“Mindfulness” is an idea that seems to be everywhere, sometimes; at least, if you hang out in spiritual, recovery, therapy, or other healing-based places. It’s an idea that began to gain a toehold here in the west back in the 1970s, when adventurous spiritual seekers like Joseph Goldstein, Jack Kornfield, and Sharon Salzberg, among others, traveled to the Far East and came back bearing treasures from the Buddhist meditation tradition, which they began teaching to western students. Mindfulness was one of them.
The basic notion was one of paying close, careful, relaxed attention to something, usually the breath, or the movement of the abdomen as you breathe, or a number count. Anything that would help take the mind out of its usual closed loop of endless thoughts, distractions, and low-level anxiety. The breath was a favorite, in part because it brings us back to the body and sensation, and away from abstractions. And the breath changes all the time, a moving target, so you can’t fool yourself; if you lose track of it, you’ll know it.
During this time, a small, quiet Buddhist monk from Vietnam was also beginning to attract students among people in the west. His name was Thich Nhat Hanh. He was also a scholar, a poet, and a political activist whom Dr. Martin Luther King nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, who had ended up living in the west in exile from his native land because of his opposition to the Vietnam War. He had an interesting take on mindfulness that many found helpful.
Thich Nhat Hanh linked the practice of mindfulness very directly to the opening of the heart. It wasn’t just about noticing what’s going on, as if one was a detached observer who wasn’t involved, he said; on the contrary, actual being fully present with the mind, the understanding, in the breath, brings the whole being into this moment, including all of our feelings and the subtle awareness of the heart and the intelligence of the body, in one seamless movement.
He says that rather than the mind and the heart being separate, “understanding is love’s other name. The more you understand, the more you love; the more you love, the more you understand. They are two sides of one reality. The mind of love and the mind of understanding are the same.” And, he claims, “the energy of mindfulness is true love.”
In saying this, he is echoing an understanding that is not only a part of the Buddhist teachings, but can be found throughout the spiritual teachings of the ancient world, in Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity, Taoism, and Islam, as well. In all of the cultures where these teachings developed, the idea was that what we today tend to split into “mind” and “heart,” or intellect and emotion, are actually two sides of the same coin.
So when we approach our lives with mindfulness, we are not just being present and noticing what’s actually going on, inside and outside of us, although we’re certainly doing that; we’re also deepening our relationship to all of it, by rousing the energy of the heart that enables us to connect at a feeling level to the whole of life. When we work with mindfulness, then, we work with love; and when we work with love, we heal not only ourselves, but bring forward the energy needed to heal others and the world we live in, as well.
Thich Nhat Hanh teaches that “the object of your mindfulness can be anything.” He has developed a long list of things we can work with in mindfulness, including the traditional practice of walking meditation, but also washing dishes, answering the phone, making a cup of tea, arranging flowers, changing diapers, and using the toilet! There’s no separation between our ordinary lives and what we might think of as “spiritual.” This is what we discover when we become present through mindfulness and take care of whatever is in front of us.
“When your mind is there with your body,” he says, “you are established in the present moment. Then you can recognize the many conditions of happiness that are in you and around you, and happiness just comes naturally.”
His conclusion: “the practice of mindfulness is itself love.”
There are many ways to make this discovery besides formal meditation. Sitting without moving on a cushion isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. For some, moving with quiet, peaceful, focused attention, as in Yoga or Tai Chi, is an easier and more direct route. And speaking of tea, in Japan, the ritual of the tea ceremony is a time-honored way to realize the harmony of being that Nhat Hanh describes. And, of course, many cultures around the world have some version of the sacred meal: the Passover seder in Judaism, and the Eucharist in Christianity that developed from it; the mindful relationship to eating practiced during Ramadan by Muslims; the giving of gifts of sweets or fruit as prasad in the traditions of India, to name a few.
But for those who identify themselves as “spiritual, but not religious,” or don’t even think of themselves as spiritual, the good news is that you can still benefit from the practice of mindfulness. There’s nothing uniquely “Buddhist” or “religious” about paying attention, or breathing and acting with care, or bringing full feeling to what we do. Old fishermen sitting on the well-worn boards of a dock or dam let their minds go quiet and still and keep a calm, alert attention on their line and hook in the water, sometimes with an uncanny awareness as to when that elusive fish is about to strike. Good golfers or tennis players practice a kind of home-grown Zen, shifting into a state that Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi describes as “Flow,” in which nothing exists except their whole body and mind in just this instant, entirely focused on the ball and the swing. Martial artists, especially those who practice what are sometimes called the “internal” arts, which deliberately employ the coordinated use of breath, movement, energy and sometimes voice, regularly cite having this experience. These and countless other types of personal rituals can be completely legitimate experiences of mindfulness for us all. It’s more about our noticing that we’re doing it, so we can work with it directly and enhance it, than what we call it or how we get there.
However it happens, when we engage the world in this deeper way, we learn to care for it more fully and completely. By cleaning a cup with our full attention and feeling, as if nothing else existed and nothing could be more important, we learn how to care for the whole world. As Zen teacher Cheri Huber puts it, “how you do anything is how you do everything.” And the benefits flow right back to us. By learning how to be mindful of walking, or raking the leaves, we wake up the energy of love in ourselves; and it is the very nature of love to include rather than exclude, and to bring everything together rather than to divide. By practicing mindful living, we take care not only of a dish, a leaf, or a cup of tea or coffee, but ourselves and our world, as well.
Imagine, all of that, right there in a single breath.