Here we go. “Mindfulness” is such a buzzword at the moment, and that makes me disinclined to write about it. As much as I appreciate that people want to be genuinely present, and show gratitude for the things that so many people take for granted, there’s more to it. So today I want to talk about maintaining true Right Mindfulness in difficult times. Grab a snack, because this is going to be a little longer than usual.
The first thing I feel obliged to point out is that mindfulness is but one step along the Noble Eightfold Path. It is not the destination. The concept of mindfulness is complex and nuanced, and I can’t begin to scratch the surface of all that it encompasses in Buddhism in this short blog post. For practical purposes, then, I’ll narrow this down to dealing with the Five Hindrances.
What are we begin mindful of? The connection between our self and the world. What is the context for that? The things that we get attached to and hung up on that ultimately hold us back.
Those start with sensory desire. Seeking happiness through our senses. A lot of people see mindfulness as being aware of the sweet smells, the sound of birds chirps, and all of those things, so they can indulge in them. Those are wonderful, but those are fleeting things. To focus too deeply on them is the first hindrance.
The second hindrance is ill-will. I am mindful of the neighbors banging around in the hall when I’m trying to meditate, and construction noise across the street when I’m trying to write. What I’m actually mindful of is the hostility and resentment I’m harboring because of those things. I need to accept reality as it is, address it and work with it, rather than doing nothing more than allowing anger to consume me.
The practice of mindfulness is also meant to make us aware of our own mental laziness. We pay attention to things to remind ourselves that we too often don’t pay attention to things. A moment of mindfulness is meant to kick us in the behind for our lack of awareness when we’re not actively practicing mindfulness. The third hindrance is our own distraction, lack of inertia, and torpor.
Another kick in the pants is that practicing mindfulness is meant to show up how restless our minds are. Being present means not worrying about that thing you need to do later. It’s not stressing over the state of the world. You’re supposed to let go of the thing the politician said yesterday, and what happened at the protest, and the problems that exist at the moment you’re being mindful. The fourth hindrance is the trouble we have calming our own minds.
I know that in this very superficial overview the third and fourth hindrances sort of blur together, which makes the fifth and final hindrance more difficult to explain. It’s doubt and indecision. The simplest way I can put this is to use mindfulness itself as the example. When we lose sight of the path, and think that it would be wonderful to just dwell in this present, pleasant moment, that’s the fifth hindrance. Wondering whether we should keep going or just stop here because it’s comfortable and convenient, that decision point, that moment, that’s the hindrance.
What Do We Do With This?
Mindfulness isn’t about seeking comfort. It’s about seeing and accepting our own discomfort, and our own flaws. Then we can do something about it. Too many people use it to (metaphorically) focus on the weather and ignore the climate. “I can feel the cool breeze, so I can focus on that and not worry about climate change.” “I’m not sick, and wearing a mask is uncomfortable, so I’m going to focus on my happiness and ignore the ongoing global pandemic.” “My interactions with police have been positive and I don’t see any overt racism in my spaces, so BLM must be a bunch of whining troublemakers”.
Right Mindfulness means not only seeing the bigger picture, but recognizing your place in it. Your attitudes, you privilege, your accountability. Then taking action based on that recognition.