Mindfulness Matters

Mindfulness Matters

“We are human beings who take form through an impetus to joy, interest, and concern”

posted by exquisitemind

A recent New York Times Blog by Judith Warner describes the author’s journey into mindfulness (http://warner.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/03/05/the-worst-buddhist-in-the-world/). The initial reaction of her husband was “I never thought that you, of all people, would get into that New Age stuff,”  That’s funny, Pema Chodron, whose work she is reading seems decidedly old age — 2500 years to be exact. The author describes the disorienting and perhaps even alienating effect when people around suddenly become less reactive — a consequence of embracing mindfulness practice. She notes this in one of her friends and sees it in herself interacting with an old friend. She cautions that mindfulness can be an extreme form of solipsism. I agree and I disagree. Americans often misappropriate mindfulness practice into something that becomes self-absorbed, but this is not inherent to the practice or the wisdom tradition from which it is derived. Mindfulness made significant mention in a special health issue of U.S. News and World Report. The work of Jon Kabat-Zinn and the Center for Mindfulness were featured, as well as the brain research of Richard Davidson in Madison. The cover image of the article shows a blissed out corporate woman sitting with her hands in mudra (ancient yoga-like postures for the hands). This is a stereotyped image of mindfulness and meditation in general. It suggests tranquility, transcendence, bliss, other-worldliness. And as with all stereotypes, the image is misleading and inaccurate. Transcendent piety is a caricature of mindfulness, cobbled from Buddhist images and through the marketing of meditation. We must be careful that such non-reactivity is authentic and not just our ego’s way of taking control of the situation. If we identify with the role of mindfulness we are missing the point. I tell my students that they will be more themselves rather then less if they travel this path. Transcendental piety could be evidence of what Chogyam Trunpga called spiritual materialism.
Judith Warner continues, “People who are embarked on this particular “journey of self-exploration,” tend to want to talk, or write, about it. A lot. But what they don’t realize — because they’re so in the moment, caught in the wonder and fascination and totality of their self-experience — is that their stories are like dream sequences in movies, or college students’ journal entries, or the excited accounts your children bring you of absolutely hilarious moments in cartoons — you really do have to be the one who’s been there to tolerate it.” I certainly have read such tracts, and have written my book Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness (http://108metaphors.com) as a reaction against this style. I’m not sure Warner has gotten beyond the cultural role of mindfulness. Mindfulness is rather ordinary. At its simplest, it represents a process of getting to know ourselves, becoming intimate with our experience, as the teacher Larry Rosenberg points out. It is not about getting beyond ourselves; it is, rather, being ourselves more completely. I discuss this issue in one of the chapters in Wild Chickens when I quote Thoreau, “Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes, and not rather a new wearer of clothes.”  Mindfulness is a matter-of-fact orientation to experience that is native and accessible to all. What people often talk and write about and sometimes act out is that caricature of mindfulness. And if this is ego-laden then it isn’t authentic mindfulness.
Warner, I think, misses the point when she say, “For the truth is, however admirable mindfulness may be, however much peace, grounding, stability and self-acceptance it can bring, as an experience to be shared, it’s stultifyingly boring.” I don’t get this. If mindfulness leads us to equanimity (e.g., peace, grounding, stability, self-acceptance) it can’t be boring. Equanimity is a translation of the Pali uppheka that can also be rendered as interest. We become keenly interested in what happens, even when that happening is quotidian. Mindfulness is a pervasive and permanent cure for boredom because this moment is always interesting no matter what is happening.
Warner cautions, “I’ve also come to wonder if something desirably human is being lost in all this new and improved selfhood. That is to say: an edge. That little bit of raggedness that for some of us is really the heart of what makes us human.” Would that mindfulness practice could smooth all these edges. The limerence of practice may suppress these edges but doesn’t remove them. Ram Dass lamented that after many decades of practice he still had the same neuroses. We don’t lose our edges, we just learn to manage them better — in ways that are less self-destructive and less harmful to others. “We are human beings who take form though an impetus to  joy, interest, and concern.” This is what I tell my students when they fear losing themselves and becoming mindful zombies — falling into the same misconception as Warner. When we move on the path of mindfulness we learn to strip away the conditionings that make us reactive and habitual. In the space created, we can then move towards experience based on joy, interest, and concern for other living beings and the environment in which we live. We can become unencumbered in this way, and what would be wrong with that?

It’s a new day

posted by exquisitemind

It’s hard not to get caught up in the enthusiasm of the inauguration. People are excited and who can blame us? Obama is an orator who inspires us with invitations to the best parts of ourselves. People were queued up outside of Nectar’s (the famed Phish bar) for an inauguration party and the desire to see Obama’s inauguration speech. Millions gathered to be part of history. Obama’s speech was a call to action: ”Starting today, we must pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and begin again the work of remaking America.” This invitation sounds like an invitation to mindfulness. One of the metaphors in Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness talks about falling down. If we can embrace a child-like enthusiasm, as if we were learning to walk, this getting up off the ground can be done in a matter-of-fact, if not a joyful way. We don’t spend our mental energy bemoaning the fact that we have fallen, we don’t berate ourselves for being clumsy. We act in the moment. We move confidently into the future when our attention is trained on this present. Obama concludes with the invitation: ”With hope and virtue, let us brave once more the icy currents, and endure what storms may come.” He invites us to embrace adversity with equanimity, and once again the challenge is to be in the present moment. If the current is icy, we will be cold; if a storm hits we will get wet. To be effective we can’t shy away from these ever-present realities, nor can we complain about them. Instead we engage the present with mindfulness. The metaphors in Wild Chickens provides the tools to make this happen. The book and the wisdom tradition it represents teaches the skills to keep our attention in the present, to scale back our complaining about a difficult present moment or shying away from it. They allow us to move effectively into the present to act, and to do so in ways that don’t cause further harm. We are challenged to move from the excitement of this historical day to embrace our new President’s call to action.

Wild Chickens in Uncertain Times

posted by exquisitemind
The current economic challenges we confront may qualify as wild chickens or evenpetty tyrants (petty tyrants can range from simply annoying to distraction to holding the power of life and death). The financial crisis reveals the impermanent matrix that underlies the workings of the world. Key people and institutions have shown us the dangers of ignorance, greed, and delusion. They attributed a solidity and value to things that were neither. The house of cards now reveals itself. We are confronted with a painful reality. The concept of “wealth” spills through our fingers like water. We are unable to grasp it; we cannot hold on to it. This has always been the case, we are now acutely aware of it. These challenging remind of us of the need to proceed through days with as much mindfulness as we can muster. If we can know in our bones that change is the order of the day we may be able to ride these waves of tumult with more equanimity.

Happy New Year 2009

posted by exquisitemind

108 Metaphors for Mindfulness
Greetings from The Exquisite Mind for the New Year: 2009
While the transition to the New Year can be a fruitful time for reflection and review, let’s not forget that every day can be New Year’s Day when we bring a mindful approach to living. I think we enter 2009 with a mixture of uncertainty and excitement.
I am excited for the forthcoming publication of Wild Chickens and Petty Tyrants: 108 Metaphors for Mindfulness and the opportunity to bring the message of mindfulness to my community and the wider world.
I am developing new workshops and classes based on the wisdom of the book.

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