Putting Mindfulness in Perspective

Putting Mindfulness in Perspective

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The Buddha always encouraged his followers to take a critical eye toward anyone claiming to present the truth and to judge the veracity of any claim or practice for themselves. In a famous statement, he urges them never to accept anything as true simply because it is said to be a revelation. After all, it is traditional because it comes from sacred texts, or because the teacher seems competent.

Rather, he said, when you know for yourself that something is wholesome, blameless, and leads to benefit and happiness, then you should accept it and abide in it.

This article explains, how mindfulness permits us to see clearly how little control we have over the events that profoundly affect us.

(Also Read: Mindful Grieving: Learning to Accept Loss)

I.      Mindfulness Practice: Putting Mindfulness in Perspective

In this course, we have looked at the fundamental components of the practice of mindfulness and have discussed a great many areas of life in which these practices can be beneficially exercised.

If there is anything about that practice that remains unclear, return to the lectures and read them again. Reading the lectures again— and still again—may prove valuable.

It might be helpful to find a couple of books on basic mindfulness practice and read those as well. You’ll readily see that different meditation teacher teach the discipline in slightly—and sometimes substantially—different ways.

You may find that what other teachers have to say about mindfulness practice is more meaningful to you than what has been taught in this course. The practice is simple but extremely rich.

A word of caution: Beware of spending too much time with the lectures or reading too many books about meditation. These activities can easily become ends in themselves—to the point that you’re studying the practice of meditation rather than practicing the practice of meditation.

Once you’ve understood the essential features of the discipline and have become comfortable doing them, begin to trust yourself to customize the practice to suit your individual qualities.

In this series, we’ve discussed and demonstrated a wide range of exercises. Not all of them, certainly, were equally appealing. Take as much as you can from each of them. Some you’ll want to practice just as explained, others you may want to vary a bit, and still, others may have no appeal at all.

However, resist dismissing any exercise immediately. If a practice carries little meaning for you now, revisit it later. The practices we dislike the most are often the ones from which we gain the greatest benefit.

If you have the opportunity to study with a reputable teacher of mindfulness meditation, try to take advantage of it. A good teacher can answer questions or concerns you may have in ways that are not possible with a series of lectures.

The trick is to ensure that a potential teacher is a good one, which is not always an easy thing to do. As you may know, there are many teachers, sages, preachers, evangelists, missionaries, and gurus out there who are eager to tell you what to believe and how to live your life.

II.   Mindfulness Definition: Following Up with Mindfulness

As you proceed with your daily practice, you may consider at some point intensifying your meditation experience with a retreat. There are many types of retreats, and each can be very beneficial for your practice. Perhaps the simplest is to dedicate a day to mindfulness in the comfort of your own home.

Try to arrange to be alone and quiet for four to eight hours—more if you’re able—where you do nothing other than practice. You can design this self-retreat in any way that suits you, but it ought to include alternating sitting and walking practice.

If you choose, you can add a body scan, mindful eating, and listening to a recorded talk on mindfulness. There are many locations on the Internet where you can download such talks.

If you search the Internet, you’ll also find plenty of listings for other kinds of retreats. There are a growing number of retreat centers across the country and throughout the world that offer retreats lasting from a weekend to three months to the traditional three years, three-month, three-day retreat taken by some very committed practitioners.

A very popular type of retreat in the mindfulness tradition lasts for ten days. In a ten-day retreat, you’re usually with other practitioners, sitting and walking for as much as 16 hours a day—all in silence. A retreat of this length will benefit your practice (and the rest of your life) enormously.

The most important thing about practicing mindfulness is: Just do it. It’s difficult to get started sometimes, and it’s difficult to continue, but the rewards are immeasurable.

III. Mindfulness and Life

Meditation, of course, does more than just provide a quiet refuge. It also profoundly alters the way you view yourself, the world, and your place in it.

When you study a lot of traditions, it is hard not to take away something from each one that impacts the way you live and view the world. Even for a viewpoint or practice that you would never dream of adopting wholesale, you should always find something worth affirming.

In addition, views sometimes change, and you should always remain open to that change. Being firmly attached to beliefs and perspectives, as mindfulness practice suggests, can lead to great confusion and quarreling.

The Buddha even cautioned his students not to become attached to his teachings. He told his students that his teachings are a raft. When you use a raft to get from one side of the lake to the other, you don’t pick it up and carry it around with you. You leave it on the shore.

Subverting the notion of a fixed identity is one of the things a mindfulness practice will do for you. And best of all, it can help you be comfortable without having a fixed identity.

Gaining insight into the transience of the self enables you to think of yourself as a fluid reality, unable to be adequately named by conventional labels.

Underneath the words, you might use to identify yourself lies a reality that is a genuine mystery—at once conscious and self-aware, interrelated with the rest of the cosmos, and yet unfathomable in its depth.

Likewise, the practice of mindfulness can alter your understanding of ultimate reality—the underlying nature of the universe and the ultimate power that governs the universe—to allow you to feel at home with its mystery.

Mindfulness can encourage you to feel immense awe and happiness at being able to marvel at this world and our lives in it without having to provide a comprehensive and systematic explanation for the entire universe.

IV.   Lessons from Mindfulness

Within the joyous mystery that surrounds and permeates our lives, mindfulness practice allows us to affirm some very simple things about living that have struck many individuals as being true.

One simple realization is the acknowledgment that our control over life, like our knowledge of it, is very limited indeed. Mindfulness permits us to see clearly how little control we have over the events that profoundly affect us.

Much of our suffering, we realize, is caused by our dogged efforts to try to command these things over which we have no authority, but the practice also allows us to recognize that we can shape our minds in ways that are wholesome for us and others.

With the training that mindfulness practice provides, we can learn to develop our minds in ways that allow us to relinquish the need to control and to accept reality as it is in this very moment.

Note: One of the central insights of mindfulness practice is seeing the interrelatedness of reality.

Mindfulness practice also teaches us that everything we do, think, and say has an important effect—particularly on our character, but also in the lives of others. With that recognition comes a responsibility to tend to our minds with great care.

All we do and think shapes the quality of our character, and for that reason, it vitally important to be attentive to what we put in our minds and allow them to dwell on.

V.      Mindfulness and Compassion

Our species is at a critical juncture in its evolution. Perhaps because of our fragility, we always seem to be at a critical juncture.

Today, we face a great number of global crises: addressing the great inequities between rich and poor, providing adequate food and health care to all people, dealing with serious environmental issues, coping with acts of terrorism, and coming to terms with a religiously pluralistic world in which misunderstandings often lead to hatred.

If there was ever a time that we needed to practice compassion, it’s now. The problem is that many of us are not yet convinced of its importance, or if we are, we are insufficiently trained in how to practice it.

The mindfulness discipline offers one very compelling way for us to grasp the importance of compassion and to learn how to implement it in our everyday life.

A growing number of people around the world are beginning to see the necessity for us to devote more deliberate attention to the study and practice of compassion as a way to help address these massive issues that face us.

Exercising compassion and kindness is one practice that the core of every religious tradition affirms. Religions may not be able to agree about the nature and existence of God, or they may have differing views of the soul and the ultimate destiny of human life. Religions certainly profess different doctrines and perform different rituals and ceremonies, but about the importance of being kind to others and oneself, they seem to be in accord.

One of the central insights of mindfulness practice is seeing the interrelatedness of reality. Once you see how your life is closely connected with that of others, you recognize that it is only with their support that you can do anything at all.

May every person—and, indeed, may all beings—be well and happy.

VI.   Things to Consider:

  1. Which mindfulness exercises discussed in the series seem to have the most and the least appeal to you? Why?
  2. What are the advantages and disadvantages of resisting fixed labels to define your identity?

(Related: The Seven Pillars of Mindfulness)

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