Socially Engaged Mindfulness

When I started to think about mindfulness and relationships, one of the things that I reflected on was the Buddha’s understanding of relationships. It is interesting to go back to try to trace the historical origins of this because for the Buddha to walk his path, he had to redefine many of his core relationships: he left his wife and child, and he left his community, and he even developed a very different relationship to diet, becoming emaciated and almost facing death until he was given a golden bowl of milk-rice. It was only through this process that he was able to emerge with a new relationship to life and to follow his path.

Immediately after renewing his relationship with life, we are told that the Buddha established a community, and I think this was a significant first step. Living in community became a way of learning – there was no rule set imposed upon the community, rather the rules emerged organically from how people behaved in relationship with one another – for the Buddha relationships comprised the whole of the path. I have been very influenced by Thich Nhat Hanh, and one of the things he says – which is poignant at the moment as he is seriously ill – is that he does not want a successor at Plum Village because he said that the community would be the next Buddha.

The questions for me at the moment are how do we bring our practice of mindfulness into the community? And can mindfulness inform an ethical system within which we can be in relationship with others?

 It is interesting to track the development of mindfulness in the western world. Initially we just had research and techniques on the practice of mindfulness, now we are increasingly seeing research and techniques on mindfulness and compassion, and I believe that in the next five years we will see research on how mindfulness can inform a system of ethics. The ethical component has always been an essential part of Buddhism.

We have developed a tendency to view mindfulness as a treatment to fix certain problems, rather than as a way of life in and of itself. Sometimes we can go into a very insular practice that creates a cocoon around us, but the real challenge is to come back out into our community and explore how mindfulness can sustain us in the midst of life.

One of the things that struck me on a recent trip to India was how some converts to Buddhism who had been part of the untouchable caste were now members of government. Mindfulness doesn’t just exist as an introverted practice - at its core it promotes social engagement. I think how we understand mindfulness depends on how we understand the issues we are currently experiencing. For some time we have focussed on most of our issues being intrapsychic, but now perhaps we are beginning to see that there is a social element to these issues. The Buddha was an incredible radical who broke away from his own tradition, questioned it profoundly, and established a community that had ethics at its heart.

The Buddha asked us to look into our own experience. He said he taught two things – how to understand suffering and how to free ourselves from suffering. You can’t have anything more basic than that. But it is interesting how we all project our own fantasies around that. For the Tibetans that is lights and wrathful deities, and for the West it is dopamine levels and MRI scans – so whatever the contemporary cultural relationship is we are going to understand it through that lens. We interpret Buddhism by the norms of our own culture and maybe there is a certain danger in that. For many of us now, ethics is almost a dirty word. Ethics are unsettling – but they are an inconvenient truth. They are what will actually determine our relationship with ourselves and others. In Buddhism, the system of ethics comes from reflecting on our own experience.
I think people do begin to ask themselves different types of questions once they start meditating. It is very difficult to uproot self-interest, but I think that people do begin to know what makes them happier and what makes them suffer more and I think that usually there is an ethical core that they can hold that comes from that knowledge.
One of the things that the Buddha said that you give up very soon into the path are the rites and rituals. And one of the things he challenged in Hinduism was that people took refuge in the rite and became a ritualistic culture. In many ways I think he was a pragmatic psychologist who developed a system of being that was informed by all the kinds of relationships we can have in life, with ourselves and with others, whether they are positive or negative.

I think relationships that challenge us are very important. They put us in touch with our prejudice. I think that is where meditation really comes into its own because it allows us to come in touch with our view on a person, and to sit with that, and feel the physiological tension of that. And once you meet that you cannot get away from it. We hold so much of that information in the body, and I think that is where meditation leads us. It gives us a way of finding safety in our body, and also of a way of opening up the challenging bits. And I think we know when we are touching into something quite deep in ourselves that has held us in suffering.

How meditation and Buddhism is being presented has changed over the past few decades. There was this harshness towards the self – we talked the self-cherishing mind, or ego-mind, whereas now people are adopting a much more embracing and compassionate approach to whatever element of ourselves we are working with. We want to embrace it rather than fight ourselves and that can only be helpful in some ways. I think the meditation practices we are using and reinterpreting are becoming more of what Buddhism was meant to be – the key to developing an embodied system of ethics that can help us to live better together.

About the author: 

Mary O’Callaghan, MA is the Director of Oscailt Integrative Health Centre in Dublin. She is an accredited psychotherapist who has also been exploring meditation practices for over thirty years.

Related Links: