One City

One City

The Comfort of Wherever You Are

by Stillman Brown

I wasn’t able to make it to last night’s Heartcore Dharma class on “Aspiring and Entering Bodhicitta,” so I thought I’d blog about something more personal. Several weeks ago, the partner of a good friend of mine was diagnosed with Stage II breast cancer. It was a shock. She is 26, has no family history, eats well, manages her stress, and gets to the gym more than most people. As my buddy, who is from rural Pennsylvania, put it, “I was raised to do the right thing, save my money, not drink too much, follow the rules. Go to school, go to college, get mediocre grades and get a job. If you followed the rules, you’d be safe from this kind of thing. But it’s simply not true.”

It was heartbreaking to hear him say that. It’s a bitter pill to swallow so young, just as you’re embarking on career and making a life with your partner. But I was also proud of him, because, over the phone, I could hear him grappling with the essential impermanence of life, that sickening feeling of uncertainty that, if we’re honest, is ever-present underneath the narratives we construct to feel safe and insulated.
Sitting at my desk in Brooklyn, he probably sitting at his in Los Angeles, I felt helpless.

There was nothing I could do but listen, ask questions, and try feebly to send my sorrow and hopefulness through the phone. I offered to come out and wash the dishes and walk the dog – be helpful, instead of just another concerned friend who’s own emotions had to be managed. It still felt inadequate. 

His crisis put me in mind of my own a few years ago: I had just transferred to New York University and was living in the vertical freneticism of the city by myself. I didn’t know anyone, school was difficult, and I was experiencing deep upheaval at home. I wasn’t sleeping or doing my class work, and I was surviving on tuna melts and Doritos from the deli on the corner. My apartment was across from the New York State Criminal Courts building, and every morning on my way to campus I would pass busloads of intense, hard-looking men in shackles. I felt improbably connected to them.
Then, after eight hard months, a friend gave me John Kabat-Zinn’s Wherever You Go There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life, saying, “I think you’ll find this useful.” I read the introduction and felt an immediate connection with the gentleness of his teaching and his insight. From the first page:

By lost, I mean that we momentarily lose touch with ourselves and with the full extent of our possibilities. Instead, we fall into a robotlike way of seeing and thinking and doing. In those moments, we break contact with what is deepest in ourselves and affords us perhaps our greatest opportunities for creativity, learning, and growing. If we are not careful, those clouded moments can stretch out and become most of our lives.


Wherever You Go There You Are was my introduction to mindfulness and meditation, and set me on the path I follow today. Meditation gave me a toe-hold of awareness, a fighting chance to understand and weather the crisis in my life. 

Sitting at my desk, worrying about my friend and his partner and feeling ineffectual, I decided to get on and send him a copy of Wherever You Go. Maybe he wouldn’t connect with it, but it’s quiet wisdom helped me in crisis. Maybe it can do the same for him.

For the community: Do you have any suggestions for a book on mindfulness and illness? It’s for folks who’ve been to a yoga class, but never meditated before, so not too esoteric.

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Jeremy Meyers

posted September 29, 2009 at 12:50 pm

Helping someone get onto a path is the best thing a friend can do. Giving this kind of help is so powerful. I think you did the right thing.
I’ve been doing similarly with people in my life, though the book I’ve chosen to share is Tara Brach’s Radical Acceptance: Embracing Your Life With the Heart of a Buddha. She quotes John quite a bit within it, but that is the one that particularly resonated with me.
Good work!

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posted September 29, 2009 at 12:56 pm

Thinking of your friends, and you. This post gave me a little chill of recognition. I once saw a sign at a cafe in grad school that said something like “Do your best, and the worst won’t happen!”. If only it were that straightforward. Thanks for posting. Be well.

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posted September 29, 2009 at 1:18 pm

I like Sharon Cameron’s Beautiful Work: A Meditation on Pain. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000) quite a bit. I’ve taught this book in a seminar on affect and the body. You can read about here:

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Jaime McLeod

posted September 29, 2009 at 3:26 pm

For a friend going through a painful divorce after many years of marriage, I recently recommended Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart.
Your friends are in my thoughts.

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posted September 29, 2009 at 4:39 pm

I often turn to Pema Chodron’s When Things Fall Apart as well, but I am interested to hear others’ recommendations on readings in times of grief.
Thank you for the post. Just a few hours ago, I heard news of the death of a friend’s fiancee. He would have been 28 in 13 days, marri­ed in 5 month­s, and ordai­ned as a rabbi in 8 months. This followed on the heels of news yesterday that my own Great Aunt passed on, at the age of 99 1/2 years old. To lose two such incredible individuals on Yom Kippur – the Jewish Day of Atonement, when one places unbridled attention on the story of who shall live and who shall die – has been almost unbearable to those who loved them. There is no reason why my friend should have lost the love of her life a mere 32 days after buying the gown she would wear to make vows of “until death do us part”. I do not know that Buddhist thought and meditations are the tools she would turn to in these times, but I am certainly interested in whatever texts are out there that can help me accept the comforts of wherever I am.

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Sarah C

posted September 29, 2009 at 4:47 pm

I’m really touched by your post and wish the best for your friends. During a difficult time like this it can be hard for some people to focus enough to read a book, particularly about a new topic. Audiobooks, particularly in the voice of the author/teacher, helped me tremendously in a period of deep suffering…for me it was Pema Chodron’s “Getting Unstuck”, Sharon Salzberg’s “Lovingkindness” and a Thich Naht Hanh book….I listened to them over and over, drinking in the wisdom and compassion of their voices as well as their words. So, my suggestion is when you settle on a book or books, consider making one of them an audiobook. I know iTunes allows you to gift a book, other sources may too.

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Laura Mae Noble

posted September 29, 2009 at 4:53 pm

Thanks, Stillman. I thought of one book, Man’s Search for Meaning, by Viktor Frankl. I’m not sure it would be perfect for this occasion, but it is a wonderful, short book about being present through difficult times. It is beautiful.
I wish you and your friends all the very best.

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posted October 5, 2009 at 12:51 pm

Thanks to everyone for their recommendations and kind wishes. I’m amazed by the strength of people in adversity. I’ll think about giving my friends Pema’s book on audio.
An update: my buddy emailed me to say he received Wherever You Go and dove right in to it. This is remarkable for a couple reasons: 1) He’s a professional video editor and entrepreneur, and he doesn’t read. Like, just doesn’t. 2) He’s a commonsensical, skeptical guy, but doesn’t find Kabat-Zinn to be too New Agey. I’m happy!

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