Mindfulness Matters

BS13044.JPGIt’s foliage season in Northern Vermont. Fabulous displays of color across the Green Mountains. As their name implies, they are covered with trees that are throwing off color; wild screaming death throes.

I love foliage time and I also love the lush jungle green of summer and even love the bareness of mud season and stick season. Every season is a miracle in Vermont; every day has its own blessings of color, landscape, and earth.
Of course foliage is big business too; a major draw of our tourist industry. I’m certainly not against enjoying the foliage and the joy it brings to people from around the country. However, I often wonder whether dukkha (that sense of pervasive dissatisfaction with the world) is being reinforced through such quests for novelty.
It’s the same thing with fireworks. I enjoy fireworks as much as the next guy, but I don’t go out of my way to see them. In fact, I rarely do. Every moment contains its own version of fireworks if we are paying attention. The pursuit of fireworks, like the foliage, may just reinforce a way of viewing the world that is our undoing in the end.


Reflecting on this, I wrote the following poem. In the poem, I recall a fireworks display I was party to  at the Siddha Yoga ashram in South Fallsburg, New York. This would have been in the mid-1980s after I returned from the ashram in Ganeshpuri India (the ashram described in Eat, Pray, Love. Please note that the depiction in Eat, Pray, Love is a personal account and not a complete portrayal of the Siddha Yoga tradition. For more information visit the Siddha Yoga Foundation). I’ve never looked at fireworks the same.
In 1989, I took my first ten-day silent Vipassana meditation retreat and started my career in mindfulness. This practice has shown me the singular shape of each moment.
In the deepest sense, each moment that we are alive can be as exciting and “special” as fireworks and foliage, if we know how to look.
“Fireworks and Foliage”

People go out of their way for
fireworks and foliage.

Seeking these displays of

Forgetting they live in brilliant



I once saw fireworks,

a private showing

for the Guru’s devotees.

At a time when I was in love with

Intoxicated after chanting the

108 names of Shiva.

The display, matchless only to

the explosions of blue,

roiling in my consciousness


Years later I moved from this ecstasy

to the quiet solitude of breathing.

Its leaves changing color with each

ten thousand times a day


People flock to my Vermont home.

Cue up along country highways

for red, orange, yellow, and green

They make a deal with reality,


“I’ll look at your becoming and

only when it is colorful

and when I get to go back to sleep


Not so bad; just a handful of days
each year

to know who we are,

to look over that precipice of

This precarious life.

To know we are falling towards our



If we could smile into that knowing,

loose our grip and lean into gravity,

we’d see that despair as joy,

that precarious is precious,

that ending is beginning.


Then each day is the 4th of July and autumnal New

Each moment that explosive bliss of



Naomi Morris wrote an article for the L. A. Times entitled “Fully experiencing the present: a practice for everyone, religious or not.” The article focuses on the pioneering mindfulness work of Jon Kabat-Zinn (featured here on Mindfulness Matters a couple of times). Jon has taught mindfulness through Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction as a secularized practice of training attention. In the article he says,

“I don’t have to use the word ‘spiritual,'” he said. “Part of it is the
power of silence and stillness. And part of that power is the power of
healing that happens when you move from the domain of doing to being.
It’s transformative.”

In fact, there have been rabbis, priests and even an imam who have
taken Kabat-Zinn’s eight-week MBSR training course and told him that it
deepened their experience of their own faiths.

The imam told him the practice was “totally consistent” with Islam,
Kabat-Zinn said. Priests said MBSR reminded them of why they first went
into the seminary and allowed them to transmit their faith more
effectively to their flocks. Kabat-Zinn noted that even Mother Teresa
described her conversations with God as mutual silence.

“Is silence Jewish or Christian or Buddhist? Is awareness Jewish or
Christian?” said Kabat-Zinn. Mindfulness principles are found on every
continent in every culture, he added.”We’re born with this capacity.
It’s about cultivating it.”

Secular doesn’t suggest a dilution of the dharma. It’s intact in MBSR; just not explicit.

Mindfulness, thanks to articles like this, is becoming a household word. MBSR has gone from the original Stress Reduction Clinic at the U Mass Medical Center in 1979 to 200 medical centers worldwide and hundreds of individual practitioners like myself who teach mindfulness in their communities.

Join the revolution!

In an age when the work week enroaches more and more into the hours of each day and even reaches its hand into weekends, holidays, and vacations the notion arises that we need to have good work-life “balance.” I would like to suggest, however, that work-life balance is a myth, and a dangerous one at that. 


The term work-life implies a duality. Work is set against the rest of life. These are now in competition for our precious time and energy. If one wins, the other loses. 
However, life is a unity. Any separations we make are constructions, arbitrary boundaries drawn on the seamless fabric of life. 
An article from the New York Times from last October on integrating Mindfulness in Medicine (How Mindfulness Can Make for Better Doctors) provides this example:

One night during my training, long after all the other doctors had fled the hospital, I found a senior surgeon still on the wards working on a patient note. He was a surgeon with extraordinary skill, a doctor of few words whose folksy quips had become the stuff of department legend. “I’m sorry you’re still stuck here,” I said, walking up to him.

He looked up from the chart. “I’m not working tomorrow, so I’m just fine.”

I had just reviewed the next day’s operating room schedule and knew he had a full day of cases. I began to contradict him, but he held his hand up to stop me.

“Time in the O.R.,” he said with a broad grin, “is not work; it’s play.”

There is no duality for this surgeon, no opposition of forces. Work is play, and thereby presumably joyful.

We spend approximately half of our waking life in the service of work and as suggested above that percentage continues to grow. 

“We are collectively exhausted because of our inability to hold
competing parts of ourselves together in a more integrated way. These hidden
human dynamics of integration are more of a conversation, more of a synthesis
and more of an almost religious and sometimes almost delirious quest for
meaning than a simple attempt at daily ease and contentment. “

In his first book on working life, The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America, he offered this bit of wisdom: 
“Human beings must, in a
sense, always, in order to create meaning, in order to create an ecology of belonging
around them, must bring the central questions of their life into whatever they
are doing most of the time.” 

 Well, that would be work.  

The Buddha threw down the gauntlet challenging us to awaken. To be awake is not part-time or divided. It is always now and in every thing. No separation, no division, no preference. Instead, a stark, beautiful, and breath-taking (and breath-giving) engagement with being alive. 

Our challenge is to be awake on our way to work, while at work, and on our way home from work. Our challenge is strive towards being open, receptive, and truthful with each moment. 

Work is our life in this moment and we’d be best served not to squander it with wanting to be somewhere else. 

This is not to say that work can’t be difficult, miserable, or the wrong-fit for us. Obviously, we need to pay attention to this and make changes if necessary and possible. 

However, these difficulties can be calls to awakening. “How can I transcend myself in this moment?” “How can I get beyond my story of how awful things are?” “How can I find meaning and grace in what is happening now?”

This is the last installment of the Charter for Compassion talks with Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf (the Imam at the center of the controversy over the Islamic Cultural Center near Ground Zero). He gives a brief overview of the Muslim faith in the context of compassion. 
I won’t get into the particulars of that controversy; I’ll only say that I’m fairly certain that many people have spoken from emotions rather than reason, that they haven’t thought through the issues carefully and they haven’t listened to this Imam speak.
So, here he is. He speaks of Rumi to find metaphors for the spiritual path. He speaks of transcending ego and the esoteric aspects of his faith.