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This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Wherever You Go, There You Are" by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is mindfulness, according to Jon Kabat-Zinn? What does the practice of mindfulness require you to do?

Mindfulness is the subject of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s book Wherever You Go, There You Are. In the book, he claims that practicing mindfulness will improve your life and help you stay in the moment.

Keep reading to learn more about why Jon Kabat-Zinn thinks mindfulness is important.

What Is Mindfulness?

The language of mindfulness has become increasingly common in everyday vernacular. But what is mindfulness? Jon Kabat-Zinn says that mindfulness is the practice of noticing the present moment and observing it without judgment. Without mindfulness, he argues, many of us move through our day preoccupied with things that happened in the past, worried about things that might happen in the future, or simply caught up in the chaos of our own thoughts. By doing this, we fail to appreciate what’s happening right in front of us. 

(Shortform note: Kabat-Zinn uses the terms mindfulness and meditation interchangeably throughout the book. For the purposes of this guide, mindfulness will refer to the overarching practice of becoming aware of the present moment, while meditation will refer to structured mindfulness activities, namely the specific postures and visualizations discussed later on.)

Mindfulness is a tool to interrupt an otherwise habitual lack of awareness by offering the opportunity to pause and notice what’s going on around you and inside you. Kabat-Zinn clarifies that pausing (what he calls “non-doing”) shouldn’t be confused with doing nothing. When we do nothing, time often passes without our awareness; mindfulness, on the other hand, requires deliberate intention and awareness. We can pause when we’re standing still or in the midst of an activity. The key is paying attention to what’s happening and detaching yourself from the desire to control or change the present moment.

Kabat-Zinn emphasizes that the awareness required in mindfulness is different from thinking. Thinking is the flow of ideas and feelings inside your head, while mindfulness is the observation of those thoughts. So mindfulness isn’t about thinking differently or thinking less, but about stepping back from your thoughts to notice them. In stepping back from your thoughts, you prevent yourself from getting lost in your thinking. Instead you can observe your thoughts objectively and learn from them. 

Why Is Mindfulness So Hard to Describe?

In Mindfulness in Plain English, Buddhist Monk Bhante Gunaratana explains that it’s difficult to define mindfulness because it’s a presymbolic concept—that is, it’s an experiential state of awareness and attention that’s difficult to fully capture or convey through language or symbols. Gunaratana therefore attempts to describe mindfulness based on its characteristics. Mindfulness is characterized by:

  • Non-conceptual awareness (the awareness of something before it solidifies as a concrete thought)
  • Non-judgmental awareness (the acceptance of reality without assigning positive or negative attributes to that reality)
  • Present-mindedness (focus only on the present moment)
  • Detachment from self (an observation of reality without attachment to your own experience)

Gunaratana also offers guidance on how mindfulness feels. He explains that while our everyday thoughts can often feel heavy or burdensome, mindful awareness feels clearer, lighter, and more energizing.

How to Address Negative Thoughts

While the goal of mindfulness is to bring awareness to your thoughts without judging them or trying to change them, if you observe ongoing negative thought patterns that aren’t serving you, then it’s OK to try to shift your patterns of thinking. 

In Soundtracks, Jon Acuff suggests replacing negative thoughts with more positive ones. You can do this by actively interrupting negative thoughts as they occur. Next, replace the negative thoughts with positive ones. For example, if you’re a distance runner, and one of your negative thoughts is “I’ll never be able to run a marathon,” you can flip this thought upside-down and tell yourself “I have what it takes to go the distance.” Next, repeat the positive thought until you believe it and it becomes habitual. 
What Is Mindfulness? Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Solution to Stress

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Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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