by Arlette Poland
Arlette Poland, Ph.D., J.D., is a university professor whose specialties lie in Buddhism, Judaism, and Science and Religion. She is also a Dharma student, bodhisattva and feminist. Dr. Poland lives in Palm Desert in Southern California. She is a frequent contributor to American Buddhist Women. For questions or comments she can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
"Students... might see mindfulness as a quick fix to reduce stress, improve athletic performance, lower high blood pressure, even help their focus for class... Thus, they start and sometimes end with the sense that this practice is about them, alone.
These days it seems as if everyone is peddling mindfulness...
As a Buddhist and a University Professor who teaches the Buddha dharma and other religions at various universities, I can safely say that the students (and others) have accepted the media presentation of the practice of meditation. Due to the separation of religion and government (sometimes misnamed ‘separation of church and state’ and which is really a rule about not favoring any one religion, actually) those who have appropriated meditation into secular endeavors have given it the name of mindfulness. The name itself is not an issue, at all. However, it does leave out the heart, and kindness. In Buddhism, we think of the heart and mind as one. So, to use the term mindfulness puts more emphasis on the mind and the so-called individual or self. Right away, this robs the practice of its history as a remedy for suffering. So what? You might ask. I am relieved of my suffering when I practice mindfulness, so what is the big deal? You might assert.
In the long run, the goal, if it can be stated in that word, of meditation is to increase compassion and decrease not only our own suffering but also the suffering of others through our acts or words. McMindfulness tends to forget these two prongs of the point of meditation. One prong is about decreasing our own suffering. The other prong is about becoming aware of and acting on ways to reduce the suffering of others. While one prong is certainly better than none, the two prongs together are really what any human is called to in order to be the best human we can be. (In Hebrew, we call this a mensch, and I say the women who qualify are menschettes) In my own practice, I have reduced this ‘goal’ to one question and its momentary and ever changing answer: What is my opportunity for greater care and connection for self and others in this moment? McMindfulness tends to ask the question relative to self only.
Students in my classes at universities approach mindfulness in one of two ways. First, they might see mindfulness as a quick fix to reduce stress, improve athletic performance, lower high blood pressure, even help their focus for class, to name a few. Thus, they start and sometimes end with the sense that this practice is about them, alone. Some of them shy away from mindfulness because they think one must stop all thinking in order to meditate. This is a mistaken impression of the practices of meditation, which are many and varied. I remind my students that they are in school so stopping thinking is not really what we want them to do. When they stop laughing, I talk them through a simple breathing meditation. Invariably, they want to meditate for a few minutes in every class thereafter. When we cover the Buddha dharma in the course of the class, I remind them of the two prongs of meditation. Then as the semester progresses, typically most of them soften towards each other even during finals.
While the misunderstandings about mindfulness, or meditation are correctable, the misconceptions are pervasive in our world. The good thing is that slowing down and becoming watchful of our breath, our thoughts and reactions to events is always a useful practice since now is all we know we have, and now is when we are breathing. One of my favorite exercises for my own practice and for my students is to think the following sentences. Each sentence follows with the breath and is repeated about three times. “I am the body breathing. I matter because I breathe. Breathing is my purpose.”
There is the story about the guard who, along with the person whose house was guarded, practiced mindfulness. Neither the owner nor the guard understood the two pronged focus of meditation. While the owner was gone one night, and the guard was on duty, the guard was mindfully noticing a burglar break in to the house, take things and then leave. The owner demanded an explanation. The guard stuttered, “But I was mindful of the events as I noticed the burglar break in and then leave with things!”
Noticing your breath, your body, the world around you; these are all tools of mindfulness. It is much like being a witness who is highly aware of every detail. Like the guard, we become very vigilant of sounds, events and even words that we or others speak. What we miss with McMindfulness is the second part of the question stated above. What is my opportunity for greater care and connection for others, right now? Meditation is designed as a tool to reduce and maybe even alleviate our suffering. That is one half of the point. The other half is for us to watch for and actively participate in reducing and maybe alleviating suffering of others, as well.
What is wrong with a fast food approach to meditation? Well, other than the fact that it is an oxymoron of the highest order, it feeds our Western approach of ‘me’ first and sometimes only me, at all. Meditation or as some would like to call it, mindfulness, requires the practitioner to become aware of the connection between what is thought of as the self and the body, along with the other bodies and events around us.
So, maybe next time we can ask ourselves ‘What is my opportunity for greater care and connection for self AND others, in this moment?’ As we ask that question, maybe we can remember that in reality, without exception, we all inter-are, everything inter-is (wonderful new verbs created by Thich Nhat Hanh).
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