Mindfulness Matters

IMG_3821Some notion of non-harmfulness is a key feature of religious, ethical, and philosophical systems. In Buddhism, it is called ahimsa. 

Summer in Northern Vermont is a battle between human and insect. The Deer Flies are especially active this time of year. If you are not familiar, deer flies are a triangle shape (very similar to a stealth bomber) and when they bite (or sting), I get a nice itchy welt. Admittedly, these welts don’t persist long yet there is a clear sense that these creatures are feeding upon me.

While I am honored to play my part in the food chain, receiving their attention is hard to do with equanimity.

To practice ahimsa would require not killing these flies before they inflict damage upon my flesh. That is, I would have to let them munch away as I walk or run through the woods. Or I could spray myself with chemicals that might deter them.

There isn’t a real threat to me. These aren’t West Nile Virus carrying mosquitos (still better to deter them than to vigilantly scan and kill them manually), so why does it feel like a battle? The answer to this questions boils down to the notion of self that we carry around.

This self is a thing (like that fly) and it needs to be protected. Thus a battle emerges between man and fly. As I mentioned already, there is no mortal threat, so the treat is to my comfort level and my ego.

The hovering buzzing frenetic action of the files triggers archaic defense strategies that served our ancestors well eons ago but is of dubious value to me now. My battle with the flies requires energy (attention resources of vigilance, trying to catch them on the back of my neck before they bite, etc) and only serves to reinforce this solid notion of self.

Then there is the issue of harming other beings. Is it possible to live one’s life without harming others? The Jains were (and are still) contemporaries of the Buddha. You might see them today wearing masks so they don’t inadvertently swallow a bug.

The great saint Mahavira took their non harmfulness ideal to its logical conclusion and starved himself to death for to eat requires harming other living things, be they plant or animal.

Centuries ago, the microscopic world was not known yet we know today that we are occupied by about a couple of pounds of microorganisms in our microbiome. It is not possible to live without killing. Where do we draw the line?

Kurt Cobain wondered if eating fish was okay since they weren’t supposed to have any feelings. That notions is coming into question now as a compelling and chilling episode of Fresh Air made clear.

In his fascinating book, The Mindful Carnivore, Tovar Ceruli an avowed vegan realized “I wasn’t eating animals, but my vegetables were.” This is the case because animals must be destroyed in the production of food, whether it is the ground hog in the garden or deer that feed on farm fields.

We tend to forgot that life is food. This is the natural way of things in the world. We are the only ones who can make choices based on ethical consciousness.

If, for example, birds and other predators didn’t eat insects and all the insects of the world’s offspring survived and reproduced, all of which survived, in a few generations the earth would be covered in several feet of insects!

This fact is not license for me to kill the deer flies. Each time I do, I perpetuate this illusory battle, that there is some one on my end to engage in that conflict.

The illusory, metaphorical nature of self is the subject of my next book project. I’m gathering a lot of field data every time I am in the woods. There are some days that awakening seems far away as I relish in the struggle. The flies can bite skin but they cannot bite “me” because that self is a fluid, unfolding, process of energy not some thing standing outside of experience.

Life presents this basic dilemma with almost every breath. Be fully present in the flow of experience or identify with this notion of self as some abstracted disembodied entity. It is only this latter notion of self that can suffer the slings and arrows of life.


IMG_3404I am connecting with mindfulness colleagues on LinkedIn (thank you!) and I am impressed, no, flabbergasted by the amount of people who have embraced mindfulness, made it the central focus of their lives.

It is humbling. My one voice in a chorus of multitudes. I am no one special. I would say, though, that my interest in mindfulness predates the current bandwagon by decades. I am not sure if this really means anything other than there a lot of newcomers to the movement/revolution. New energy is likely good energy. Not inferior. Yet, there are cautions.

Mindfulness is simple in concept, yet elusive in execution. There is a joke in mindfulness teaching circles that we are “selling water by the river.” Everyone has a sense of mindfulness–an instinct if you will. What mindfulness teachers offer is a way to access this innate reserve at will and not just during exceptional moments.

When I train fellow clinicians (or really anyone), I encourage them to teach what you can own. Mindfulness is scalable. Anyone can introduce the technique to someone else, even a child can teach it. Yet, there is more to it than this and to be able to respond to questions and to embed the practice within the Buddha’s larger set of teachings stems from our own direct, experiential understanding of the practice. The deeper our practice, the more we can teach.

What would the Buddha think of all the people devoted, explicitly or not, to this teachings.

Would he be pleased? Yes. Would he have some caveats? Yes. Definitely.

Caveat One: Mindfulness is more than a wellness technique and should be best viewed as an integral component in the process of self-transformation, perhaps even community- and world-transformation.

Caveat Two: Consistent with caveat one, the goal of mindfulness is not just relaxation, stress reduction, of feeling better. The goal of mindfulness practice is to experience our lives with fidelity, intimacy, and intelligence. Mindfulness practice is a discipline geared toward every moment of thought, feeling, and behavior. To be mindful, is to see clearly the good, the bad, and the ugly

Caveat Three: “Don’t forget about me!” The Buddha didn’t invent mindfulness but he perfected it as a set of meditation techniques (i.e., the Satipatthana Sutta). Mindfulness can and should be practiced in a secular context–as the Buddha intended it. In the quest for the secular application of mindfulness, we don’t need to throw away the Buddha with the Buddhist bath water.

I salute the thousands of fellow mindfulness practitioners around the world. Thank you for the work that you are doing. We are all part of a broader project attempting to bring a little more wakefulness into the world, a little less reactivity, and a lot more joy.

IMG_3580The Buddha knew a thing or two about non-contingent self-worth. He recognized that we actively participate in the generation of feeling insulted. Words may be issues, yet without some kind of assent, acceptance, or appropriation, they cannot affect us.

This non-contingent sentiment is made beautifully clear in this passage from the Samyutta Nikaya. The Buddha creates a metaphor to the offering of food. Your guest may or may not take the food. The Buddha   said this after he was insulted by a brahman, Akkosaka, notorious for his insults:

In the same way, brahman, that with which you have insulted me, who is not insulting,; that with which you have taunted me, how is not taunting; that with which you have berated me, who is not berating: that I don’t accept from you. It’s all your, brahman. It’s all yours. (SN, 7:2)

This is a very modern take on the situation. The Buddha is acting as the first cognitive behavioral therapist and the same time he is emphasizing existential responsibility. Words can only “harm” if the receiver adopts a certain attitude.

Whoever returns insult to one who is insulting, returns taunts to one who is taunting, returns berating to one who is berating, is said to be eating together, sharing company with that person. But I am not eating together or sharing your company, brahman. It’s all yours. It’s all yours.

How much anguish has arisen from retaliating to insults? How much blood has been spilt making another pay for taunts?

Everyone is entitle to their opinions. In Mindfulness A to Z: 108 Insights for Awakening Now, I tell a story of a how someone said I looked like a “pimp” (I was wearing my best suit). These moments are little choices: indignation or letting be. Fortunately, that day I chose letting be and just had a good laugh.

The next time someone insults you, see if you can avert taking it personally.

Photo credit: Erik O. Cathcart

Photo credit: Erik O. Cathcart

I was recently asked to contribute to a Huff Po piece on 7 Ways Introverts Handle Heartbreak Differently by Brittany Wong. I found this article to be very helpful.

The other contributors prompted me to think about my own divorce process and how my introverted tendencies (back then still not fully realized) affected the way I handled that process.

I spoke of the need to withdraw and how meditation practice, invaluable always, was especially crucial during that tumultuous time. In retrospect, I understand now why it took many years before I was ready to re-engage with relationship. This had more to do with my introversion than the failure of marriage.

I, of course, remember how stressful the process was yet had forgotten how it was stressful in the ways that were heightened by introversion. After all the meetings, paperwork, and other matters of consequence, I was tapped out.

It was a brilliant sunshine day in May when everything was finally resolved. I remember how good that silent warmth felt on my skin and the sense of renewal it intimated, the new road ahead, as it were.

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