Mindfulness Matters

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.

IMG_3263We often speak about going off into nature as if we are somehow separate from it. But aren’t we, by necessity, part of nature? Contemporary human has lost touch with its place in the natural world. If we are separate, then the rest of the world is just material resources to be exploited.

David Hinton in Hunger Mountain reminds us of a time when humans destroyed the world around them:

“Wildlife was was virtually extinguished by unrestrained hunting; the forests were completely cleared for lumber and farmland, allowing topsoil to wash away and fill streams and rivers with silt, which in turn decimated fish populations; and what topsoil remained on farms was depleted by unsustainable farming practices.”

It’s hard to talk about this subject without buying into the duality that holds us in opposition to the natural world. We talk about going into and out of nature but nature is all and everywhere, just varying to the degree that it has been touched by human hands. It is still possible to find your true self in the concrete expanses of a city, as this quote from the film, My Dinner With Andre reminds us.

Why do we require a trip to Mount Everest in order to perceive one moment of reality? Is Mount Everest more real than New York? Isn’t New York real? I think, if you could become fully aware of what existed in the cigar store next to this restaurant, I think it would just blow your brains out! Isn’t there just as much reality to be perceived in the cigar store as there is on Mount Everest?

Nevertheless, being in landscapes with relatively less fingerprints, does provide a window to our true selves that may not be so readily accessed elsewhere. It’s just easier but by no means guaranteed. We can still be preoccupied. To find our true selves in nature, we need to do three things:

  1. Know that it is possible
  2. Want to access it
  3. Have the capacity

I take my dogs on a brief hike each day. On this route we have the pleasure of seeing two of Vermont’s highest peaks–Mt. Mansfield and Camel’s Hump (the closer and more spectacular view of Camel’s Hump is pictured above).

We are fortunate to have this exposure to the natural world each day. Yet, my mind can still be very noisy. Obviously, I know that quieter is possible; I also have to want to make the shift towards quiet, if I don’t go their automatically. To accomplish this, I have to have the ability to extricate myself from whatever stories are compelling me to turn my gaze to the horizon with its purple mountains.

This is why we practice because we can know and even have a strong desire and still not be able to pull it off because the counter forces are just too strong. Practice can help us to make it happen when we have the opportunities.

To get some practice and to learn some methods for accessing your true self, join me and Jaimal Yogis for  a weekend workshop at Kripalu. There is still time to register here >>