by Larry Yang: As we already are feeling divisiveness of current politics and upcoming presidential elections…As we feel into pain and complexity of people holding seeming irreconcilable values which actually harm each other, on topics like the economy, immigration and same-sex marriage…
As even people’s intentions for doing good in the world, whether through nonviolent dissent, or simple holiday shopping to provide for a family’s happiness is met with pepper spray and handcuffs…
Now more than ever we need our Mindfulness Practice.
We need the Freedom that Mindfulness invites for us — the freedom that we do not have to follow the unconscious patterns of acute reactivity. We need to remember that it is possible to notice deeply what is happening, understand it with some wisdom, treat it with some of the compassion inherent in our humanity, and move into responses and actions that are of benefit — that is, to move toward that which lessens suffering and creates happiness, not just for us as individuals, but us as a collective world.
Our Mindfulness practice, whether it is on the cushion paying attention to the emotions and thoughts that weave between the breath and bodily sensations, or whether it is in the world paying attention to our actions and behaviors which emerge from our emotions and thoughts, is always a reminder that in order to change any unhealthy or harmful patterns — in order to transform any suffering — we have to first become aware of the patterns themselves. We cannot change anything that we are not aware of. This is also true of our collective transformation into a culture that meets the needs of greater numbers of people and beings: We first have to become deeply aware of the conditions that we are living within, and then that will guide us into transforming the world into a better place to live.
On a personal level this may show up within the experience of intense emotions. Often we are driven by unconscious motivations of our emotional landscape. How often do we feel lost in the rage or the upset that sometimes arises? The powerful impact that Mindfulness brings is that the experience of being aware of the rage is not the rage itself. Being mindful of all the sensations of rage or anger is not being lost in or consumed by the fire. How often do we actually feed the experience of anger without examining what is really happening? Do you find yourself pouring fuel on the fire of rage, or even getting angry at the anger? What might be happening other than the thoughts or emotions inflaming the fuel?
If we examine closely, we will likely find that the experience of anger and rage have pleasant sensations associated with them. Pleasant sensations are always seductive. That is the nature of “pleasant.” And generally, without an awareness practice, unconscious conditioning impels our human experience to desire more pleasant sensations — without any questions asked. We begin to enjoy the sensations of feeling angry and even feed them with experiences such as self-righteousness, or a sense of “better-than,” or even revenge. The deceptive nature of the pleasant feelings of rage is that the behaviors and actions which emerge do not always lead to less suffering in the world. Much of our behavior and actions in the world are driven by the immediacy of this kind of reaction toward strong emotions or acute pain. These actions often lead to more suffering — unless there is Mindfulness.
Anger is an important barometer possibly indicating when boundaries have been crossed, or injustices have occurred or oppression has been inflicted. However, anger can also have an unconscious life of its own when it is not met with the central question of our Awareness practice, which is also a vital choice-point of Buddhist spiritual practice: Will this lead to more suffering, or will this lead to less?
Life is complicated and this is not always a clean or clear decision point. Our practice simply invites us to do the best we can — to be as mindful, aware and kind to whatever arises, even our intense emotional landscapes. The personal mantra that I have developed to navigate through the complex dilemmas and social issues arising currently is:
Can I be mindful and loving of whatever arises.
If I can’t be loving in this moment, can I be kind.
If I can’t be kind, can I be non-judgmental.
If I can’t be non-judgmental, can I not cause harm.
And if I cannot not cause harm, can I cause the least amount of harm possible?
Our awareness practice does not simply end with how it applies to our personal life. The Buddha did not design an individual practice that solely leads to personal salvation or enlightenment. The invitation of the Buddha’s teachings is to make our Mindfulness relevant and integral to not only our personal journey towards happiness, but our collective transformation towards Freedom. It is written in the Satipatthana Sutta:
The Noble Ones abide contemplating internally, they abide contemplating externally, they abide contemplating both externally and internally.
This practice of applying awareness to our internal personal experience and the external collective experience is how we create Freedom for all beings — it is how we become aware of what needs to be transformed. Referencing our current reality, to change the dynamic of the 1 percent and the 99 percent, we first need to become fully aware of the suffering and the disparities involved, and how these disparities actually cause harm to the 100 percent, not just the 99 percent. In addition, not everyone in the 99 percent is aware that that they are part of the 99 percent. This is a process that is beginning to expand. Some of the 99 percent might have a few more creature comforts than others (i.e. “pleasant” conditions in life); however, this does not mean that they are not oppressed by a larger system in place. Our collective consciousness is in the midst of being raised. And this collective awareness raising is not separate or different from the deepening of our personal mindfulness practice, internally and externally.
What we do on the meditation cushion to create clarity of mind, openness in our hearts, and mindfulness of our thoughts, emotions and actions is not any different than the work we do in the world to create a better life for all of us. As many spiritual masters and social activist elders have told us, from Mahatma Gandhi to Audre Lorde, “We must be the change we wish to see in the world.” Mindfulness can be the practice that connects our individual spiritual path with the path of all beings. Our paths toward Freedom are the same. We are not separate from one another.
Thich Nhat Hanh writes:
When you break through to the truth, compassion springs up like a stream of water. With that compassion, you can embrace even the people who have persecuted you. When you’re motivated by desire to help those who are victims of ignorance, only then are you free from your suffering and feelings of violation. Don’t wait for things to change around you. You have to practice liberating yourself. Then you will be equipped with the power of compassion and understanding, the only kind of power that can help transform an environment full of injustice and discrimination. You have to become such a person — one who can embody tolerance, understanding, and compassion. You transform yourself into an instrument for social change and change in the collective consciousness of mankind.
Thich Nhat Hanh describes one of the meanings embedded in sati, or mindfulness, and that is the capacity to remember what will lead to freedom in our lives — remembering that our personal and collective path toward Freedom is not dependent on any external conditions. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. has spoken, “We shall overcome because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” In his wisdom, he prepares us that Justice, as worthy a task as it is in our lives, will take longer than any of us would like. It will require the efforts of the many rather than the few. And it will require every spiritual attribute we can muster. There is tremendous injustice and unfairness in our cultures, our society and our world. And the teaching is that Freedom is not even dependent upon Life being fair or just. True Freedom does not mean to be in a place where there is no problem, struggle or oppression. True Freedom means to be in the midst of any and/or all those things, and have clarity in our minds, openness in our hearts and integrity in our actions. This is the kind of Freedom that will allow us to move through even our most difficult struggles with greater ease and benefit for us all.
Now more than ever, we need to remember this.
Buddhist Meditation Teacher