Things happen. We can’t change that. But we can change how we experience those things and what we do about them.
As Kabat-Zinn puts it, “We can’t stop the waves, but we can learn how to surf.”
As we move toward remaining aware in the present moment, we find we’re better able to go with the waves of life as they roll in and try to knock us down, instead of trying to fight them. We can accept that, just like the ocean, our lives aren’t meant to be endlessly placid. And we only make things worse for ourselves when we cling to the idea that they should be.
“Let things be as they are,” Kabat-Zinn says.
This isn’t surrender. It’s acceptance.
It’s letting go of our resistance to a radically simple truth: whatever is happening right now, is what is. When we accept this, we’re finally able to be with what is, instead of avoiding it or running away from it by creating our own personal version of what is or what should be, colored by our judgments and self-limiting beliefs.
This may be one of the most profound things we can do for ourselves.
There is no practice that has had a bigger influence on my personal growth than mindfulness meditation. This book got me started.
Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn is known for creating the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, which is now taught around the world. In this thoughtful, straightforward book he provides a more personal introduction to what he calls “the essence of mindfulness meditation and its applications.”
What he offers is nothing less than an opportunity for a better life.