Starting right in with my experience with this book, would leave out why this book, and later, mindfulness and meditation have been so important in my life, so let’s go back to Troy, New York. 1987.
I was a really anxious kid, and from what I can recall, anxiety had been a near constant companion starting around age 8. No one really knew how to help me. School was tremendously challenging both academically and socially. When I was 5, we moved to a neighborhood that was outside of a good (safe) school zone. I did however end up in a perfectly fine public elementary school, with plenty of nice kids, but I was an outsider of sorts, since we didn’t live anywhere near my classmates. As for my academic performance – that was a nightmare. I struggled with every subject besides gym class. Over and over I’d hear teachers tell me I wasn’t applying myself, and I needed to try harder. That message got sent home regularly, so my parents were also under this impression. Even at the age of 9 or so, I knew I was bright and capable, but I had no idea what the problem was. I could often understand conceptually what was going on in class, but I couldn’t actually do the work. I squeezed by every single quiz, test and homework assignment. Cheating became the norm, and it only added to my anxiety. More bad news continued to follow me home from school.
My parents grew concerned, and decided to bring me to a therapist who would eventually have me evaluated. I can vaguely remember the appointments, or the conversations and testing that went on in them, but I do recall this as a very confusing and stressful time. The evaluation looked to see if I had any psychiatric issues/mood disorders or learning disabilities. None were found. In fact, I scored high in a number of areas such as vocabulary and reasoning, so we left without any explanation as to why I was doing so poorly in school.
A few more years went by, and before I knew it, I was a teenager in a chaotic public middle school. Few places could have been worse for me. This is where all the inner city kids went – many of which came from poverty stricken neighborhoods plagued by drugs and violence. I’d never been exposed to an environment like this. My grades worsened and I eventually fell in with the wrong crew. Everyone wants to fit in somewhere, right? By this time, my parents were extremely frustrated with my academic performance. I did however thrive in athletics. I’d been playing hockey for about 4 years at this point, and I was playing at the highest level for my age group. It was really the only positive thing I had going on in life at that point. My parents did enjoy seeing me thrive here, but I eventually lost a year or two of hockey once they decided to tie my school performance to playing hockey. Once hockey was gone, I slid deeper into trouble, and my anxiety was at an all time high.
Next thing I know, I’m getting in fights, hanging out in the poverty stricken neighborhoods, and running from the cops. It wasn’t long before I found myself sentenced to 18 months in a boys home, aka “juvie”. 1991 in Albany, NY was brutal. I was removed from my home and placed in a facility among kids that had come from very different backgrounds than me. Before I ended up here, I’d only spent about 2 years hanging out in the ghetto. These kids were born and raised there. They were much tougher than I was. I was way out of my league. My anxiety was off the charts. Not only did I continue to struggle academically, but now I was struggling in the place I’d lay my head for the next 18 months. During this time I was more or less under a constant threat of violence. To this day, I still look back and wonder how the Lasalle School For Boys got away with such poor care. I did however persevere. I came out the other side terrified of getting in trouble, and only had a few more years left of cheating on tests. The good news was, I’d just spent the last 18 months learning how to manipulate things to get what I needed. I was just old enough to understand I needed to be smarter, and keep a lower profile, which is exactly what I did.
Once a few months had passed after getting out of the boys home, my anxiety had settled down significantly. I had ‘mastered’ school in a way that allowed me to get through with a different kind of smarts. My grades were slightly better, and I operated below the radar. Bad news from school wasn’t going home. All seemed more or less fine. The anxiety was mostly gone. Until it wasn’t.
Around 2001, I was attending a community college and was in a committed relationship. I still struggled academically, but I was putting a different type of smarts to use, and figured out a way to get keep my GPA around 2.8. The relationship was really good, and we got along well and had fun together. I was however experiencing some bouts of insecurity around different things, and before I knew it, the high levels of anxiety were back. Only this time, it was even more intense than it had ever been. It was debilitating.
Finally I started to talk about it with my girlfriend (who was supportive and kind), and then my family. My family members weren’t terribly helpful, or empathetic per se, but my brother did hand me a book when I told him of what I’d been going through. The book was called – Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn. It was about this concept called mindfulness that I’d never heard of before. I started thumbing through the pages, and while the descriptions of mindfulness didn’t eradicate the anxiety, I had a deeply profound understanding that what I was reading was of great importance, and I wanted to know more.
My brother ended up lending me the book, and I can recall reading each page extremely slowly. I savored every sentence. I’d never heard anything more true in my life. Nothing ever spoke to me on this level. I had no doubts in my mind that what I was reading was possible. The book didn’t speak about hope at all, but for some reason, it instilled a sense of hope in me that has carried me through the many tough years I’ve had in life. Knowing that this state of being that Jon Kabat-Zinn described was attainable was enough to keep my fire lit, and it’s still lit know, and glowing brighter with every month that passes.