The myth of Mindfulness

One of the biggest turning points in my meditation practice came via understanding a key emphasis in the Buddha’s teachings: that of training the mind, rather than following the heart.

Up until then, like so many others, I had been riding the meditation train for years with mixed success.

I read numerous books on the subject, attended Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction seminars, visualized a gazillion tracks of guided serenity & mantras, and sat through many hours of binaural beat frequencies with the goal of synchronizing my brain hemispheres into a more relaxed alpha range, and on a good day even a deep theta state.

Though I made some progress, and often felt calm or relaxed, I could never seem to sustain that feeling. I had complied with the spiritual notion of following my bliss, but mindfulness remained out of reach – a distant, illusory, mythical destination.

The instructions seemed simple enough: “stay in the present”, “be in the now”, just “simply be aware of what is arising in the moment”. I did all of those things, and did them well – yet it felt completely, inexorably hollow and empty.

Turns out I had it all wrong.

Compassion rising

2014 has been dubbed the "year of mindfulness", which means that the quality of compassion gets to share some airtime as well, thanks to a world in turmoil.

In a previous post, I discussed how compassion is not an emotion or mood, but a state of being that can be cultivated. Far from being a passive, nauseating, sickly-sweet demeanour, true compassion is synonymous with skillful action – action that is inspired from the largest and brutally honest perspective of reality.

The Buddha went so far as to say that the mind’s natural state is compassionate. A theory that has recently been confirmed by several psychologists and evolutionary scientists: our bodies and brains are wired to be good.

Studies have shown that compassionate people have stronger immune systems, higher energy levels and live longer, happier lives.

Despite the trance of “survival of the fittest” in our collective memory, it was Darwin himself among others who wrote extensively about the presence of compassion in primates, and how it contributed towards the survival of their communities and tribes.

If this is true i.e. if we are indeed wired to be good, then why is the world in the state that it is? And why are some of us able to show more compassion than others?

Happiness is freely available - help yourself to it!

Quick: Are you happy?

No, its not a trick question.

What is interesting: the million different connotations of the word the question brings up. We each have our own definition and interpretation of what happiness means. 

Whether you’re close to or far away from your ideal, teacher Thich Nhat Hanh offers Buddhist practice as a clever way to enjoy life a.k.a. one way to realize happiness, which is apparently freely available.

But before we discuss that, lets get a bit of clarity around the definition itself.

Compassion: it's not what you think

I’m crazy about the idea of compassion. Completely nuts.

However, prior to my love affair with it, I was just plain confused.

You see, I equated compassion with the warm fuzzy feeling in my body when I heard Mother Teresa-que stories of selfless action . Or the heartwrenching sensation in my chest as I watched innocent children turn into statistics of another senseless war.

Turns out those feelings were anything but!

Though compassion is used interchangably with “empathy” or “sympathy” or even “pity”, psychologist Paul Ekman clears the air in conversation with the Dalai Lama in his delightful book Emotional Awareness. He explains that when we see suffering, it can elicit one or more of the these responses:

1. Emotional Recognition: To know or recognize how another person is feeling.

2. Emotional Resonance: To actually feel what the other person is feeling.

Compassion, on the other hand, is simply the desire to relieve the suffering of another. It is not an emotion or mood, rather a state of being that can be cultivated. Once cultivated, it becomes an enduring feature of the person, as opposed to emotions that come and go.


What's your Ikigai?

The word “retire” is foreign to the Okinawan vocabulary.

Instead, the residents of this Japanese community hold their Ikigai - reason for getting up each morning - sacred. Whether its growing food or taking care of their children, this notion of a purposeful life seamlessly energizes their often centenarian lives.

Ikigai is one of the many common lifestyle factors identified by National Geographic writer and researcher Dan Buettner, in Blue Zones: areas of the world where folks reach the age of 100 at rates 10 times greater than in the U.S. while living healthier lives, with a fraction of the rates of heart disease and cancer.

The cure for hopelessness isn't hope

Have you ever consoled somebody with “don’t worry, everything will be alright” or “things will workout – don’t give up hope” and felt a sense of utter emptiness in your words, no matter how well intentioned they were? That you were trying to impose a fabricated, highy improbable fairy tale that nobody – not least the person in pain - was buying into?

We’ve all been there. Even looking back on our dark nights of the soul – was it really hope that kept us alive?

Hope is defined as ”the general feeling that some desire will be fulfilled; to intend with some possibility of fulfillment.”

Don’t get me wrong. In the battle between despair and hope, I will fight to death for the latter. They don’t call me an optimist for nothing.  Hope is beautiful, uplifting, inspiring and a mesmerising image of what could be.

However, inherent in the definition of hope is the notion of some nebulous, unpredictable future tense. And this is what makes is so fragile – prone to easily crumbling to the vagaries of our circumstances, thoughts, moods and emotions.

Can you tell the Story of Stuff?

In case you’ve been living in seclusion, or just haven’t gotten around to it yet, here’s a treat for you.

Grab a cup of tea and watch The Story of Stuff – an incredibly articulate, funny, and creative description of – well – stuff! You know, everything around us. How does it get to us? What goes into making it? What is all that production and consumption doing to our planet?

Besides the content of this 20 min film, just the energy and passion of author Annie Leonard for environmental health and justice is inspiring.

Shout out to Buddha the neuroscientist!

A thought is just an artifact of the mind.

That’s right. It’s nothing but a mundane, run-of-the-mill widget manufactured wholesale by the endless synaptic activity of the neurons in your brain. 

Ah. I can hear you bristle with argument. Isn’t the human brain one of the most ingenious, incredible biological marvels? Thought is produced by 100 billion nerve cells in a complex circuit that even the most advanced computer networks can’t hold a candle to. Surely that deserves some respect?

I couldn’t agree more. But if that is true, dear changemaker, why do you spend most of your waking hours at thought sites of historical interest digging up ancient stories or mired in the imagined ruins of the future?

The Buddha spent his life investigating the nature of mind and thought. Central to his teachings is the reminder to never accept a theory on face value, but to try it on for size in our own lives.

Take a cue from the Buddha. Hang up your archaeological hat. Become a scientist instead. Your mind is an amazing laboratory where you can turn thought artifacts from relics to objects of art. Here’s how.

Mindfulness Without Borders

“The first step toward peace-building is through looking inward, cultivating your own inner peace and then, looking outward to bring peace to the world.

As Mindfulness Ambassadors you are joining hundreds of council members from around the world who stand for kindness and compassion – driving positive impact in your community”.

With that encouragement and inspiration to volunteer as a future mindfulness -facilitator, I left the day long Exploration workshop conducted by Mindfulness Without Borders, a non-profit organization founded by Theo Koffler and boasting an advisory council that includes Deepak Chopra andDaniel Goleman.