26 July 2015

Will Mindfulness Be The Making of Us?


“Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!”

There has been a mindfulness explosion in the last few years. This has led to a cultural shift in how the mainstream think about meditation. People increasingly recognise the benefits it can have in bringing our mind into an organised and coherent state from one of stress, dysfunction and disorder.

While the appearance of mindfulness on the wellbeing radar may well be the first step towards a sea of change in consciousness, it will not be the making of us if we are not willing take stock and accountability of ourselves. Mindfulness is, in the end, no more than an invitation to start paying attention.

To become a genuine force for positive transformation for both individuals and society at large, it must show the way to a more virtuous life. Indeed, Rudyard Kipling could have been closer to the mark in his notorious poem “If”. His flowing lyrics embody the virtues of character we should aspire to with a call to arms in its finale to “be a man, my son”.

The danger with the current academic approach to mindfulness is that by extracting it in isolation from the Buddhist context in which meditation was originally taught and the ethical framework that it points towards, we may well have missed the wood from the trees.

Mindfulness is awareness of what is going on within us and around us. It is to pay attention to the experience we are actually having instead of getting lost in the abstract inner world of dialogue, thinking, imagination and fantasy that many of us spend much of our time lost in. Having said that, when we are lost in our inner world, we can be mindful of that too.

The Buddha explained that ignorance is the core root of our suffering. The other roots of suffering, greed and anger, are in truth merely conditioned by ignorance, or not seeing what is really going on.

It is easy to see why we might come to the conclusion that the path out of suffering would simply be to learn to pay attention. In doing so, we would come to see what it is that we have not seen before, and gradually our greed and anger would fade and with it our suffering.

Mindfulness can be an important first step in the direction in which we all would like to be heading: less ignorance, less greed and less anger. And certainly we have to start somewhere if we are going to turn around the rollercoaster juggernaut that is the direction in which our world appears to be heading.

However, there are two big catches. Firstly, it takes real determination to change in ways that might be inconvenient to us. That determination is strength of character itself.

Secondly, once our minds become fixed upon a view, position or standpoint and clings to that position, a certain stiffness sets into the mind that is resistant to change itself. This is what we mean by “narrow mindedness”. As a result, we tend to pay attention only to the point that we aren’t too inconvenienced and turn away from any inconvenient truths we may come across.

I was recently approached about putting together a mindfulness course in eight bite-sized chunks of 15 to 20 minutes. The problem is that we seem to be looking for a way in which we can extract something of a palliative from time tested traditions. We don’t seem to have the time that people used to, so we have packaged it up into the occasional evening class.

We seem simply to want someone to show us ways to cope better with being where we are. The problem isn’t that we aren’t coping but that we aren’t changing. Not coping is itself a sign that we have reached an unmanageable position and things have to change.

Lets put some perspective on this so we can ask ourselves if we are being realistic. The Buddha himself was born a prince at a time free of strife when the planet was relatively untroubled by our presence upon it. When he looked out upon the world, he saw how prone to suffering we are as humans and made a determination to seek an end to it.

When he went forth to seek the end of suffering, he did so as a Prince, with everything in his favour. He was extremely intelligent and physically strong. Even from his relative position of ease, he could see that he had to change. He spent six years ardently meditating in search of his goal and when he found it, he spent the rest of his life teaching the path he had taken to others. For over forty years, he taught countless others, who like he, freed themselves from the affliction of suffering.

Unlike times past where even finding a teacher who could guide us often required an act of determination, we have unlimited and almost instant access to thousands of teachings of the Buddha to which we can refer. In most of them he talks of the eight branch process of the refinement of character (“The Eightfold Noble Path”) that leads in stages to the gradual fading of the roots of suffering. Right mindfulness is indeed one of these branches, but it is only one, alongside right speech, action, livelihood, effort, concentration, thought and view.

These days, as is our tendency with everything, we have looked for a convenient solution to what appears to be our problem. Many of us are feeling overwhelmed, stressed or despondent in our modern lives and mindfulness is emerging as the new great white hope.

However, we have chosen to do so in isolation instead of looking more deeply into what it was that the Buddha was really trying to point out to us. When asked what is the fastest way to free oneself from suffering the Buddha advised that he who is of few needs and easy to serve is the closest to being happy.

In his list of the ten qualities (“paramis” in Pali) that make for less painful progress upon the path of life, mindfulness does not actually appear, possibly because in isolation it does not in itself constitute a strength of character. Rather, the Buddha was keen that we look inside to find such qualities as generosity, virtue, patience, honesty and loving kindness.

The question we need to ask is why have we insisted on taking mindfulness in isolation when clearly it was just one of many factors that make for a less vexing life? Mindfulness alone will prompt us to pay attention to the point that we recognise where we are not coping, and hopefully point us towards some changes that will allow us to do so. But is coping better with where we are a big enough step forward? What of overcoming our unwillingness to change?

Do we not think that the other seven branches of the Buddha’s path equally had something to show us? Might it actually be the case that we have run out of convenient solutions and may even have to be willing, perhaps not as completely as the Buddha, to accept a degree of inconvenience in our efforts to surmount the real challenges we are facing or free ourselves from real suffering?

Clearly, it may have been necessary to dilute the Buddha’s teachings in order for them to be palatable for mainstream audiences but in doing so mindfulness has removed the very essence of what he was really offering us. This is the encouragement to reaffirm basic human ethical principals as the bedrock of the value system that we govern our lives by. What he offered is a road map to take the rite of passage out of the narcissism of adolescence into the maturity of real adulthood.

We are all humans living on the same planet, and it is not the case that the universe behaves one way for some of us and another way for others. It is a single process that we are all a part of. We are all in this together. So if our lives do feel in a bit of a muddle, the process by which we got there is not personal. The question each one of us needs to ask is whether our challenges will turn out to be our undoing or our making? In the end, this will be our rite of passage and the real test of our character.

Many of us are not willing to take on some honest home truths and get stuck in to what is really needed of us. We are all faced with a universal predicament as fellow human beings. Views, dogma and religion have no part in the simple process of self honesty that is required if we are going to really learn to pay attention to what is going on.

When the Buddha went on his journey it was a rite of passage of the highest order. The journey that truly puts us in touch with ourselves always is. When he died, those close to him asked what was his final advice. He did not say “there are the universities and the degree courses, there are the learned professors who will teach you mindfulness” but exclaimed “there are the shaded groves, the forest thickets, there are the empty huts and the roots of trees…go forth and meditate less you regret it later.”

Meditation is not and never has been about watching your breath or your thoughts arise. It’s about putting ourselves truly in front of what it is to be alive and entering utterly into it.

The journey up any mountain starts in the foothills. And as a first step, mindfulness is a good place to start out. However, it will not be the making of us if we are not willing to take responsibility for ourselves and find within the real strength of character the Buddha was pointing at.

This is much closer to the underlying message in Kipling’s “If”. For this poem says nothing of fame, wealth or heroic deeds. Rather, the true measure of a man is his humility.

Rudyard Kipling, If

IF you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you,
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too;
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:

If you can dream – and not make dreams your master;
If you can think – and not make thoughts your aim;
If you can meet with Triumph and Disaster
And treat those two impostors just the same;
If you can bear to hear the truth you’ve spoken
Twisted by knaves to make a trap for fools,
Or watch the things you gave your life to, broken,
And stoop and build ’em up with worn-out tools:

If you can make one heap of all your winnings
And risk it on one turn of pitch-and-toss,
And lose, and start again at your beginnings
And never breathe a word about your loss;
If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’

If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run,
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!

6 Responses

  1. Teja Forest

    sadhu sadhu sadhu.
    I have spoken with people involved in the academic side of mindfulness that had enough with it. The sentiment seemed to be that many who are skilled in establishing a sort of secure loop of mindfulness and way of instructing it are grabbing power in various ways and dictating how it should be taught and practiced. So today I am quite grateful to find this writing. And than thanks Ben for sharing that article, I wasn’t aware of how its spreading in corporate America. Bhikkhu Bodhi warns that “absent a sharp social critique, Buddhist practices could easily be used to justify and stabilize the status quo, becoming a reinforcement of consumer capitalism.”

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