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Thinking Out Loud

Mindful of Wisdom

by Michael Jinkins | Feb 21, 2017

MindfulnessSomeone coined the term "McMindfulness" to describe a pop version of Mindfulness, which promotes itself primarily as a relaxation tool. The term is apt not only for the superficial but also the counterfeit versions of Mindfulness that promise quick comfort and instant contentment when, in reality, they offer little more than the spiritual equivalent of a Happy Meal. I have raised concern about this superficial version of Mindfulness in previous blogs, as have other commentators. Recently, however, an essay in the New York Times encapsulated so well certain misconceptions of McMindfulness, in a supposed critique of Mindfulness, that I could not resist returning to the subject to differentiate the well-grounded practice from its popular imitations.

I do this in the same spirit in which I would raise concerns about any attempt to boil down into a few catchy slogans a rich faith tradition or a complex philosophy of life, or any attempt to dispose of such a faith or philosophy by constructing, then demolishing, a straw man in place of the real thing.

Any spiritual path worth pursuing requires a lot of time, much of it engaged in disciplined practice, reflection and, yes, study. As one philosopher has put it, "If something can be put in a nutshell, it probably belongs in one."

I decided to write this blog after reading an essay by Ruth Whippman titled, "Actually, Let's Not Be in the Moment," (New York Times, November 26, 2016). My immediate reaction (and that is the right word) to the essay was frustration and irritation. I thought, how dare she blithely dismiss as a pursuit of the privileged a path toward compassion, peace and justice that has been nurtured for centuries by some of the greatest spiritual teachers in history, from the Buddha to the Dalai Lama and Thich Nhat Hanh. But, precisely because my dander was up, I thought I should set the column aside until I could approach it more appropriately, realizing that the ideas in it came from a real person and that I need to respect her and hear her with compassion and empathy.

In fact, upon reading her critique, while I still disagreed with many of her thoughts, I did find a combination of concerns that have been raised in the community of Mindfulness practitioners about the dangers, especially in cultures like ours, of Mindfulness becoming the preserve of people wealthy enough to attend high-end seminars and retreats. It is even possible that we might use our spiritual pursuits as a substitute for dealing with social injustice, though to do so violates the heart of these practices.

The author's point that "Americans now spend an estimated $4 billion each year on 'mindfulness products'” is worth making, even if many religious leaders, counsellors, educators and other practitioners are working very hard to make Mindfulness available to children and adults in economically impoverished communities. And they are doing this to equip people better to deal with life, not as a substitute for dealing with the economic and educational inequities of society. There is no doubt but that "a healthy scoop of moralizing smugness" (Whippman's excellent phrase) can accompany practitioners of Mindfulness who watch in amazement as someone blows up at a store clerk for making an error or worries herself sick over a relatively inconsequential problem. If Mindfulness teaches us anything, however, it teaches us not to judge ourselves or others, a spiritual precept much harder to practice than to preach. Indeed, on revisiting the essay, I wish to express my gratitude to its author for pointing out my own lack of skillfulness in my practice and for encouraging me to clarify certain aspects of Mindfulness practice.

Contrary to the comments of the Times columnist, Mindfulness is not a practice for easing the tensions of the privileged classes. If we allow it to become this, we have missed a great opportunity to fulfill one of our most sacred of vows and vital of aspirations: to do all we can to alleviate the suffering of the world. Mindfulness is a practice designed to teach human beings to come to terms with the persistent disappointments of existence while inhabiting their own lives more skillfully and compassionately for the sake of others. The habits cultivated in the practice of bringing ourselves to attend to the present moment are more like calisthenics for the mind than anything else I can think of. As Shantideva, the eighth-century author of the classic The Way of the Bodhisattva, once wrote, "Putting up with little cares, I'll train myself to bear great adversity." (Quoted in Pema Chodron’s, Living Beautifully with Uncertainty and Change, Shambhala Publications, 2012, p. 58)

On some occasions. It may relieve worry. And it may help reduce stress. Sometimes. But more often than not, the practice of Mindfulness is simply hard work that requires a great deal of discipline. Its rewards are not simply stated nor quickly won. Its origins lie not in the leafy, well-manicured neighborhoods of a wealthy North American city, but amid the dust, disease and wrenching poverty of the subcontinent of India. Its spread throughout Eastern Asia from Tibet to China to Japan, and its enduring influence for millennia among thousands upon thousands of adherents, are the result of how well it speaks to the core human problem of suffering.

Through a practice in which one sets aside time for formal Mindfulness meditation, as well as through informal moments for Mindfulness throughout the day, one learns (to paraphrase a well-known saying of the Buddha) to master your own mind so that it does not master you. One learns to pay attention to what one is doing now, to what is happening in life at this precise moment and to the people with whom one is living and working. One learns to be attentive without condemning. One learns to let go of the past with its regrets and guilt, and not to fixate on the future with its anxiety and worry. One learns to live fully in the present moment because, as Thich Nhat Hahn has said, "Only the present moment is real.”

Mindfulness practice teaches one how to show up for one's own life. We learn to pause inside ourselves, even in the midst of a tense or conflicted and confusing situation, to listen deeply and sympathetically to others, to hear their perspectives generously, to understand and sympathize with the source of their suffering, rather than merely existing in a perpetual posture of reactivity or defensiveness.

Through Mindfulness we become more conscious of the hidden drives and compulsions which prevent us from paying attention to life as it is happening. It also trains us to discern the judgmental tendencies that undercut our own best efforts and may cause us to prejudice our experience of other people. Learning to accept our experience without being judgmental not only frees us to encounter ourselves more honestly and graciously, but to meet other people with as little bias as possible, even if the other person is so very "other," so seemingly alien to us, that we would tend to dismiss or condemn them out of hand.

Mindfulness allows us to experience our feelings like boredom, anger, fear, and frustration, and to experience our distractions merely as feelings and distractions without placing moralizing or dramatic stories onto these experiences, realizing that all feelings pass, unless, of course, we cling to them and fuel them with our narratives. Mindfulness, in other words, frees us to live this life, not the one we dread, not the one we regret, but this one. As Jack Kornfield has put it succinctly, the practice of Mindfulness teaches us to "be here now."

The goal of Mindfulness is not merely relaxation, happiness or contentment, as I said earlier, though these can sometimes be nice side effects. Rather, the ultimate purpose of Mindfulness is to provide an inner-space of detachment so that we can act with compassion, justice and peace. Through Mindfulness, one seeks enlightenment and awakening.

I am certainly not saying that one must become a Buddhist in order to practice Mindfulness meditation and Mindful consciousness deeply and truly. But surely respect is in order for the worldview, the social and historical, and the intellectual and spiritual context that gave rise to this practice and that continues to inform it. This means, at least in part, taking seriously teachings of Buddhism such as the Four Noble Truths. It may even mean learning from the vows many practitioners of Mindfulness take, such as the commitment not to cause harm (Pratimoksha); the promise to relieve suffering in the world (Bodhisattva); and the vow to remain open to the world as it is (Samaya). Respecting the philosophical world from which Mindfulness practice comes means entertaining seriously insights of this tradition, such as the idea that the source of suffering is our resistance to the reality of life, the fact that change is a constant and impermanence is fundamental to existence, and that change and impermanence are not things to deny and avoid but to embrace. It certainly means that we not dismiss such ideas with a few stereotypes and a couple of clever phrases, even if they are very different from our usual way of seeing the world. (See, for example, chapter six, “The Essence of Buddha's Teaching," in Thich Nhat Hanh's book, You Are Here, Shambhala, 2010, pp. 103-131).

What often surprises persons of faith other than Buddhism (especially many of us from Christian and Jewish traditions) is the deep resonance between wisdom or sapiential traditions which exist even though particular faiths may differ dramatically in what we might describe as their "belief systems." Thus, while the beliefs of Protestant, Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christianity and the beliefs of various streams of Judaism and the beliefs of different branches of Buddhism (and I might add, the beliefs of classical Stoicism) each developed in response to very different perceptions of the problem and predicament of human existence, and each produced complex belief systems to make sense of these predicaments and problems and their solutions, there are often deep commonalities in the human wisdom that gave rise to the beliefs, and that this wisdom is often sustained in the practices of these ways of life.

The wisdom that lies behind and is contained within the way of Mindfulness has its roots in a serious philosophy and psychology, however one may regard the various religious rites, ceremonies and beliefs that grew up with and around these. Mindfulness is about sanity, humanity and wholeness (as is so much of the message of Jesus of Nazareth, the wisdom of the Hebrew Scriptures and the writings of ancient philosophers such as Epictetus). And these ways of wisdom are gifts whatever our socio-economic status or our "home" faith tradition, whether one is among the many, many Buddhist practitioners around the globe whose families get by weekly on less than most of us spend in a single visit to Starbucks, or one is among a more affluent social group, privileged and worried by trials that most people in the world would give most anything to "suffer."

There may be many motivations for a person to try Mindfulness meditation. Some people do indeed start out just trying to relieve stress, anxiety and worry, just as some people may try Christianity to relieve their guilt, or Stoicism to get through a rough patch in life, or Jewish faith in order to connect again with their core religious identity. But the rewards of all these ways of wisdom, life, salvation and enlightenment lie not at the end of a weekend retreat, but along the way of a long, long discipline in which we seek not "what works for a moment" or "provides a new topic of conversation," but "what is true and lasting." Because we know, ultimately, the truth will set us free.

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