“May all sentient being enjoy happiness and the root of happiness.
May they be free from suffering and the root of suffering.
May they not be separated from the great happiness, devoid of suffering.
May they dwell in great equanimity free from clinging, aggression and prejudice.”
Traditional Tibetan Buddhist Prayer
My interest in sharing ecological insight through this blog project is not to simply provide additional intellectual bling for you to dazzle your friends with at your next party. We moderns have forgotten the older role of knowledge as doors and passages into deeper places of awareness and experience in our rush to monetize and mechanize everything. No, what we are exploring here are some of the ways in which our daily lives might so deeply incorporate an acknowledgement of reality as to be transformed by it, transformed into wiser and more compassionate human beings.
For knowledge to effect a transformation like this requires that it be absorbed at levels deeper than the endlessly chatty internal discursive dialog that we experience in our conscious awareness. Look back on your own experiences, which ones have had an actual life changing effect, however small? Can you recognize how these work their way into your psychic makeup far deeper than the stream of chatty internal talk ever does? Traditionally this deeper absorption of learning has been referred to as learning it bodily; we say we know it in our bones or our hearts or that we have a gut instinct.
Yogas in the East and alchemy as explained by Carl Jung in the West are schools of thought that try to capture this universal experience of allowing teachings and learning to enter us so deeply that they change the way we view the world and our lives within it. They recognize something the cultures of today tend to dismiss, namely that the dichotomy between body and mind is not as solid and real as it sometimes seems, that profound knowing is as much an act of the body as of the mind. All of this is part of what mindfulness means as I am using the word.
I thought long and hard about including the term mindful in the title of this blog. So much foo-foo has accumulated around the term by now that an argument could be made that it no longer conveys anything meaningful. But I think we have already conceded too much intellectual ground to the perversions of evaluating all things human through the lens of the market. I hope to battle for the right of this word to regain the cutting brilliance it has earned through centuries of use. Foolish, I know, yet perhaps a fool more like Perceval in the Grail Castle and less like Don Quixote tilting his lance at windmills.
Mindfulness in these contexts is of course a translation of a concept from the ancient languages Sanskrit and Pali. We can expect there to be a bit of a struggle to fully comprehend what it means both because of the challenges involved in transplanting core concepts from one culture to another, particularly over centuries, and in this case because some of what is alluded to by mindfulness is intrinsically difficult for the human mind to fully comprehend. A good place to start is to clear the decks a bit by mentioning what it is not.
Mindfulness is not the latest trick for executives to master the art of pursuing profit with one pointed concentration, despite the many workshops and conferences promising just that. Mindfulness is not a shortcut to psychological well-being and popularity, nor is it meant to be an excuse for spacing out during your efforts at learning and the concentration involved in study. Mindfulness is not an esoteric, occult power that will lead to Svengali-like power over other people’s minds as we saw when Obi Ben Kenobi convinced the guards that “these are not the droids you’re looking for” with a wave of his hand.
So what is mindfulness then? Well if at this point I offered a pithy sentence or two that would only defeat the whole purpose. The whole point of using the handle mindfulness is to indicate something other than the typical conceptual discursive thinking experience which is our mind’s default. You know, that endless ruminating about our to-do list, how we should have done this or that differently in the past, how the future will likely be better or worse than right now and how without the slightest bit of effort thoughts seem to be able to plan, plan, plan…
A Zen master would likely leave it at that at this point, more than enough said already. I am not such a wise being and in fact share the very modern propensity to want to talk about everything, including that which cannot really be talked about. Assuming this is sufficient warning not to take anything I have to share too seriously, since I am really just another bozo on this bus, from here on in I am going to talk freely about what has helped me. The whole world has become a culture of Western modernism to some degree, my hope is that as a member of this mono-culture some of what has struck me might resonate with others.
In the culture of Tibet people locate the mind in the region of the heart. A number of indigenous peoples including some of the Native American tribes see things the same way. This sounds strange to us since we are so used to allocating thought to the grey matter in our skulls and dismissing the role of the rest of the nervous system. Neuroscience however confirms that the endocrine, hormone and neurotransmitter molecules throughout our bodies all have roles to play in creating this awareness we experience. The classic yogic inner map of the body with the chakras as nexus points along the spine is not so far from the modern scientific view after all.
In the culture of Tibet people locate the body as centered in the head. Now we are really confronting something that just seems to be nonsense to us. Consider this though; four of the five sense gates of the body are all located where? Adorning the skull of course. Observing this they simply gave it the weight it seemed to deserve in an introspective analysis. In the Western mainstream traditions introspective analysis is burdened with a bad boy reputation. Psychology tried to make this the central tool of its scientific research under Wilhelm Wundt in the 1880’s but that did not work out so well, so the whole idea that objective truths could be found from introspective observation of inner states of consciousness was tossed overboard. This Western blind spot does not change the fact that the same human body structure is shared the world over and there is no reason to assume a priori it would not reveal itself to have common characteristics for all those who approached an investigation of it with a certain care. The yogas teach this is exactly the case, something not to be accepted as dogma but investigated for oneself.
Anyway, now I think my pithy sentence about what mindfulness actually is might be understood. I know I said such a thing would defeat the purpose but I also said I’m a fool. So rushing in where angels fear to tread; I suggest it might be helpful to hear the term mindfulness and translate it internally as heartfulness.
Last week wrapped up a dismal estimation of the most probable outcome of humanity’s overshooting the boundaries and limits of the natural world. Understanding the ecocide slowly unfolding around us day in and day out breaks your heart. Those with the courage to allow themselves to feel this in the body are like the knights of old, chivalrous and questing yet covered in armor in a desperate attempt to protect themselves. Look out from your visor, through the bars of the man-made environment and catch a glimpse of the landscape through which you roam. The land has grown desolate and grey. The soil no longer productive without a dose of toxic chemicals forcing it to grow crops, the trees wilting under the sun that is burning too hot thanks to the smokes belching out of our tailpipes, the streams and oceans clogged with plastics and heavy metals lending a satanic sheen to the waste land.
In our hearts we know this is not the way it needs to be, we know that somewhere there is a fortress of sacredness still at the center of the world but how can we find it? Questing without pause, accompanied by thoughts of collapse and extinction when we wake and as we fall asleep, eventually something snaps and we find ourselves in the center of the world, in the castle where we encounter an old king long in pain, suffering a mortal wound but unable to die; the industrial world grown old and now hollow and meaningless, yet unable to let go. Before our vision a procession of wonders clamors by; iPhones and big screen TVs, dancing maidens and fighting gladiators, angry preachers and crying, starving children, beached whales and missing species. We are stunned into silence. Numb, we thicken our armor and try to forget all about the castle.
This is the Western story of the Grail quest; the esoteric, initiatory tale born in the underbelly of Christian cultures in a time of plague, famine and social breakdown. In the tale the procession included a glimpse of the Grail Maiden, a special feminine force bearing the cup said to contain the blood of the god-man, the anointed one, the Christ. The knight is banished from the castle. Wandering alone, locked in the unforgiving character armor choking off the free flow of breath, that vision of the Grail Maiden stays in our hearts, haunting us with the feeling-idea that there is a harmony to life on earth. What is the grail that contained the blood of the anointed but the body’s very flesh itself? Who is the Maiden but the earth, Gaia holding all flesh?
Years more are spent wandering in The Waste Land.
For the fortunate knights another crisis comes pealing like thunder from the sky. It comes to the ones foolish enough to continue caring, despite the burden it has added to the heavy weight of dealing with the world grown grey and toxic in the mono-vision of the marketplace. Another snapping and again the quester finds themselves in the castle, again they see clearly the king with his mortal wound, unable to die. However, this time the years have changed the knight. He is still a fool yet now there is a sacredness involved. Though the knight cannot see it yet it prompts him to not remain silent anymore. He asks the Fisher King:
What ails you?
What can I do to help?
With a shout of joy the king finally dies in peace. The processions fade and the walls of the castle fall. Astonished, the knight removes his visor to gaze upon the earth. Where once there was grey desert now green shoots are cutting through the crusts. Where once streams full of drugs and poisons boiled, now clear, pure waters flow laughingly. Where once the dreadful pale of silence hung on the air like a weighty gloom, now voices fill the atmosphere with the call of birds, the howling of monkeys and the croaking of frogs. Humbly the knight goes forth, no longer a stranger but completely at home on the earth. In his heart, as wide open as the sky itself, reverberates the lost secret word: yes, and thank you.
Those magical questions move a person’s psychic center of gravity from purely ego concerns to the larger self. Those questions set the knight on the true path. We will look at some practical means of traveling on that path next week.