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On the other hand, if we continue to dominate the planet the way our species has for the past six or seven thousand years, it could be very unhealthy. Regardless of the beauty that’s come out of civilization, we could continue on a path of colossal upheavals that basically come from a human mind that does not make peace with itself—war, genocide, famine, grossly inadequate responses to natural disasters. These upheavals could destroy everything we hold most dear.
Earlier you talked about the promise of mindfulness being much greater than simply focusing attention. What are some of the keys to bringing about the profound effects of mindfulness that you’ve been talking about?
Ultimately, the path is uncertain. All we can do is listen deeply to the calling of our own hearts and of the world, and do the best we can. One of the ways that I have tried to bring the healing and transformative potential of the dharma into modern everyday life in the West has been through attempts to develop an American vocabulary, a Western vocabulary, for speaking about things that until now we haven't really had a vocabulary for except within religious traditions. I emphasize the universality of the power of mindfulness and awareness, but I'm not talking about a universal church or a universal religious movement. I'm talking about understanding the nature of what it means to be human. I don't even like to use the word “spiritual.”
Can we simply address what it means to be human—from an evolutionary point of view, from an historical point of view? What is available to us in this brief moment when the universe lifts itself up in the form of a human sentient body and being, and we live out our seventy, eighty, or ninety years (if that), and then dissolve back into the undifferentiated ocean of potential? A lot of the time we become so self-absorbed, so preoccupied, that we don't pursue the kind of fundamental inquiry Aristotle proposed when he made the comment that "The unexamined life is not worth living."
In addition to developing a universal, nonreligious vocabulary, I have tried to stress the critical importance of the non-dual aspect of meditation by emphasizing that it is not about getting anywhere else. This of course immediately brings up a lot of bewilderment in people, because almost everything we do seems to be about trying to get somewhere else. Why on earth would you not want to get somewhere else? If you're in a lot of pain, or if you have some kind of illness or whatever, you always want to get back to where you were, or get to some better place in the future. It sounds almost un-American just to settle for what is, but that is a misunderstanding of the potential for living in the present moment. It’s not a matter of settling. It’s a matter of recognizing that, in some sense, it never gets any better than this.
What do you mean?
Quite simply, the future is not here, even though we can create as many illusions about it as we'd like. The past is already over. We have to deal with things as they are in the moment. So, it’s most effective to deal with them if you don't perpetrate illusions on yourself about the nature of your experience, and then fall into wishful thinking or ambition that drives you to create more harm than good.
When we delude ourselves about the true nature of our experience, we not only harm other people. We also harm ourselves, because we don’t befriend certain elements of who we are, of our basic connection to others and to our environment. That's very sad and very unsatisfying. Healing and transformation are possible the moment we accept the actuality of things as they are—good, bad, or ugly—and then act on that understanding with imagination, kindness, and intentionality. This is not easy or painless, by any means, but it is both an embodiment of and a path toward wisdom and peace.
In this regard, we are trying to create a way of speaking about mindfulness as a practice, a way of being, and also as the culmination of the practice in any given moment that is so commonsensical that people will say, “Of course, that makes sense. It makes sense to be in the present moment, to be a little less judgmental or at least be aware of how judgmental I am. Why didn’t I notice this earlier? It’s so obvious.”
Who can we rely on to do the work of bringing this message to more people?
This is a huge challenge, given how imprisoned we are and how blinded by our own conditioning. It would be great if the Dalai Lama could do it all by himself, but there simply isn’t enough of him and the other great teachers to go around. Plus, not everybody can hear it in the language of the traditional meditation vehicles. So perhaps we need many highly dedicated and skillful meditation teachers, steeped in their own practice, to fulfill the need that’s waiting out there. There's so much suffering in the world. Who are we not to respond to it in some way? That is why a lot of our efforts in MBSR go into professional training, toward developing a whole new generation of people deeply grounded in this universal dharma expression and committed to bringing it into the world in various ways as a skillful means for healing and transformation at a time that the world is crying out for kindness and wisdom.
What’s required to teach mindfulness other than a good human heart?
If we are teaching mindfulness in one setting or another, it really needs to be grounded in our own first-person experience. It needs to be grounded in humility and not-knowing, an openness to possibility but also a deep seeing into self and other. Since it’s available to all of us, it’s not really such a big deal or a special private possession.
Of course, some people will take mindfulness and other practices and put their own stamp on them. Some people are going to make a big campaign out of it without really understanding the depth of it, or understanding mindfulness only in a partial way. The inevitable possibility that some people may approach or exploit these teachings and practices in misguided ways is part of the price of the success of bringing mindfulness into the larger culture.
One of the big responsibilities of those of us who are doing this work is to nurture and mentor the younger people and those who are coming to it for the first time. We can remind them, or clarify for them, that it is not just a fad or merely a smart career move at the moment to become a mindfulness teacher or exponent. The value of mindfulness is both profound and unique. It calls us to take a deep look into the nature of experience itself, and the nature of our own minds and hearts. This is a kind of scientific inquiry, since the mind is really a huge mystery from the scientific point of view.
All of this work hinges on appreciating how awareness can balance thought. There's nothing wrong with thinking. So much that is beautiful comes out of thinking and out of our emotions. But if our thinking is not balanced with awareness, we can end up deluded, perpetually lost in thought, and out of our minds just when we need them the most.
Originally published in the March 2010 issue of the Shambhala Sun.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Judith Simmer-Brown, Karen Maezen
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