Socrates said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Buddha likened our normal, everyday awareness to being asleep. Vedanta teaches that the world presented to us by our senses and framed by our conceptual thought is an illusory portrait called maya. And in his letter to the Corinthians Paul said that “we see through a glass, darkly.” For all its boundless potential the mind limits us as much as it empowers us. As the Maitri Upanishad says, our mind is a prison, but the mind is also our liberator.
There’s nothing “wrong” with our minds. A craftsman never blames his tools. The breakdown comes in the manner in which our tools are used.
Of all the academic disciplines philosophy is the one most specifically charged with the task of thinking about thinking – an inherently problematic task. Using thought to examine the nature of thought is like trying to see your own eyes – it’s hard because you use your eyes to see. The American philosopher William James said that trying to understand consciousness is like trying to understand the dark by turning on a light – what you hope to examine is obliterated by the act of examination. That’s why the Zen Buddhists counsel us to practice no-thinking, an inelegant term for simple awareness. In contrast to ordinary thinking where the phenomena of the world are run through a mediating filter of preconceived judgments and conceptual structures, simple awareness sees the world as it actually is.
The irony is this – it’s difficult to keep things simple. As Zen practitioner and Apple founder Steve Jobs said, “Simple can be harder than complex. You have to work hard to get your thinking clean to make it simple. But it’s worth it in the end because once you get there you can move mountains.”
The mountain we have to move is our own monolithic, over-wrought busy mind. And the method that best moves that mountain is mindfulness.
The Buddha left behind an eight-step process for reducing self-obsession and thereby reducing suffering known as the Noble Eightfold Path. Item number seven is Right Mindfulness. It means gently monitoring and shaping mental content. Simply put it means paying attention. Really paying attention.
Mindfulness means coming out of the fog of past and future thinking. Mindfulness means dropping the habit of endlessly comparing, judging, craving, and pushing away. Mindfulness means coming out of the agitation of the thought-stream and settling into the serenity of boundless awareness. Instead of fighting anything and everything you move into simple acceptance of what is. The practice of mindfulness may be thousands of years old, but in the modern era it came into prominence largely through the efforts of one man, Boston professor of medicine and Buddhist practitioner John Kabat-Zin.
After being introduced to Zen Buddhism by renowned teacher Philip Kapleau, Kabat-Zin went on to found the Stress Reduction Clinic and later the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. In a brilliant move, he dropped mindfulness meditation’s explicit association with Buddhism and began to refer to it simply as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction or MBSR. Buddhist traditionalists weren’t pleased, but Kabat-Zin was right. By teaching thousands of patients and health care professionals to quiet their thoughts and come into present awareness, he opened the door and changed forever the way the Western medical tradition viewed pain management and the intimate link between consciousness and physical health.
But it wasn’t until the publication of his ground-breaking and perennially best-selling book Wherever You Go, There You Are in 1986 that Kabat-Zin took mindfulness into the mainstream. Suddenly, millions of us were learning about mindfulness.
Today there are mindfulness training classes in elementary schools, prisons, sports teams, corporate executive retreats, and medical facilities all over the world – even in Congress where it is perhaps needed most.
A quick survey of the growing body of research around the efficacy of mindfulness meditation shows that not only does mindfulness reduce stress, it also bolsters the immune system. And the benefits don’t end there. Cardiac recovery patients who practiced mindfulness meditation experienced a 41% reduction in mortality rates compared with those who did not. The connection between mind and body has been irrefutably established.
But no one saw this coming. It’s one thing to experience reduced stress and improved health as a result of the practice of mindfulness. But now we’ve learned that the transformation goes much deeper. The regular practice of mindfulness spurs the brain into building new neural pathways and circuitry resulting in long-term, permanent benefit. When we give new shape to our thoughts, we give new shape to our brains. And when we transform the instrument with which we process the world, we change the world.
Twenty-five centuries ago the Buddha said, “Our life is a product of our thoughts. Our thoughts of yesterday shape our life of today, and our thoughts today shape our life tomorrow. Our life is a product of our thoughts.” We are learning more and more about how this is true. And, more important, we can learn to experience this for ourselves.
The decision to view one’s life through the lens of the consciousness of gratitude instead of fear and scarcity has measurable benefits. When we cultivate gratitude with practices like keeping a daily gratitude journal we create new neural habits. The decision to focus one’s attention on what one does have instead of on what one does not have reaps a harvest of well-being. Not one single thing in the outer world changes. But the way in which one views the outer world will never be the same.
With the dawning of gratitude, a feeling of freedom and joy gradually replaces the self-obsession, pain, and victim-consciousness so many of us allow to fester in our lives. In the conscious practice of mindfulness we learn a valuable lesson – we are the authors of our own experience. This profoundly empowering insight emboldens us to drop our self-serving narratives as beleaguered combatants and realize our unbreakable communion with all that is. We no longer squander energy resisting what is but instead gain energy by moving into accord with what is becoming. We no longer fight with everyone and everything. We realize that there is no such thing as private happiness, that your well-being and my well-being are one inextricable whole. Our religious views shift, our ethical views shift, our political views shift, and we begin making different decisions as spouses, neighbors, consumers, and citizens.
By simplifying our minds we simplify our lives. By simplifying our lives we come into immediate contact with the essence of all that is. We are reconnected. We come back home to the vibrant center of our own aliveness. No longer lost in the exile of the thought-stream, we realize the simple truth – who we are and what we are is enough. And the healing begins.
Peter Bolland is a writer, speaker, spiritual teacher, singer-songwriter, and philosophy
professor. Find him on Twitter, Facebook, or at www.peterbolland.com