by Roshi Joan Halifax: When we use the term mindfulness, we are usually referring to an experience of being fully with the arising and passing away of the present…
moment after moment. Jon Kabat-Zinn puts it this way: “… moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness, cultivated by paying attention in a specific way, that is, in the present moment, and as non-reactively, as non-judgmentally, and as openheartedly as possible.”
Maybe it is helpful to explore what mindfulness practice might do to make that possible. For example, mindfulness can nurture attentional balance, the sense of being well grounded. It can also enhance clarity of perception, and our ability to rest our attention on an object of perception in a non-distracted way.
Mindfulness meditation can as well support moral alignment and integrity, as well as insight and prosocial attitudes and action.
Popular mindfulness is sometimes described as a “well-being” practice that can reduce stress and anxiety, allay various psychosomatic symptoms, or assist us in adjusting to difficult situations. That is ok. But mindfulness practice is more about an approach to practice and life that allows us to open up to our ground of being, to who we really are.
This is related to equanimity, which is to say, we can care for all beings equally, holding all in equal regard, as we maintain uprightness, flexibility, and receptivity, even in relation to people or things that are very difficult for us to deal with. For example, many years ago, I came out of my apartment building in New York City, and saw a man rip a radio antenna from a car hood and begin to thrash a woman. I jumped into the middle of this situation and shouted at him to stop. He was so startled that the woman was able to escape. My sensitivity to gender violence is high, so my immediate impulse was to defend the woman against her attacker. After the woman and the man had both ran off (in opposite directions) and the threat was gone, I experienced relief at having protected someone of my own gender from further harm.
The second wave of understanding was related not only to the woman’s situation, but to the man’s state of mind. After I calmed down, I had the insight that the state he was in was also suffering. This realization was a turning point for me, that even those who perpetrate violence, as well as those states of mind that give rise to violence are suffering. This was a very powerful moment of insight for me. I experienced outrage and reacted instinctually, like a mother protecting her child, but then I felt compassion not only for the woman but also for the man. It is important to realize that compassion and wisdom, or concern, care, and insight, are braided features. At that time, I was in my twenties and had just been introduced to meditation, but I saw the effect of practice on not only the action I took but also the understanding that arose in me after having engaged in what I hope was an altruistic response to harm.
Yet I don’t think that mindfulness is a guarantee that our mental suffering can always be surfaced and transformed. Mindfulness is not a panacea. But in the right conditions, it can truly serve our lives and maybe even save our lives and the lives of others.
When I teach meditation I share with most students a sequence of processes that can serve to prime mindfulness. The sequence begins with settling into the body and finding a posture that exemplifies qualities of mind that we are endeavoring to cultivate: stability, ease, uprightness. This is followed by what we call in Buddhism “the cultivation of Bodhicitta” or an altruistic heart, a heart that cares for the well-being of others. This means remembering that we are practicing meditation not just as a self-improvement program, but to awaken in order to free others from suffering.
In the next stage of practice, we let the aspirational dimension move into the background of our awareness. We then can engage in concentration practice, like concentration on the breath, or body sensations, or on wholesome phrases, for example, so that the mind can settle. This is directed meditation or concentration meditation. As concentration deepens, we might engage in insight practice, or we may drop into open awareness or non-directed meditation. At the end of a meditation session, we always conclude the practice with dedicating the merit: whatever good that has arisen in the experience of practice, may it nourish the well-being of others.
It might be important to recall that the word meditation is a word like sport; it can refer to many different approaches to mind training. In the approach I teach my students, a number of different processes are engaged in. For example, one set of practices can produce greater groundedness and stability (attentional balance), and the capacity for seeing reality more clearly (insight). The cultivation of Bodhicitta can nourish prosocial states of mind, where concern and care are present. Another phase of practice can cultivate greater insight into the truth of impermanence and the absence of a separate self-identity. Another approach supports us actualizing the integration of compassion and wisdom, which is the foundation for social action in the world, as we can become less vulnerable to the kinds of challenges that we might face in caring for a dying person or working in the prison system or with homeless people, or caring for your child, or being a teacher or human rights worker, or being a CEO or politician. We are not disconnected from the truth of suffering, but we have the mental stability and the deep aspiration and insight to serve.
Equanimity provides us with stability and spaciousness to serve effectively. And equanimity is not separate from loving kindness, compassion or sympathetic joy. Often what inhibits us from action is the lack of equanimity. A lack of equanimity can mean that we are operating from a base of fear. Caught in the grip of fear, we are probably not able to respond to the suffering in the world in a skillful way. We might be responding to the world from a perspective that is much more about protecting one’s own ego.
Meditation is often being presented as an approach to wellbeing, as a way to feel better. It becomes something that can be useful in schools, in medicine, in politics, in corporations and so forth. Yet from the point of view of well-being, meditation can be easily commodified; wellness is easily marketed. Yet the deepest reason to meditate is to wake up. Waking up is not just about yourself. If you wake up, you will not turn away from climate change, tribalism, gun violence, sexism, war, economic disparities, and the many issues that are so much in our consciousness today in relation to suffering. If you wake up, you want to do something about suffering. And it is not just an idea. You will be doing something about it, because it is the nature of awakening that we are aligned with the vow to end suffering. And you also see the truth of “interbeing.”
In a text about the Bodhisattva ideal (A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life), Shantideva says, If there is a thorn in your foot, your hand will not say: Well, maybe I should do something or maybe not…. or maybe my foot will appreciate my hand. Rather your hand will automatically pull the thorn out of your foot. Thich Nhat Hanh says that if your left hand is injured your right hand will take care of your left hand. We are in a relationship of interconnectedness with the whole world as it is, and when we understand that, we do the best we can to end suffering. Yet when the ego is involved in acts of altruism, one can easily get sick or harm others in the process of trying to be of service, which shows up as pathological altruism, empathic distress, moral suffering, disrespect, and burnout, areas I have written about in my latest book: “Standing at the Edge.”
Mediation can give us perspective. When the ego starts raising its little (or big) head, you might recognize it more quickly. And as a result of that, you can shift yourself out of a toxic response to suffering to a healthier response, because meditation is an approach to the mind that can provide the means for us to become more familiar with our mental continuum, with our conditioning, with our triggers and reactivity.
Yet I have seen wonderful teachers suffer flashes of ego. Really, it is important to be humble in relation to the whole dance of our personalities. We are human beings, after all, whether we are a great teacher or a struggling student of the dharma…… whether we are a rich politician or a death row prisoner.
That’s what I appreciated about my teacher Roshi Bernie Glassman, who died in early November this past year. As he became sicker and sicker with his stroke and then cancer, and as his physical world became smaller and more fraught, he became bigger, his heart became bigger. He said to his wife Eve Marko and me one day that one of the things that happened to him with the stroke was that his feelings were much more accessible to him.
When you saw Bernie on the streets with homeless people or at Bearing Witness Retreats in Auschwitz, he was in his element. In Auschwitz, there was so much history present and so much horrendous suffering, including contemporary suffering when grandchildren of SS officers were meeting grandchildren of people who survived the camps. He would sit there, completely open, without flashing any sense of protection in front of himself. He truly embodied this integration of wisdom and compassion. Yes, he had the capacity to hold himself upright in the midst of extreme suffering. This was one of his great lessons he gave us.
I think Bernie’s mental structure was strong as a result of his many years of strict and dedicated practice. And then he did what many older practitioners do: you don’t keep pushing your practice; rather your practice becomes more integrated into your everyday life. Bernie just became Bernie. He became the true man of no rank. He touched some of us very deeply. But also touched thousands upon thousands of people who have been influenced by his courage, vision, and willingness to bring his life, his practice, and his students to charnel grounds of all kinds.
It’s not just that Bernie perceived the truth of suffering and thought about it. He was willing to roll up his sleeves and do something. I think this is critical, because it is one thing to have insight; it is another thing to engage in courageous transformative action.
I went to the memorial service for him in Yonkers. In the course of the ceremony one person after another spoke of his commitment to bring forth justice and love. Bernie showed all of us how powerful it is when you meet the truth of suffering directly. Bernie was not afraid to be in the trenches, the camps, the charnel grounds of our global society. This kind of action, bearing witness to homelessness, or practicing in the camps, or sitting with dying people, comes from that willingness to open to life fully in order to be with the truth of suffering and also the possibility of freedom from suffering. And in this way to respond to the cries of suffering in our world with wisdom and compassion.