I recently encountered a self-proclaimed critic of mindfulness, and what I found was that the person's critique was based on a big misunderstanding of the teachings. This is in itself understandable because mindfulness has become a hot topic, a buzz word—it’s everywhere and unfortunately there are some people speaking and teaching about mindfulness who do not seem to be grounded in the practice or in the wider teachings from which this practice comes. Mindfulness comes from the teachings of the Buddha and has been tried and tested for approx 2600 years in that lineage. While admittedly, one does not need to be a follower or even a fan of the Buddha to practice, it's certainly worth exploring the wider teachings of the Buddhist tradition to see what they contribute to the practice and understanding of mindfulness.
I’m not claiming to be an expert, but I have been practicing mindfulness meditation for close to 10 years and have been specifically trained in teaching Mindfulness and Yoga. I say this not to blow my own trumpet, but rather to say that I have been lucky enough to have spent a lot of time with some wise and wonderful teachers who have shared the richness of the Buddha's teachings. Because I feel so grateful for the healing the teachings brought into my life, I’d like to offer some thoughts on the subject with the hope that those who may otherwise be turned off by confusions regarding mindfulness might be willing to explore afresh. Equally, I'd like to dispel any confusions that any newer practitioners reading this blog may feel. And also, I'd like to see what other practitioners might have to say about my reflections. Agree? Disagree? Let's have a conversation.
I’d like to start by saying a little something about what mindfulness is and is not, in my understanding. It is about Being, Presence and Fullness; so it’s not just "being present" but is also coming to explore and understand the Fullness of Presence and Being. Yeah, I know that sounds difficult and abstract. That's because it is difficult in the beginning (and is abstract while we are talking about it so please do practice) and I think it’s important to acknowledge the difficulty because otherwise when we are having a difficult time we think we're doing it wrong. Nope. It’s not that you are a crappy meditator. It is difficult. But it gets easier with practice.
I’m learning to drive a car right now (yes, I know I'm 45 and it's shocking but better late than never)and I think it’s crazy hard (I'm in Ireland so it's a stick), but I see lots of folks doing it (some well, some badly) so I believe it’s at least possible for me. Likewise, I have encountered people, mostly teachers and practitioners of mindfulness but not exclusively, who have a quality of warm presence, a quality of being clearly present, who appear to live from a sense of fullness in their lives even amid challenge, so I believe it’s at least possible for me too. The Buddha is reputed to have said that were it not possible, he would not have asked us to try it. But he urged us on, "It is possible." But I’ll say it again—It is difficult in the beginning. It’s good to remind yourself of that. Which brings me back to the word mindfulness—it also means to remind.
The word “Mindfulness” is actually a translation of an ancient Pali word Sati (Pali is the language in which the Buddha delivered his teachings, and in which they were first written down). And Sati could be translated as awareness, or remembering or reminding yourself to be aware. Aware of what you may very well ask? And the answer would be—excellent question! That’s a key part of the practice. Repeatedly reminding yourself of the basic question, “what is there to be aware of right here right now?” This reminding question continually brings us into the present moment to re-explore that question. So the practice of Sati requires us not to be in the present but rather to be aware we are in the present. In other words, we are always already present whether we realize it or not, except mostly we don’t realize it because we are lost in the past and future, planning and remembering. So it's about realizing presence.
However, this practice of being aware that we are in the present does not mean that we are not supposed to ever think about the past or the future. This does appear to be a major criticism of mindfulness, that it precludes planning and reflection. Or it’s a confused way to practice, thinking that you don’t need to reflect or plan, but rather “just live in the now and go with the flow.” This is a misunderstanding that is misleading at best, and downright dangerous at worst. It is entirely appropriate to reject an approach to life that does not allow us consider the past or the future. In a beautiful teaching delivered to his son Rahula (yes the Buddha had a son--it's a complicated and controversial story--he was a very interesting guy--definitely worth exploring his life and work), the Buddha recommended that we certainly do contemplate what the effects of our actions will be, and also to reflect afterwards on what the effect actually were.
While it is true that in the early stages of practice, most mindfulness meditation students will invited to repeatedly invite themselves back to the present moment sensations of breath and body so as to gather in and settle the typically untethered and wild tendencies of the busy mind, the practice of Sati is not about shutting out the past or the future with a rigid demand to only consider what is immediately present. These initial practices of consistently gathering oneself into body and breath in the present moment are to calm and settle the agitated and swirling mind that most of us come to meditation with. Once we have developed some capacity with this kind of gathering and centering practice, we then open the awareness beyond breath and body sensations to notice and explore thoughts and emotions, which may involve looking at thoughts and feelings about past and future. The crucial difference is that we do not become lost in the past, reliving or trying to re-do, or become lost in the future, planning and trying to predict and control; rather, with mindful exploration of past and future, we are very much aware that we are reflecting on the past and/or contemplating the future; we are aware that the past is over and cannot be re-done but can be learned from; we are aware that the future has not happened, that we can make tentative plans but we cannot completely predict or control. With the practice of Sati, or awareness, when we visit the past of future, we do so consciously, aware that we are in the present moment either reflecting back or projecting forward.
Of course, as we practice, we are more or less successful in this awareness moment to moment. Sometimes, we do get lost in thought but over time and with consistent practice, our lost time in past or future becomes less and less (although it can often be a three steps forward two steps back situation), and we begin to be more grounded in the present with the ability to wisely reflect what has gone by and wisely contemplate what is upcoming.
Another criticism that the aforementioned critic leveled at Mindfulness was that it was too much about the brain and she believed yoga should include the body. In some ways, I understand her confusion and I wholeheartedly agree that mindfulness should include the body. And it does (although admittedly some Buddhist practice has neglected the body--but that's a story for another day). A lot of the current hype about mindfulness does appeal to scientific studies which emphasize research involving the brain and neuroplasticity. This is important work, but it does lead to the notion that the mind is the brain, that the mind is up in the head (a reason that I dislike the name of the otherwise reasonably good mindfulness app Headspace—although I’d prefer people didn’t have to pay so much for it).
The reason so many of my teachers in the Insight Meditation community prefer to call mindfulness practice awareness practice is for exactly this brain/mind confusion. In the tradition from which mindfulness comes, the mind is most certainly not the brain. The brain is part of the mind but not limited to it. In fact the mind fills the whole being, and perhaps extends further—who knows, that’s part of the investigation in the question “what is here to be aware of?” Mind and Heart are considered different aspects of the same Radiant Beingness. The cogitating rationalizing mind can be associated with the brain, but there’s a lot more to explore. My teacher Eugene Cash refers to mindfulness, bodyfulness, heartfulness, but that’s a lot to say and could be said to reinforce the idea that these aspects of our being are separate. Perhaps we could speak of Beingfulness. This comes closer to what Eugene points to when he talks about enlightenment or awakening—not some grandiose high-end spiritual experience with bells and whistles and flashing lights and some universal choir of celestial beings in the background singing you onto the mountaintop, but rather coming to realize the full potential of our shared human being-ness. Again, the question is potential for what?
The answers are not definitive, but the teachings of yoga and dharma certainly suggest an enormous potential for wisdom and love, a kind of innate and unlimited wisdom and love that is hard for us to understand because we are so mired in a sense of not being good enough. Which is where the practice of Metta or Lovingkindness comes in. Metta begins with unpacking that not good enough false belief and embarking on a journey to reclaim our basic kindness to ourselves and others. But we start with ourselves. We remind (Sati) ourselves over and over that we are worthy of love, that we are capable of love, and that there is wisdom in this Kindness
I happen to have had both yoga and dharma teachers who really have consistently emphasized kindness as a measure of whether you are making progress with your practice. Not lotus position, not handstand or headstand or any arm balance or levitation, not fancy tricks with appearing and re-appearing, nor seeing past or future lives; just kindness. Simple kindness. But as my teacher Pam Weiss says, “Simple, but not easy”
So then, what is kindness? It’s important to say it’s not niceness. What’s the difference? My understanding is that it comes down to intention. Typically when we are being nice, there’s usually at least a sliver if not a chunk of motivation in there that the person on the receiving end of our niceness think we are nice, understand that we are being nice and reciprocate. Essentially, we want to be liked and appreciated. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s not the same as kindness. It’s “But I’m nice-ness.” We’ve all been there, wondering how come so-and-so didn’t appreciate what we did and it’s such a mystery because we were being really really nice! In these aftermath of failed niceness situations, our anger or resentment can travel outward or inwards but either way, it’s not nice! Our plan has gone awry, perhaps we are not liked and worse still, we are disliked by ourselves and/or by the other, or now we dislike them. Aggghhhh!!!! Pain, suffering. And we were just trying to be nice!!!
So trying to be nice is pretty normal, but sometimes it works out and sometimes it doesn’t, and when it doesn’t there’s usually resentment to be found somewhere because the motivation was based on wanting a certain result. It was conditional. When conditions weren't met, we blame ourselves or we blame another.
Being kind it seems, truly being kind, is not based on our desire to be liked (again nothing wrong with that desire so long as we can start to see it clearly and don’t allow it to be the governing agent in our behavior). Rather, according to the teaching of the Buddha on metta (lovingkindness), kindness grows out of a basic appreciation of and a friendliness with life. An appreciation and friendliness for being alive in this world with all its ups and downs. It’s related to mindfulness or Sati, because when we come to connect with the fullness of Being that is Present, we recognize it as Good and we naturally want to resonate with the amazingness of Being--our own beingness, other beings and just the wild fact of aliveness—we want to stay connected and to respond appropriately to whatever is Present.
When this basic friendliness meets suffering, it becomes compassion, wanting to bring comfort and support. This is not the same as fixing; often trying to fix someone who is suffering can bring more pain, and often what is needed is listening, is accompaniment, is witnessing. Just consider someone in grief, what they need is not someone who will make them feel better, but rather someone who has the capacity to accompany them and support them in what they are feeling until the feelings of grief pass in their own good time.
In my own experience of dealing with the grief of a miscarriage a few years ago, it was being with people with whom I could cry freely and feel exhausted by my grief without them trying to perk me up or tell me what to do to feel better that was most nourishing and healing—they just held space and witnessed my grief with me until it naturally passed. And grief has its own schedule. Their patient support was powerful and I am eternally grateful for their unflinching kindness and compassion.
When Kindness meets joy, it is able to share in and celebrate that joy without feeling that it is somehow diminished if that joy is originating in someone else’s experience. In other words, kindness feels no jealousy or envy. Furthermore, Kindness is not afraid of joy disappearing, because kindness also has within it the understanding that everything arises and passes and that just as the suffering it witnesses in compassion can dissolve in time, so too does joy diminish naturally with time. Kindness knows that both will arise and pass again and again, for this is the nature of the reality we inherit as human beings. Understanding this arising and passing and knowing that nothing can be isolated and fixed and that it is our destiny to find a way of being kind to one another as we navigate this river of joys and sorrows—this is the aspect of kindness Buddhist teaches calls equanimity.
So in the teaching of LovingKindness, compassion, joy and equanimity grow out of the basic ground of Kindness. Kindness isn’t what we do so that people will like us. Kindness is what we do because we understanding that this is how we show love for ourselves and others and when we see the difficulties and suffering of life and what increases suffering and what decreases suffering, we come to understand that it is lovingkindness that is the answer.
My teacher Eugene used to say that Lovingkindness is kindness for the love of kindness and I love that. It's kindness for the recognition of the awesome power of kindness. We have no purchase on the short term results of kindness, but we know that in the long terms, kindness is what is required to be of benefit to oneself and others. Kindness comes from love—the sense that I want to be with you in joy and in pain, to commiserate, to celebrate, as opposed to niceness which comes from a place of fear—I need you to like me because I’m afraid of what it will feel like if you don’t. And there’s no doubt about it, it doesn’t feel good when someone doesn’t like you, but the truth is we cannot, we simply cannot control whether people will like us, but we can engage with ourselves and others with kindness. It requires no particular result. It's in the present.
Even as I read this, I worry a little about those I fear might say "I'm a little tired of the word kindness" or worse, they might be nauseated by it. But I say, be tired, be nauseated--get it out of your system. It's a radical practice and it's so counter to our typical mindset that it can seem a horrifying affront to what we deeply believe--that we are not good enough. But I cannot hold in what I believe from my experience to be true for fear that some might be cynical. That's just succumbing to the "like me" trap. So like it or not, kindness will be the fundamental point here.
With practice, we grow in kindness because we love being kind, because it is a clear compass, and it means we are never without someone who will be kind to us because we are capable of being kind to ourselves. We grow in kindness because we start to feel it somewhere in the bones of our being, that, as Ajahn Sumedho so beautifully said “Love is Wisdom’s natural radiance.”
This is Lovingkindness practice. It is fierce. It is not easy. But it is simple. Or is it? Ehipassiko, as the Buddha said, come see for yourself!
So you could call it mindfulness practice, you could call it lovingkindness practice, you could call it GreatFullness of Being (or Gratitude) practice. Or you could just call it yoga (union, connection). Or better yet, you could come try it out for yourself and come up with your own language for your experience, or even better yet, come and try it out for yourself and be willing to sit or move in a way that allows the mind to get quiet and the heart to open (as Jack Kornfield always puts it) and allow the desire for language slip away and see if you can feel into something that you don’t have to explain to anyone, but something that feels like home, something that allows you to step back into the world with more friendliness or courage or confidence or trust, or maybe just a sense of an unnamable more rather than the so often depleting sense of the ineffable less.
If You are interested in exploring Lovingkindness, check out our workshops in March and April