This New York Times article about mindfulness at the World Economic Forum in Davos gives more proof of the ascent of mindfulness in our culture. One worry I have is whether mindfulness can truly be taught while being totally divorced from ethical principles or the spiritual context from which it developed. (That spiritual context is the journey to enlightenment of the man known as the Buddha more than 2600 years ago.) Without that context, there is a danger that teaching mindfulness becomes only about achieving better performance and enjoying life more – certainly worthy goals – rather than its deeper purpose: to radically change our relationship to our own lives, and to provide insight into suffering, the causes of suffering, the possibility of the end of suffering, and the ways needed to achieve that end. Those of us who teach non-sectarian forms of mindfulness – like MBSR – must walk a fine line between our fidelity to dharmic principles and the need to provide powerful practices in an accessible format to people who are not interested in “religion.” For me the dharma context is always foremost when I teach MBSR, which I do in a rigorously non-religious way. It’s my dharma practice which informs my own understanding of the causes of suffering and its release. Therefore, when my dharma practice is strong, so is my teaching. My fear is that many people are now teaching mindfulness who do not have a strong connection to practice. The risk is that much potential dharma teaching will get lost in translation or even ignored, short-changing the students in the process. This might then lead to the “dumbing down” of mindfulness. Many people have contacted me recently asking, “How do I become a mindfulness teacher?” My answer to them is to devote yourself to practice first. Then, from the depths of that practice, let teaching call your name.
Mindfulness is a simple yet profound way of being that essentially realigns our priorities.
We are told that we need to constantly be achieving things in order to be happy and living a successful life. And because of the non-stop busyness that drives so much of our behavior, our to-do lists, and progress in achieving our goals and plans, are what we focus on. As a result we ignore the very common signposts of human experience that tell us we are sentient beings living on this earth. The momentary joy of smelling a flower or eating a delicious meal or witnessing the smile of a child rush by us barely appreciated, or maybe completely missed, because our attention was occupied by thoughts of our next meeting or a project we have at work. Or, we miss the subtle clues inside our body that tell us that we are feeling sad, or anxious, or angry, or ill, and emotions seeking to be known and held in awareness are denied and distracted so that we don’t feel them. And deep intuitions that might guide us through life’s changes and point us to new ways of being are never given a chance to flower in the felt sense of the body because we ignore our bodies most of the time.
When we practice mindfulness, this all begins to change. Mindfulness is not a state of mind, or a technique, or a philosophy even. It is simply the act of giving space to what we experience as warm-blooded human beings. We give space to the old fears of not being good enough that have obsessed us all our lives, we give space to the anger that smolders inside when someone slights us, we give space to the old griefs that still have much to teach us. Giving space means letting the experience rise into consciousness, and holding it. Not changing it or fixing it, just holding it, letting it live in the light of awareness. Sometimes the pain and suffering we hold in awareness needs to be held for a long time – but eventually, what we hold in awareness will change. Its negative charge will lessen, or, as the Tibetans say, it will “self-liberate.” When the painful thought or emotion releases it will also give up its wisdom to us so that we will learn from it. Giving space to these all too human experiences allows us to metabolize the joys and sorrows of being alive. And what we cook in the cauldron of practice, given enough time, becomes the feast of our life.