Mindfulness Matters

Yesterday was Valentine’s Day; today is Nirvana Day or Parinirvana Day. It is the day that celebrates the Buddha’s death or his release into the final state of nirvana. A few years ago, in a post about Nirvana Day, I commented on the assumption regarding rebirth that this description requires. Today, I’ll focus on the concept of nirvana itself.

Nirvana is hard to describe. In fact, it’s impossible to explain it adequately with language. It is a phenomenon that defies concepts, which of course require language. The Buddha did his best to capture it with a metaphor. Nirvana means to blow out as you would blow out or extinguish a candle flame.

It’s not life that blows out or ceases but the conceptual and language based processes that give rise to dukkha–the experience of suffering, stress, dissatisfaction, anguish, and so forth. The ultimate language-based concept is that of self. When we stop engaging in mind activity that affirms and pursues the desires of this self, we are closer to nirvana, whatever that phenomenon might be.

The history of Buddhism and popular culture have given a mystical, transcendental feel to nirvana. It is an abode of bliss. It is special and requires special circumstances to achieve. That specialness, itself, becomes an impediment to the experience of nirvana.

We can cut through this mystification of nirvana and go back to the original metaphor–the cessation of a fire. The fuel for the fire is the activity of our minds as they pursue desire. Every moment that we cling to something that we want or push away something that we don’t is wood for that fire. Every moment we seek comfort, predictability, and reassurance as if our well-being depended on it, more is added to the pile.

If we stop doing these things and, instead, accept what is happening now with equanimity, then there is nothing more being added to the fire and it will go out. Not like a candle flame, but like a bonfire it will diminish and eventually go out. To experience nirvana is to awaken to the reality of the moment.

Of course, it is very difficult, almost impossible to not add anything at all to the fire. Our minds are very active and have a lifetime of habit and conditioning behind them. So, we can look for mini-cessations and little hits of nirvana. We can aspire to keeping the fire more like a smoldering camp fire rather than a raging bonfire. This is a choice that we have in every moment.

Equanimity is another term that could benefit from some explanation. Equanimity is the prerequisite for nirvana. It does not seek to eliminate the discomforts, uncertainties, and disappointments in life nor does it passively acquiesce to them. Rather, equanimity is a way of experiencing what is happening with clarity, openness, and an absence of a compelling sense of self. It’s not that we are necessarily self-less, instead, we are just not making the value of ourselves in that moment contingent upon any of the prevailing conditions.

Equanimity allows us to be right there in the middle of things, dealing with them as necessary without adding layers of perturbation. In other words, when we can be equanimous, we don’t add any wood to the fire. We can cool our minds with mindfulness in the moment. We don’t compound dukkha.

We will be exploring equanimity and even little hits of nirvana in my upcoming workshop at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health called Mindfulness A–Z: Liberating Regret, Stuckness, and Perfectionism. I hope you can join me there .