Mindfulness & Ethical Livelihood

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Photo by distelfliege

Being a practitioner of mindfulness without a system of ethics may help one relax, become more focused, or be less reactive in difficult situations, but much deeper benefits are available to us and to those around us when we begin to practice from a place of intentional wholesomeness. The eightfold path in Buddhism provides a helpful guide for ideals or standards we can aspire to in order to ensure our practice truly benefits us and others with whom we are irrevocably interconnected.

The fifth rung of the path, an aspect of moral discipline or virtue, is Ethical (Right) Livelihood. Our world is monetized and so most of us must work to meet our basic needs. We are expected to spend at least half of our waking hours earning our keep. So if we wish to live a life that is wholesome and based on our highest values, how can we do so if our job requires us to harm others, either directly or indirectly?

…a householder knowing his income and expenses leads a balanced life, neither extravagant nor miserly, knowing that thus his income will stand in excess of his expenses, but not his expenses in excess of his income. – Dighajanu (Vyagghapajja) Sutta: Conditions of Welfare

Sure, it would be nice to have a job that does amazing things for the world, but most of us are doing well to just be able to survive. The method by which we make a living can be ethical or unethical in many ways, both subtle and obvious. If evolution and personal growth is our aim, it is important to look beyond our paychecks and ask some penetrating questions.

On the most obvious level we might ask ourselves, “Does my work involve killing, injuring, sickening, or oppressing other beings?” It isn’t hard to see how these tasks are incongruent with a compassionate life. But, we can also harm others through duties that involve deception, greed, exploitation, or squandering of natural resources. Are we expected to mislead people in order to make money? Do we get ahead primarily by stepping on the backs of others? Are we working to excess in order to hoard more wealth than we need – tying up resources that could benefit others? Does our work harm the environment on which we and other beings depend?

And what is wrong livelihood? Scheming, persuading, hinting, belittling, & pursuing gain with gain. – Maha-cattarisaka Sutta: The Great Forty

There is also much good work out there to be done that truly benefits others, although sadly our culture does not tend to reward these roles as richly as many other professions. Does your job help provide people with basic needs? Do you help create something useful that makes lives or the environment safer or better in some way? Do you protect other beings or help maintain their safety? Does your work attempt to heal other beings or ease their suffering in some way? Are you spreading happiness through your chosen vocation?

If you’ve had a nagging feeling that the work you do is unethical, I invite you to begin to think about how you might make a change. Is it possible to transform your job from within so that your particular duties are more beneficial? Can you encourage your employers or colleagues to reconsider the way they operate the company? Can you engage in some additional work (maybe volunteering) to undo the damage that is done? Will you need to pursue a different career altogether, and if so, what do you need to get the ball rolling? Are you willing to investigate other opportunities? Is there someone who can act as a guide or a mentor? Although it may seem daunting to consider, the long-term rewards of living a life in alignment with one’s highest values can be priceless.

The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others. – Mahatma Gandhi

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Mindfulness & Ethical Intention

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Photo by Tee Cee

Mindfulness is a way of life and a practice that can enhance wellbeing. But, practicing mindfulness without ethics runs the risk of further entrenching us in the very qualities that cause suffering. If we don’t have a set of wise principles that guide our practice, we risk it becoming all about me, or “seizing the day”, or chasing after more of what we think we want. The eightfold path in Buddhism provides a helpful guide for ideals or standards we can aspire to in order to ensure our practice truly benefits us and others with whom we are irrevocably interconnected.

The second rung of the eightfold path, an aspect of insight or wisdom, is Ethical (Right) Intention. Intention is the driver behind action – one’s motivation or heartfelt wish. It is important because our intentions orient us and point us in a certain direction. Cultivating wholesome intentions involves three aspects of practice:

  1. renunciation – taming the wanting mind by seeing ordinary desire as the source of dissatisfaction and suffering
  2. good will – generating spontaneous, selfless love for all beings
  3. harmlessness – learning to confront aggression (our own and others) with compassion rather than violence

We cannot will ourselves to achieve any of these things – rather, it requires patient observation and practice. First we must make it a habit to turn inward and notice our own internal experiences, which requires training in attentional control. Then we can observe the subtle interplay and consequences of our thoughts, emotions, physical sensations and actions. Through this process we naturally begin to favor more wholesome intentions because we see the benefit they bring.

The opposites of these three wholesome intentions are desire, ill-will and harmfulness. Intentions can be distorted by our delusions – they may appear beneficial at first glance, but actually be misguided or inappropriate. Detecting the subtler “near enemies” of our best intentions requires mindfulness, self-awareness and honesty. This allows us to be more attentive to unskillful impulses as they arise, practice self-compassion so we can have the courage to examine them, and cultivate the self-regulation skills to refrain from acting upon them. We must be willing to learn from our mistakes.

Associating with wise, virtuous and generous people from whom we can learn and be influenced can help us in this journey. It can be quite beneficial to have a trusted teacher to guide us along the way. We can also make it a habit to practice with a community of likeminded friends who motivate us on our path and keep us accountable to our highest intentions. In this way, we begin to step out of the cycle of suffering and live with more virtuous purpose.

…one who denies the moral efficacy of action and measures achievement in terms of gain and status will aspire to nothing but gain and status, using whatever means he can to acquire them. When such pursuits become widespread, the result is suffering, the tremendous suffering of individuals, social groups, and nations out to gain wealth, position, and power without regard for consequences. The cause for the endless competition, conflict, injustice, and oppression does not lie outside the mind. These are all just manifestations of intentions, outcroppings of thoughts driven by greed, by hatred, by delusion. – Bikkhu Bodhi

The Ethics of Mindfulness

FullSizeRender 3Practicing mindfulness without a system of ethics runs counter to its original purpose, which is the alleviation of suffering. This is because cultivating values like non-harming, compassion, and moderation are necessary for cutting through the misunderstandings that make life dissatisfying. Merely learning to pay attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally can have its benefits, but it becomes just another feel-good technique when practiced to achieve goals that feed the ego (i.e. boost self-image, accumulate worldly desires) or temporarily avoid what is unwanted (i.e. distract from unavoidable problems, resist what is unchangeable).

It would be similar if you were practicing only yoga postures (asana) and never delved into the other limbs of yoga’s eightfold path (ashtanga). You would likely become stronger, more flexible and develop better balance – you might even feel better about yourself. But, unless you eventually begin to explore the virtuous habits and ethical restraints (yamas and niyamas), more profound evolution is unlikely to happen.

Our ethics inform the intentions behind our actions. In Buddhism (the root of modern mindfulness), ethics do not come from somewhere outside of us such as tradition or authority. Rather, they are discovered through experimentation and observation – the collection of data. In the Ambalatthika-rahulovada Sutta: Instructions to Rahula at Mango Stone, it is said than we should mindfully reflect upon 1) our urges to perform an act, 2) our action while we are performing it, and 3) its after-effects, to see whether the act is harmful to ourselves or others (skillful or unskillful) – in other words, whether the consequences are beneficial or harmful. Then we should make adjustments accordingly and learn for ourselves what is truly helpful and unhelpful. This becomes our system of ethics. Practicing mindfulness helps us see our own motivations and choices more clearly for wiser responding.

The intention behind our actions powerfully impacts our state of mind. Research is showing that when we act virtuously, there are beneficial consequences for ourselves as well as for others. Some studies are revealing correlations between altruism and increased mental, physical, social and financial health. The Science of Generosity Initiative at the University of Notre Dame has funded a number of studies which have demonstrated a relationship between generosity, happiness and well-being. A compassionate lifestyle seems to be correlated with better health and longevity, perhaps through a mechanism that decreases inflammation in our bodies.

Mindfulness is a practice conceptualized under the premise that: 1) life is unsatisfactory, causing beings to suffer, 2) the cause of this suffering is that we have bought into some basic misunderstandings, which compel us to cling to the things we desire (attachment) and resist the things we dislike (aversion), 3) its possible to awaken from this deluded state and be liberated from the dissatisfaction it causes, 4) there is a path to awakening and liberation. This path serves as an ethical framework for practice, of which mindfulness is only one part. The Buddhist Eightfold Path to Liberation includes the following interconnected components (click the links to learn more about each component, a work in progress):

  • Ethical (Right) View – Understanding the causes of unsatisfactoriness and the path to happiness
  • Ethical (Right) Intention – cultivating attitudes and thoughts that are likely to result in skillful behavior
  • Ethical (Right) Speech – abandoning false, divisive, and abusive speech, avoiding idle chatter, and speaking the beneficial truth at the appropriate time
  • Ethical (Right) Action – acting with compassion for the welfare of all sentient beings, abstaining from killing, sexual misconduct, and taking what is not ours
  • Ethical (Right) Livelihood – making a living in a manner that is legal, honest and doesn’t harm others, fulfilling ones work duties diligently and conscientiously
  • Complete (Right) Effort – diligence and perseverence in developing skillful qualities and abandoning unskillful qualities
  • Complete (Right) Mindfulness – bare attention toward clear comprehension, free from the constructs and elaborations that lead to suffering
  • Complete (Right) Concentration – wholesome, one-pointedness of mind

Please visit the Mindfulness Meditation New York Collaborative for a list of articles and papers about ethics and mindfulness. You can also read more about the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path at accesstoinsight.org.

Get up!
Sit up!
What’s your need for sleep?
And what sleep is there for the afflicted,
pierced by the arrow (craving),
oppressed?

Get up!
Sit up!
Train firmly for the sake of peace…

Heedless is dust,
dust comes from heedlessness
has heedlessness on its heels.
Through heedfulness & clear knowing
you’d remove your own sorrow.

– Utthana Sutta: Initiative

Is Taking Offense Defensible?

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Photo by Colin Marshall

Can taking offense ever be helpful? When we are offended, it is because we find someone’s behavior morally repugnant or a violation of our values. It is more than just feeling hurt or disappointed, although these emotions may underly it. More often there is a sense of being insulted or disrespected in some way.

For most of us, our original conditioning has taught us that taking offense and the resulting afflictive emotions are necessary ingredients in effecting a needed change. But is it possible to recognize harmful behavior and effect a change without being offended?

In order to feel offended, we have to make an interpretation of events. Its not enough that we or someone we care about has been hurt, we must also feel a wrong has been committed. If a tree falls on your house, you might feel a lot of things, but it is unlikely you will feel offended by the tree. Mere blame is not enough. There must also an assumption of neglect or ill-intent – we have to believe the offender should have known better. If a toddler says something rude, we might not like it, but we are unlikely to feel offended. Its not the act itself that is offensive – rather it is the assumptions we make about the act.

When we take offense, our unexamined reaction is often to go on the offensive, which usually means we attack. This can result in all out war and many sages over the years have concluded that peace cannot arise from fighting.

The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy.
Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.
Through violence you may murder the liar, but you cannot murder the lie, nor establish the truth.
Through violence you may murder the hater, but you do not murder hate.
In fact, violence merely increases hate.
So it goes.
Returning violence for violence multiplies violence, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars.
Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that.
Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.
– Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Sometimes we instead go on the defensive by fighting back or closing ourselves off, protecting ourselves from further harm. When we respond to pain with anger, the focus shines on our own aggressive behavior rather than the heart of the problem. When we shut down, we are no longer open to important information. We are no longer listening and the truth remains obscured. Our hearts are closed and the potential healing power of wise compassion and love cannot do their work.

It can be helpful to notice this feeling of offense at is arises, and instead of reacting instinctively, attend to it with curiosity. How does it show up in the body? What thoughts accompany it? Are there some subtler or more vulnerable emotions that hide underneath? An impulsive reaction may give you a few moments of righteous indignation, but is unlikely to provide lasting relief or cause needed change.

Remember that love isn’t always soft and gentle – it can also be fierce or resolute. Perhaps you will discover there is skillful, compassionate action that can be taken instead of resorting to aggression. Or maybe, in some cases, you may find it better to do nothing at all. I invite you to experiment for yourself and see!

Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.Dhammapada, The Pairs, Verse 5

 

MBI: Mindfulness as Medicine

FullSizeRender 2Mindfulness has long been considered an antidote for human suffering. The Buddha and his teachings have been compared to a doctor and her medicine – his Four Noble Truths diagnosed the human condition, identified the cause of suffering, and prescribed the proper course of treatment, which if followed carefully, could alleviate suffering. It is no wonder that in the modern day, we are adapting these teachings to help people who suffer from physical and mental illnesses.

A number of Mindfulness-Based Interventions (MBIs) have emerged to help treat a variety of health conditions, starting with Jon Kabat-Zinn‘s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) clinic in 1979. Being a practitioner of Buddhist meditation and yoga as well as a professor of medicine, Zinn used these practices to ease the suffering of chronic pain patients who had exhausted the limits of medical intervention at the medical center where he worked and taught. When offered as a complement to traditional medical and psychological treatments, research has shown MBSR to be effective in helping to treat anxiety, gastro-intestinal distress, stress, grief, asthma, headaches, cancer, heart disease, chronic illness, high blood pressure, depression, pain, eating disturbances, post-traumatic stress (PTSD), fatigue, skin disorders, fibromyalgia and sleep problems.

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive therapy (MBCT) was the next MBI to emerge out of MBSR. It was created by Dr.s Zindel Segal, John Teasdale and Mark Williams in order to help individuals with chronic depression for whom medication was not adequately preventing relapse. It combines the attitudes and practices of mindfulness with cognitive behavior therapy to reduce depressive symptoms, prevent future episodes, and in some individuals, help reduce the need for medication. Research has shown that it is statistically as effective as maintenance doses of antidepressants in preventing a relapse, decreasing the risk of future depression by half. Studies are showing beneficial effects for anxiety sufferers as well.

MBIs are programs, usually of eight weeks in duration, that are informed by theories and practices that draw from a variety of contemplative traditions, science, medicine, psychology and education. Although these programs are secular, they are based upon the fundamentals of Buddhism including the four foundations of mindfulness (mindfulness of body, mind, feelings, and mental objects) and the sublime attitudes of compassion, loving kindness, appreciative joy, and equanimity. They are designed to addresses the causes of human distress and the pathways to relieving it through helping participants:

  • develop a new relationship with experience based on present moment focus, decentering, and welcoming difficulty
  • improve attentional, emotional and behavioral self-regulation
  • cultivate useful qualities such as compassion, wisdom, and equanimity
  • train in mindfulness meditation practice through an experiential inquiry-based learning process that helps develop insight and understanding

There are many other MBIs which are tailored to specific contexts and populations and more are emerging every year. The research base behind them is quite promising and growing exponentially. You can find providers who offer MBIs in the Kansas City metro by visiting KansasCityMentalHealth.com. Below are some links to help you learn more about MBSR and some of the other MBIs (more will be added as the research base grows):

So I will teach you the noble purgative that always succeeds and never fails, a purgative whereby beings subject to… sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress & despair are freed from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress & despair. Listen & pay close attention. I will speak. – The Buddha as Doctor, the Dhamma as Medicine by Thanissaro Bhikkhu


References:

Cullen, M. (2011). Mindfulness-Based Interventions: An Emerging Phenomenon. Mindfulness.

Shonin, E, Gordon, V. & Griffiths, M. (2013). Mindfulness-based interventions: towards mindful clinical integration. Frontiers in Psychology, (4) 194.

UMASS Medical School Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society

Are Some Things Beyond Compassion?

artsword1A religiously radicalized young man detonates bombs at city event killing three and injuring 280. A disgruntled middle-aged man walks into a bar and fires a gun at two Indian men, mistaking them for Iranians, killing one, wounding the other, and seriously injuring someone else who tried to intervene. A white supremacist drives his car into a crowd of peaceful protestors killing one and wounding 19 more.

Are these people beyond our compassion? There are things we feel compelled to do and say when we hear about, witness, or experience threats or acts of hatred directed at ourselves or others we care about. We have an urge to:

  • call out the perpetrator(s), shaming and condemning them, seeking punishment, retribution, or revenge
  • passionately declare sides on the issue, wishing to make our allegiances clearly known to others
  • protest lest our silence cause or condone harmful acts
  • make a pre-emptive strike or defend through aggression

Its human to think about doing these things when we perceive that we, or those we love, are being threatened or attacked. We fear being seen as part of the problem if we fail to react quickly and decisively. We may even believe these types of reactions are necessary to prevent further harm. However, there is little hard evidence to show these types of reactions are truly helpful in the long term.

An example of this is the Dakota Access pipeline protests at Standing Rock in North Dakota. I have relatives that live in the neighboring towns, so I got to hear first hand accounts. Although the intention behind the protests were admirable (protecting sacred land and the water supply), there was much collateral damage to the environment and the livelihood of people who live there. At least one person died from drowning in the river, many were injured, businesses lost money, farmers and ranchers lost equipment and livestock, and tons of human waste, debris and trash had to be removed at great public expense. Ironically, the waste from the protesters threatened to pollute the river if it wasn’t cleaned up before the thaw. The cost of policing the protest surpassed $22 million… and the pipeline began flowing in June.

Fortunately, there is plenty of evidence that a more reasoned and compassionate response leads to better outcomes. But, we rarely hear about examples that show us this to be true. Stories of compassion are not dramatic or considered headlines-worthy, but they teach us important lessons. Here are a few such stories:

  • Norway’s incarceration rate in 2014 was just 75 per 100,000 people compared to 707 per 100,000 people in the US and it had one of the lowest recidivism rates in the world (20%. there vs. 76.6% in the US). This is because Norway prioritizes rehabilitation over punishment – prisoners are well-treated, they are given medical and mental health treatment, taught job and social skills, and helped to reintegrate back into society.
  • Daryl Davis is an African-American pianist who wrote a book called Klan-Destine Relationships about his experiences making friends with members of the KKK. As a result of his efforts, several key members left the Klan and denounced the group’s beliefs. Davis’ advice is, “Establish dialogue. When two enemies are talking, they’re not fighting.”
  • Saudia Arabia, Singapore and Yemen have programs for rehabilitating terrorists. They treat them well while they are detained, use religious education and psychological counseling to deradicalize them, and help them reintegrate into society. In Saudi Arabia the program is quite successful – of the thousands of people they have released, their program reports a 12% recidivism rate.
  • Research summarized in the Juvenile Justice bulletin published in 2010 by the U.S. Dept. of Justice states that youth are at higher risk of joining a gang if they, among other things, experience negative life events, have mental health problems, have been victimized, experience multiple caretaker transitions, have many problems at school, or live in communities where they feel unsafe. They note that the most successful programs for reducing gang violence are comprehensive and focus on prevention by strengthening families and schools, improving community supervision, training teachers and parents to manage disruptive youth, and teaching students interpersonal skills.
  • Several major cities view gun violence as a public health problem and treat it like any other contagious disease. Programs like Cure Violence and CeaseFire use “violence interrupters”, often ex felons and gang members, who help those involved in violent situations to sort out disagreements, change attitudes, and prevent further violence. These programs have reduced the incidence of retaliatory shootings in many cities, but they struggle for funding in tight budgets. There was a documentary made about these programs called “The Interrupters”.
  • After being repeatedly threatened by the Grand Dragon of the KKK in Nebraska, Rabbi Michael Weisser decided the best thing to do was to reach out to him personally. Over time he befriended the man and even invited him to live in his home with his family when he became ill. Eventually this man left the Klan, renouncing his earlier beliefs, and converted to Judaism.
  • Richmond, CA used to be one of the most violent cities in the US until they adopted an unconventional program called Operation Peacemaker Fellowship. They convince many of the city’s most lethal offenders to become fellows in the program by offering them payments to stay out of trouble. Fellows are provided opportunities for personal, social, educational, and vocational development and the community helps them build skills, credentials, experience, and networks to ensure a viable economic future. In 2014, the city experienced a 31% reduction in firearm related homicides and a 21% reduction in firearm assaults from the previous year. The program has now been adopted in a number of other cities.

All of the “monsters” in these stories were real people with complex histories and circumstances. In many cases, there were deeply rooted societal factors, like poverty, substance abuse, domestic violence, and racism that contributed to the growth of fear and hatred in these individuals. Longstanding social problems and deeply held cultural beliefs are hard to change – and we fear change. So, it can seem easier to put out fires as they flare up, blaming and punishing the individual. But, these stories show a different possible path – one that has the power to create enduring change or at least prevent further escalation. Like most human beings, these “monsters” responded to wise compassion and benefited from it.

Practicing compassion is good for us too, creating feelings of pleasure, improving physical and mental health, and lengthening our lifespans. An angry and punishing approach to misbehavior has deleterious effects on us all. For example, correctional officers in the US “suffer health detriments due to high stress and potentially traumatic occupational experiences“. Resentful and mistreated criminals are released into our communities to flounder and revert to more crime, of which we may become victims.

Consider pausing before reacting to threats or acts of hatred, taking a moment to examine your own thoughts, emotions, body sensations and urges to action. Remind yourself that there are many causes and conditions that come together to create a situation and there is no simple solution. This may prevent you from letting someone else’s harmful behavior plant the destructive seeds of hatred inside you. In this small but powerful way, you can step out of the cycle of suffering.

…guard against extremes, and do not let the zeal with which you advocate certain means obscure the object sought to be obtained by them. – Alexis de Tocqueville & Gustave de Baumont

Misuses of Mindfulness

Stonehenge2Today there are few pockets of this country left untouched by mindfulness. Ask anyone you meet and it is likely they’ve heard of it, but many misunderstand what it means. Mindfulness is a way of living – a way of relating to inner experience and the world. In reaching the mainstream, there has been a tendency to turn it into nothing more than a strategy for self-improvement. With all the misinformation out there, it is no wonder that some of us are confused by what it really is and view it mainly as a tool for reaching our goals.

Mindfulness as Emotional Anesthesia
Many people stumble into mindfulness because they are dissatisfied, afraid or hurting in some way. They have rightly heard that the practices are correlated with improvements in health and wellbeing. But some have characterized them as feel good strategies – essentially ways to ignore, distract from, or get rid of painful emotions – to think positively or to get blissed out. Mindfulness is awareness of what is here now, regardless of whether it is wanted, unwanted, positive or negative, pleasant or unpleasant. So, when we engage in things that help us avoid unpleasant emotions that are already here, this may feel good temporarily, but it is not the practice of mindfulness.

Altogether, the idea of meditation is not to create states of ecstasy or absorption, but to experience being. – Chögyam Trungpa

Mindfulness as Performance Enhancer
Some sports professionals and CEOs are attracted to mindfulness in the hopes of becoming  winners. They may see it as a means for developing greater focus, speed, productivity, or efficiency in themselves, their athletes, or their employees. There is a kernel of truth in this because the practices are indeed correlated with increased concentration, processing speed, and flexibility in thinking. The problem is that mindfulness involves present moment awareness and when we are actively striving at getting somewhere other than where we already are, this is not the practice of mindfulness.

Meditation practice isn’t about trying to throw ourselves away and become something better. It’s about befriending who we are already. – Pema Chödrön

Mindfulness as Status Quo
Sometimes we turn to mindfulness because other strategies seem too hard or scary. In comparison, mindfulness seems so positive, so innocuous, so free from troublesome side effects or consequences. Maybe we’ve found ourselves in very difficult circumstances that are changeable, but we are reluctant to do so. This might include navigating an abusive, yet important relationship (i.e. with a boss, coach, family member or a partner), working long hours at a stressful job that pays really well, struggling with an addiction, or trying to meet unrealistic self-imposed expectations for success, beauty, fame or perfection. The underlying hope is to make ourselves more compliant so we can tolerate something harmful with less distress, so we don’t have to take meaningful action, make a difficult change, or let go of something we want. However, the practice of mindfulness involves an attitude of compassion – a willingness to acknowledge suffering in ourselves and others and to take action aimed at eliminating it. Resigning oneself to harmful changeable circumstances is not the practice of mindfulness.

You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf. – Jon Kabat-Zinn

Several of the attitudes of mindfulness are either missing from or directly opposed by these types of misappropriations of the practices. These include things like compassion, patience, non-striving, and acceptance. In addition, as we’ve moved away from the spiritual origins of mindfulness, we have lost some of the important fundamentals. For example, we forget or maybe we’ve never learned that dissatisfaction arises directly our of attachment, aversion and ignorance. So we think that clinging to certain qualities or outcomes and rejecting others by using mindfulness “techniques” will lead to happiness. Instead we generally find any relief we experience is short-lived at best.

Even when we “misuse” mindfulness, there are often unintended benefits if we persist through this initial disillusionment. Lots of people start a yoga practice to get in shape or lose weight, but they begin to appreciate the subtler benefits that arise. Others begin to practice meditation in order to reduce stress or become a better person, and instead there emerges a more skillful relationship with themselves and their environment. My own interest in mindfulness came from a desire to help clients for whom more traditional therapies were proving ineffective. In embodying the practices and attitudes as a therapist, I discovered powerful beneficial effects manifesting in my personal life. Regardless of how we come into the practice of mindfulness, its benefits unfold naturally given time. The main risk of “misuse” is that we may become disillusioned and prematurely stop practicing because it fails to meet our unrealistic expectations.

Life is a dance. Mindfulness is witnessing that dance. – Amit Ray

See No Evil

IMG_0633Do you ever wonder why very “evolved” people are rarely annoyed or frustrated by others? Its amazing to behold. They seem to get along with just about everyone in almost every situation with grace and humor. The Dalai Lama is a good example of that.

I think this might be because things only disturb us when they are unwanted. Sweating profusely during a workout is not generally bothersome, but when giving a public talk, it feels like torture. When someone you find appealing flirts with you, you are likely to feel flattered, but when someone you find unappealing does the same, you are likely to feel annoyed. Our preferences, likes and dislikes lead to feelings of aversion.

…if you subdue your anger you will not have a single enemy, and it will be the same as subduing all your enemies – Pabonka Rinpoche, Liberation in the Palm of Your Hand

Through practice we get better at being with difficulty. We face aversion, which allows us to get to know it – to see it more clearly. Early on, we may become more attuned to people who bother us as we develop greater awareness of our own unpleasant internal experiences. Over time, we become wise to our preferences, attachments and aversions, seeing them for what they really are – expectations, interpretations, stories, and beliefs. We may even begin to welcome difficulty in as an opportunity for greater learning.

Eventually we see less and less as unwelcome. The bothersome people may appear to be dwindling away, slowly replaced by interesting people and suffering people, inseparable from ourselves. We discover that others just don’t seem to get under our skin like they used to.

…when you really want to meet obnoxious people, they don’t show up! Why don’t they turn up for high-level bodhisattvas (ones who work for the benefit of all beings)? Because high-level bodhisattvas don’t have any anger… Bodhisattvas have such a hard time finding detestable people, whereas we come across them so easily! – Thubten Chodron

So, how dow we develop this imperturbability? Through practice of course. It starts with turning inward and paying attention to what is happening there. Little by little, we dare to trust and feel compassion for ourselves, warts and all, which translates to greater compassion for others. We take ourselves less seriously. This allows us to let go of some of our excessive privacy, self-consciousness, and guardedness. We open to a wider variety of people and allow situations to be as they are, realizing everything is workable. When we are asked for help, we are more likely to give it (if we truly can), being less afraid of being taken advantage of, harmed, or depleted in some way. There is no longer any good or evil, just people like us whose deepest desire is happiness.

The sage sees the delusions,
Not the person with the delusions.

Near Enemies of Mindfulness

HateSucksTrue enemies may be easy to spot, but what about “near enemies“? A near enemy is a subtle quality that we may miss or confuse as useful or helpful when, in fact, it can become an obstacle to practice that is hidden from us or in disguise.

For example, the far enemy of lovingkindness is hatred, which is unmistakable in ourselves and others. Once we have been practicing mindfulness for a while, we learn to spot this aversion fairly quickly and choose to apply an antidote when appropriate. A near enemy of lovingkindness, on the other hand, is attachment or greed. This can be harder to spot. When we offer well-wishes to others primarily because it benefits us in some way or we are expecting some specific outcome, this hidden intention can distort our thoughts and actions and lead to unhelpful ripple effects.

Flowers fall with our attachment, and weeds spring up with our aversion. – Dogen (Zen Master)

Compassion (concern for suffering and the desire to eliminate it) has a near enemy as well, which is pity, sympathy or sorrow.  When we allow sadness about the sufferings of the world to overcome us, we can shut down and feel hopeless, preventing us from taking action. A sense of equality and interconnection accompanies true compassion, while pity arises from a view of the other as disadvantaged, unfortunate, separate, or less than in some way. This wrong view can perpetuate unhelpful habits and subtly undermine our efforts to benefit others.

Sorrow is a near enemy to compassion and to love. It is borne of sensitivity and feels like empathy. But it can paralyze and turn us back inside with a sense that we can’t possibly make a difference… But compassion goes about finding the work that can be done. Love can’t help but stay present. ― Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living

A near enemy of equanimity (balance amidst difficulty) is indifference or callousness. Mindfulness means being with what is non-judgmentally, not hardening ourselves against what is unwanted. How can we respond open-heartedly from a foundation of nihilism? Another near enemy to equanimity is ignorance, meaning that we are mistaking not knowing for calm and serenity. Facing an obstacle with courage requires a true understanding of what one is up against – otherwise, its merely foolhardiness.

True equanimity is not a withdrawal; it is a balanced engagement with all aspects of life. It is opening to the whole of life with composure and ease of mind, accepting the beautiful and terrifying nature of all things. Equanimity embraces the loved and the unloved, the agreeable and the disagreeable, the pleasure and pain. It eliminates clinging and aversion. – Jack Kornfield, Bringing Home the Dharma: Awakening Right Where You Are

Just like anything else we encounter in life, near enemies are workable. It may help to remember the quote, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” A dedicated mindfulness practice awakens us to ever-subtler layers of consciousness – our habits, patterns, biases, and blind spots. By acknowledging and examining near enemies as they arise, we are better equipped to respond to them with wisdom.

Radical Compassion

CanolaFields2
Humble, yet beautiful canola fields.

Most of us know what it feels like to hold dear in our hearts a family member, friend, or beloved pet. When we cherish someone, we love and appreciate them, care for them, and try to keep them from harm. We may even prioritize their wellbeing over our own at times, if it truly helps them to do so.

What would it be like to cherish a complete stranger in this way? What might happen if we treasured even those who try to harm us or our loved ones or who engage in despicable acts? Could there be any benefit to such a thing? The very thought of this might feel so vulnerable and so contrary to everything we’ve been taught.

Most people experience a visceral reaction when they first encounter the idea of cherishing one’s “enemies”. We are strongly conditioned to guard against the unknown and to protect ourselves from potential harm. For most of us, our reactions around self-protection tend to be very automatic, black and white, and unexamined. While its important to take care of ourselves, there is often more space than we believe to care for others, as long as we do so in a wise and skillful way.

Is it ever useful to disdain someone – even if they have done some awful thing? Hatred is a profound feeling of aversion. It drives us to act in a way that is intended to reduce our unpleasant feelings – generally by fighting against, escaping from, or ignoring the perceived source. In this sense, hatred can be highly motivating and may result in behavior that at least partially or temporarily alleviates our own suffering. However, hatred also has some unfortunate longer term side effects.

It takes an amazing amount of mental space and energy to hate. Although it may be directed at our “enemies”, anger also burns us from the inside. Chronic anger has harmful effects on our health and what we practice only becomes stronger. Not only is prolonged resentment and disdain bad for the health of the individual, anger can also become a threat to public health. It is easier to mistreat those we judge as fundamentally bad, thus creating a self-perpetuating cycle of hatred and counter-hatred. Research shows that punishment is not nearly as effective for behavior change as reinforcement and people generally live up to or sink down to the expectations we set for them.

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. Hate multiplies hate, violence multiplies violence, and toughness multiplies toughness in a descending spiral of destruction. …The chain reaction of evil — hate begetting hate, wars producing more wars — must be broken, or we shall be plunged into the dark abyss of annihilation. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Do you believe there is a glimmer of goodness that resides in everyone? If so, it can be helpful to remember this when you encounter someone who seems hard to love. If not, you can at least acknowledge the common humanity we all share, reminding yourself that this person too was once a helpless baby – that like you, underneath it all they desire happiness. It can also be helpful to recognize that you are not immune to the misfortune of others. Right or wrong, societal unrest and dissatisfaction ripple out in ways that impact us all. Everyone benefits when we value each other. Its possible to respect the disrespectful and love the unloving without endangering personal integrity. We do this by acting with wise compassion, wishing wellbeing, and doing our best to avoid harm. Cherishing another does not have to mean placing ourselves in danger – sometimes the best way not to harm someone is to set a loving boundary. It can be more effective to love from afar in some cases.

Cherishing someone who might seem hard to love takes humility – a modest estimation of one’s own importance in the grand scheme of things. Humility comes from the Latin word humilitas meaning lowliness – or – humus, the earth beneath one’s feet. How can you cherish another when you believe they are less deserving? We are all very small in the big picture and we are inextricably connected – the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly. According to a classic teaching tool for high school and college chemistry students, if you take a deep breath right now, at least one of the molecules entering your lungs came from Julius Caesar’s last breath.

Can we acknowledge the limits of our control and understanding – especially that we can’t truly know the heart of another? Is it possible to see that we aren’t separate from or above anyone else – even from humanity’s worst offenders? If we can truly accept these things, our automatic reactions will be more likely to come from a place beneficence and compassion. One way to start practicing radical compassion is to make a regular practice of lovingkindness or giving and taking meditation (tonglen). A simpler way is to just begin noticing in our daily lives the ways in which judgmentpride, and anger show up in our relationships with others and to perhaps make space for responding more skillfully.

Love and compassion are necessities, not luxuries. Without them humanity cannot survive. – Dalai Lama