September 2, 2015

Mindfulness: Training to Live with the “Intimacy of all Things.”


The window of opportunity for reversing the drastic impact of carbon emissions, which are dangerously heating the Earth’s biosphere, is closing fast; collectively, we’re at the same pivotal moment that confronted Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha-to-be, when he wandered the streets of Kapilavastu and saw signs of decay, a sick, old and dying person.

This confrontation with impermanence impacted him profoundly. He exclaimed that the vanity of youth, life, and permanence left him. Now, instead of being shocked awake by human bodies undergoing stages of death and decay, we’re witnessing the great Earth body diseased and dying. However, this is not an act of nature, like the natural aging of a human body, but the result of the unbridled forces of human greed, hatred, and delusion.

The collapse of our environmental systems and the emergence of climate chaos is the direct result of the human mind that sees everything as an object to be owned and exploited, or simply taken for granted. From such a mind the sacredness of sentiency within nature is not respected in its own right, but is valued in terms of what we, as humans, can get.

I’ve heard Dharma practitioners say that we’re part of nature and can do nothing, or that what’s happening is inevitable. This implies that we lack agency as humans or are at the mercy of an outside force. Both are a false premise. What’s happening is anthropogenic—meaning, climate change is being driven by the actions of humans. Saying we have no agency is not in accord with Buddhist understanding.

The whole premise of the Buddha’s teaching is based on the power of the mind and its ability to cultivate insight in service of overcoming ignorance. The Buddha clearly stated, “Mind precedes all things. The mind is central. Whatever intention the mind acts on, conditions the results.” It is this mind that can be trained. This activity of training is traditionally called “mindfulness,” a reductionism of the term sati. Sati literally means, “remembering,” meaning both that which enables remembering, the function of knowing, and the activity of remembering itself, which is reuniting what is split apart.

In mindfulness training, body, feeling, mind, and phenomena are placed within that womb of awareness to be known directly, contemplated, and recognized. This is a deeply compassionate activity, not just a clinical technique. To really know “what is” from a place of deep awareness is to also touch “what is” with the kind of compassion that is not just “nice” or “kind” (though that’s good) but recognizes “what is” as a part of ourselves. This is why Zenji Dogen could confidently say, “Enlightenment is intimacy with all things.”

When we most need a Buddhism that can be radical, as was the Buddha, we find a reductionist transmission to fit a growing secular mindfulness movement. This seems to aim to make us more functional in dysfunctional systems, rather than awakening investigation so we can challenge the system itself. The teaching of mindfulness has many positive results, offering relief, and increased happiness, efficiency, and production, while decreasing stress. It has been extraordinary to witness Buddhist outreach into an overwhelmed society, and its ability to offer much-needed relief and support.

There is much that is excellent and praiseworthy about the contemporary mindfulness movement. Yet, if we are not vigilant, we can once again fall into Western rationale, and reduce mindfulness to a technique for dealing with a suffering self that needs to be medicated, and an objectified world that needs to be “controlled” and “managed.” Increasingly, as mindfulness becomes fashionable in the corporate world, it is coopted to better our acquisitions portfolio, rather than challenge the very premise we’re operating from. In the process, we fail to enter into the deeper union that mindfulness truly invites, training us in the intimacy of all things. For that we will need more than our personal mindfulness program that tries to manage our night sweating disconnect.

We must bring our suffering world into the womb of our awareness, so its life-giving, unifying, and healing potency can transmute a world that’s ultimately a reflection of ourselves. We can do this in a very simple way, taking small steps that dissolve the splits we all carry. First we should understand that everything is included in our practice. Time and again, people come from a place that associates “good practice” with silent, quiet spaces, positive thoughts and uplifting emotions. Questions about how to work with people and situations that aren’t “spiritual” are ubiquitous. I sympathize; I also have a strong default that tends to separate out “spiritual” and “everything else.” Problem is, about 99 percent of life is “everything else.”

More subtly, we have to understand that there is no “out there.” Everything is within this one awareness, this one mind. The great saint Anandamayi Ma said, “Either melt wall of separation through love, or burn it away through wisdom, then you will know the world as your own, yourself.” Through love, try this first step: just relax, soften your belly, soften your gaze, stop chasing things, and allow all the moving parts of your kaleidoscope world to be received in awareness. The first step through wisdom: pay attention to your thinking. When not illuminated with mindful attention, it creates a world of “me” and “them” over and over. Being interested in that is a starting point.

The enlightenment we need now is not one that abandons an Earth in crisis, or that is fearful of contact, or rejects a stressed and suffering world. Before Siddhartha Gautama’s awakening, the yogis of his time rejected everything. They were only concerned with dwelling in refined states of absorption or in conquering the needs of the body; Siddhartha himself was fearful of the world, emaciated, life-denying, tortured, and removed from society. After his awakening, we meet the Buddha as a fully engaged, relational, socially disruptive, politically savvy man who was a radical agent of change and who transformed a civilization. He wasn’t hiding out, trying to get away from it all. On the contrary: he faced difficulty and was certainly up for engaging the world around him. He didn’t start like that, but his journey led him to become one of most influential figures in human history, whose courageous example is exactly the inspiration we need now.

* Excerpt from Time to Stand Up: An Engaged Buddhist Manifesto for Our Earth by Thanissara, copyright 2015 North Atlantic Books.



The Perfect Moral Storm of Climate Change.


Author: Thanissara

Editor: Travis May

Photo: Flickr/Hartwig HKD

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