Jon Kabat-Zinn
Hyperion: New York, 1994.
278 pp., $19.95 (cloth).

As founder and director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, Jon Kabat-Zinn teaches mindfulness meditation to housewives, plumbers, prison inmates, laundry workers, lawyers—a wide assortment of people. They come for better physical health, and get more.

Kabat-Zinn does what many Buddhist centers have been criticized for not doing. He offers mindfulness meditation to the people—to the masses—stripped of elitism. You don’t need lofty philosophical goals, spiritual hankering, or psychic angst to sit in Kabat-Zinn’s class. Most come in with plain old physical ailments or disease, among them chronic pain, cancer, AIDS.

Some in Buddhist circles have swatted at Kabat-Zinn, claiming his teaching turns Buddhist practice into a clinical technique. But Kabat-Zinn doesn’t claim to be a teacher of Buddhism. Instead he takes mindfulness practice out of the Buddhist context, teaching how it can be applied to reduce stress in any situation. In his first chapter, he says the relevance of this practice “has nothing to do with Buddhism per se.'”

Mindful inquiry, according to Kabat-Zinn, can heal low self esteem, which is really a wrong calculation, a misperception of reality in which

we take all our good qualities for granted, or fail to acknowledge them at all. Perhaps we get stuck in the often deep and still bleeding wounds of childhood, and forget or never discover that we have golden qualities too. We frequently persist in the habit of projecting onto others that they are okay and we are not. I balk when people project onto me this way.

From picking up his daughter to cleaning the stove, Kabat-Zinn soars when telling personal stories—and readers may find themselves wishing that there were more of them. In a poignant piece, he describes

the look of utter despair and silent pleading for me not to get angry etched into my daughter Naushon’s eleven-year-old face as I am getting out of the car at her friend’s house early one Sunday morning…I am caught up in an eddy of self-righteous indignation. My ‘I’ does not want to be kept waiting, to be taken advantage of.

Eventually, he remembers that “my passing mood state is far less important to me than her trust.”

A chapter called “Cleaning the Stove While Listening to Bobby McFerrin” describes how he loses himself and finds himself simultaneously while cleaning the kitchen stove. In a methodology reminiscent of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance he scrubs “every square inch of stove surface, favoring a circular motion in my whole body, no longer trying to clean the stove so it will look nice, only moving, moving, watching, watching as things change slowly before my eyes.”

Music sometimes adds to the experience: Kabat-Zinn’s one stove cleaning episode rises in a frenzy that “became dancing, the incantations, sounds, and rhythms and the movements of my body merging, blending together, sounds unfolding with motion….One big dance of presence, a celebration of now. And, at the end, a clean stove.”

Wherever You Go appears to be devoted to a mainstream audience. So, as Kabat-Zinn touches thousands of people through his work at the clinic, undoubtedly thousands of people will buy the book and read about meditation for the first time. In preparing a book for that purpose—working within these constraints—Kabat-Zinn has done well.

Leaning toward beginners in his introduction, Kabat-Zinn says meditation is “not some weird cryptic activity…does not involve becoming some kind of zombie, vegetable, self-absorbed narcissist, navel gazer, ‘space cadet,’ cultist, devotee, mystic, or Eastern philosopher.”

He assures the beginner, “You don’t have to be a Buddhist to practice it…A student once said, ‘When I was a Buddhist, it drove my parents and friends crazy, but when I am a Buddha, nobody is upset at all.'”

Chapters paced and rhythmic like breathing roll out in accessible, colloquial tones. For the most part they are short: one-, two-, or three-page essays. The longest is a six-page discussion of karma.

A tone of gentle encouragement marks many passages: “The breath is always right here, right under our noses. You would think just by chance we might have come across its usefulness.” And, like many good teachers, he wiggles a carrot on a stick: “But great adventures await you if you give yourself a little time to string the moments of awareness together, breath by breath.”

Kabat-Zinn’s effort to reach a wide audience may contribute to the book’s loose organization: it skips from meditation instructions to more dense material, and back again. But most often the author’s words offer a challenge to beginning meditators and long-time practitioners alike: “What looks like weakness is actually where your strength lies. And what looks like strength is often weakness, an attempt to cover up fear; this is an act or a facade, however convincing it might appear to others or even to yourself.”