Slow and steady in the rising wave of mindfulness

The things I’ve learned over the years have come very slowly. This new wave of popularity for mindful practices – typified by this article – brings up two strong thoughts for me.

Part of my practice is cultivating the deep wish that everyone is happy, free from suffering, enjoys well being and is ultimately fully liberated. Non-attachment, equanimity and present moment awareness practiced in meditation leads to this very state of happiness, well being and freedom. Seeing the growth of meditation in our culture can be quite exhilarating.

I remember walking in a park in Berkeley some years ago and I came across a group sitting in a circle. I was just a random person walking by, but they called me over and asked me a question – “What would be the best possible news headline you could imagine?” I’m not sure what the purpose of this group was, but I thought for a second and said, “The last sentient being has been fully enlightened — the work has been completed”. I suppose this notion came from the Bodhisattva Vow, found in Zen Buddhism, that envisions continued rebirth and practice until all beings are fully liberated.

In this grand sense, how wonderful it is that so many people in this day and age will be exposed to the practice of mindfulness! How many of them will resonate with the practice and seek further instruction and read and sit and begin a daily practice or go on retreat! This surge of popularity truly has the potential to set many many people on the path and could even transform society — and ultimately the world.

The other thought that comes to me is that we will be seeing a transformation in how and why mindfulness is taught. This is a very old practice, carefully passed down through the centuries from teacher to student. It is extremely subtle as well as mind-blowingly expansive. It is easily misunderstood. It can be simple, but is not usually simple to teach. It is available to everyone at all times, but not easily put into practice. On the path it is easy to go astray — to formulate a set of beliefs and opinions about the practice and to cling to them. It is easy to identify with the practice and become attached to that identity, sewing the very seeds of clinging and conflict that the practice is meant to uproot. The practice points towards something beyond the surface appearance of things, and can cause students to ask metaphysical, moral, and paradoxical questions. Teachers must be very careful how these questions are approached, whether or not they are answered, and how. It is very easy to get caught in a dead-end discussion and sew seeds of doubt, or inadvertently plant some permanent idea of a self, or lead someone astray in a variety of other ways. Teaching requires a great deal of skill, and a certain depth of experience–so that one’s understanding of impermanence, emptiness, and the path is unshakable.

If the surge of interest in mindfulness brings a variety of practices that aren’t fully grounded in the traditional teachings, the result could be that many people are introduced to a mild form of meditation and turn away, unsatisfied, believing that they’ve “tried it and it didn’t work”. In this way, the potential rise of wisdom, compassion and liberation could turn out to be a dilution and draining of the same.

Right now, my practice is to see these two thoughts arise, reflect on them, not get too caught in either hope or fear; but rather to keep practicing… slow and steady. Maybe I’ll have the opportunity to be a bridge between the traditional teachings and the current demand for the teachings. Maybe this wave will come and go, passing me by completely. Either way, my faith in the importance of the teachings and the effectiveness of the techniques is unshakable.

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