Many of us spend much of our lives almost oblivious to how we actually feel. Work, busyness, overconsumption, daydreams: we can have a tendency to distract ourselves (or allow ourselves to be distracted) by any of these. Often it feels like the safe or comfortable option to do so, especially if what we actually experience includes discomfort, pain or difficult emotions. But in doing so we miss much of the richness of experience our everyday lives hold, we miss the chance to fully connect with the world, our lives and those around us. We half-live our lives. Furthermore, when we are unaware of the emotions that are driving us or the thought patterns that fuel these, we tend to act in ways which cause harm to ourselves and others. In trying to avoid suffering, we cause ourselves more.
Against this background it is easy to see the attractions of secular mindfulness. Stripped of its Buddhist context, it can attract people who are wary of religion and in recent years mindfulness has thus become mainstream. And if what people are looking for is a way to inhabit their lives, to carry out their activities more easily, it can ‘work’. Mindfulness can allow space for more awareness of how the body actually feels, of the emotions that it holds, of the way that thoughts proliferate and can pass.
There are limitations and risks that we should be aware of. Mindfulness is often taught in a very individualised way with the meditator increasing awareness of their own body, thoughts and emotions but not necessarily feeling any greater connection to or responsibility for the world around them. It can be used as an efficiency promotion tool and, without the values that accompany mindfulness in more traditional Buddhist contexts, what it can make more efficient can include manifestations of greed, anger and ignorance: ruthlessly making more money or soldiers preparing for warfare.
For most who experiment with mindfulness though, their aim is just to ease their everyday lives. As such it can be of considerable value. It can give people some tools and techniques to help them get through their lives causing a little less suffering for themselves and people around them. For many people that is as far as they want to go and if so, fine. Since Buddhism is about the relief of suffering then if elements of our traditions can serve that purpose for people who would never set foot into one of our more traditional zendos, temples or meditation centres, I’m ok with that.
However mindfulness practices can also open a door to deeper enquiry and exploration. People may wonder “If I knew so little about myself and how that works what else have I been oblivious to or hiding from?” We probably all know people whose journey into Buddhism began with secular mindfulness practices. That is where we, as Buddhist practitioners and sanghas, come in. For unlike secular mindfulness, in the established Buddhist traditions we practice in a wider context. We follow the example of generations of practitioners before us. There are values and ethics that help guide our practice. There is a fundamental understanding, which we can confirm for ourselves through practice, that we are not just isolated independent individuals but an integral part of life. As such we do not practice alone and for ourselves but alongside and for the world. Our preoccupation with our ‘selves’ and what we think is necessary to protect us from life can drop away, allowing us to experience life more openly and authentically. Because deep practice is not easy we practice with support and guidance from others in our sanghas, especially from our teachers and experienced practitioners who have walked the path ahead of us. With their help we can begin to take the insights and experiences that come from our practice and integrate them into our lives.
There is a depth, richness and perspective in Buddhism that secular mindfulness ignores. If and when people are ready to experience that, we can be there. We know the benefits from our practice – we see it in our own lives and those practising around us. Of course life still brings challenges and difficulties alongside its delights and joys (we will all experience sickness, ageing and death) but we can, in time, relate to these in a very different way than we would have without practice.
I’d very much like more people to experience this. And so I welcome those who have dabbled their toes in the shallows of Buddhism through secular mindfulness to take the plunge, to discover what depth a full practice life can bring. There are more and more Buddhist sanghas developing throughout Europe bringing Buddhist teachings within reach of many more people in Europe than in the past. There is also a far greater availability of teachings online to supplement what we can find locally.
There is never a better time than now to start that journey. Or to deepen it. It is an endless journey that doesn’t take us anywhere other than right here, but experiencing it with an aliveness and authenticity that we might not have imagined possible. Every journey begins with a single step. If that first step for you was an MBSR course, a guided body scan or even the mindful eating of a raisin, welcome. Why not dive in, explore and really experience your life?
Sarah Kokai Thwaites