Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn

Stop.

Take a deep breath in through your nose, and breathe out fully. How do you feel?

When we feel stressed or threatened, our hypothalamus releases stress hormones that make our heart pump faster and our muscles tense up. This “fight or flight” reaction is natural, but can be quite harmful when experienced in situations where there is no immediate danger.

Mindfulness – that entails meditation and being present in the moment – cannot cure the effects of stress. It can only help us to come to terms with what simply is, and to pay attention to where our stress comes from. Mindfulness helps us understand that we have no control over what’s happening to us, but we can decide how to react to it.

Key idea 1
Sit down comfortably and close your eyes. Think about your mind as the surface of an ocean. It’s vast and beautiful, and there are always waves on the water—some are small, some are big. Sometimes, those waves get churned up by the winds of stress and anxiety, and become very turbulent. Observe these waves. Look at them with curiosity while taking a deep breath. Watch how the ocean’s surface slowly calms down again, and in your own time, open your eyes.

Many people think that mindfulness aims at eradicating the waves on our mind’s surface in order to create calm and tranquility, but this belief couldn’t be further from the truth. All of us face obstacles in our lives over which we have little or no control – but that doesn’t mean we have to see ourselves as victims to the winds that agitate the big waves within our mind. Mindfulness meditation can help us find shelter and learn how to surf these waves.

Okay, all of this was a bit abstract and symbolic. Let’s explore the concept of mindfulness in more detail before we’re doing another practice together.

An ancient Buddhist practice, mindfulness is about overriding our automatic approach to life. We often do things unconsciously, without being fully present in the moment. Mindfulness can teach us how to pay attention to what’s happening right now, purposefully and non-judgmentally.

The cultivation of mindfulness and meditation are often confused with things like relaxation, stress relief, or self-development. However, mindfulness isn’t about aiming for a particular feeling, nor is it about getting somewhere or becoming a particular kind of person. It’s about emptying the mind, becoming still, and allowing ourselves to realize who and where we already are.

You can see it as a tool that helps us reunite with aspects of ourselves that we often overlook. When I started meditating, it opened up entirely new ways of existing, both in my own skin and in this world. It helped me realize the richness and possibility of the present moment, and led me to richer and deeper experiences of joy and happiness, but also difficult emotions like anger and fear.

Let’s take a closer look at how mindfulness and meditation can help you deal with such difficult emotions.

Key idea 2
Let’s stay with this feeling of frustration for a moment. Observe it. Where in your body do you feel it the strongest? Take a closer look inside. Once you think you got a hold of what you feel, ask yourself: What do these feelings of impatience and frustration want to tell me?

Patience and mindfulness are deeply connected. Patience means that you accept things as they are, that you realize events always unfold in their own good time. You cannot hurry spring to come or the grass to grow. Being in a hurry usually doesn’t help—in fact, it often ends up making things worse. (Think of that day when you were late for a meeting and spilled take-away coffee all over yourself because you bumped into someone whilst trying to catch the bus.)

You’re probably thinking: “That’s all well and good, but how do I actually manage my impatience and anger?” Let’s take an example from the life of the Dalai Lama.

Although the Chinese government committed horrendous acts of genocide against the Tibetan people, the Dalai Lama seems not to be angry with them. When asked about this, he responded: “They have taken everything from us; should I let them take my mind as well?” Instead of putting his energy toward feelings of anger, he uses it to promote understanding and patience.

Another quality that sets a strong foundation for mindfulness is generosity. All of us want to believe that we are generous, but are we really? Notice how you might resist the impulse to give—to share your love and excitement, to be open and vulnerable. We’re often held back from giving by an irrational fear of giving too much or reversely, not giving enough. We’re scared of rejection or our generosity going unappreciated.

Consider the possibility that none of these fears are actually true. By sharing your full attention, care, and trust with those around you, you will start to slowly transform and discover expanded versions of yourself. Generosity is something you should have for others and for yourself. Don’t wait for someone to ask, but initiate giving. Observe what it does to you and how it makes you feel.

And don’t forget: Be patient with yourself.

Key idea 3
Speaking of observing how you feel: Have you ever noticed that there is no running away from anything? That problems and difficulties will always catch up with you, no matter how much you want to escape them? If only you lived on a beautiful beach or had more money, your life would be happier… Think again. We often tend to look outward to find either the cause or the solution to our problems, because we are scared to take responsibility. But what if you accepted your reality, without trying to change it?

Meditation is not about self-improvement. In fact, that’s the opposite of being mindful. Mindfulness is about accepting life as it is, accepting yourself as you are.

Our modern culture is focused on doing. All of us are doing something all the time: we take lots of notes whilst listening to a presentation, we run from one meeting to another, respond to a friend’s text, do the laundry, cook dinner, watch TV, run some errands … But we leave very little room for us to just be. Rather than doing, begin shifting yourself into being mode. Let’s do a short meditation together, right now.

Either sit or lie down and, once in that position, think of yourself as timeless. Observe the present moment without trying to change anything. Engage your senses and focus on what you see, hear, feel, or on whatever is happening for you. Try to completely embrace and accept this moment.

Along with accepting the moment, voluntary simplicity is another valuable tool on your path to mindfulness. You can interpret voluntary simplicity as a kind of intentional single-tasking. It means slowing down, going fewer places in one day rather than more, doing less now so you can do more long-term, controlling less in order to live more. Try to only engage in one activity, or with one thought, at a time. If you’re having dinner with a friend, for instance, and you get a text. Why not deliberately ignore your phone and instead bring your full attention to enjoying the time with your friend?

It’s important not to confuse non-doing with doing nothing. Non-doing in the Buddhist sense means consciously stopping, with the intention of cultivating stillness and appreciation. It’s actually quite easy—you can do it right now. Before continuing, briefly stop. Put the phone aside, and become aware of your breathing. Don’t try to achieve anything, or change anything about your current experience. Just breathe and let be. Hit the pause button, take your time to stop for a couple of breaths, and when you’re back, we explore some profound effects that non-doing can have on your life.

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