It’s been at least a couple of weeks since I was last in touch. In that time, I have received very many messages and questions from our community. I am very grateful that you have shared so much and for your trust, and I am also deeply moved by so many of your stories. It’s remarkable to see how diverse our group is, with messages from Belgium, England, and Spain, from Canada, USA, and Mexico, from Argentina, Brazil, and Columbia, from China, Japan, and India. And elsewhere. It’s so inspiring to know that people all over the world are engaging with mindfulness in their own ways, trying to make use of it to help them and others make sense of the lives they’re living.
In my last message to you, I invited you to write to me if you had questions. So ...
... many of you wrote with great kindness and generosity about these emails themselves, asking for nothing more; I wanted to let you know that those messages meant a great deal to me. I wasn’t able to reply to them all, but: thank you.
In terms of the questions you’ve asked, these have ranged widely. Some have been cultural/political in nature, such as: whether the secularization of mindfulness enables it to be taught safely in conservative religious cultures (such as Colombia) or whether this ‘simplified’ version is just no longer mindfulness at all. Some have been about the integration of mindfulness into other ‘allied’ practices, like qigong (in Ireland), tai’qi (in Costa Rica), yoga (in Hong Kong), hiking (in the Colorado Rockies), or its relationship with other experiences like flow or savouring.
There were also some very personal questions from people who are clearly suffering tremendously. Some of you are struggling with your practice because you’ve become sick and find breathing itself has become challenging; your breath no longer feels like a safe haven inside you, but instead it has become a source of stress and anxiety. In one heartbreaking phrase from ‘Cheri’: ‘how do I remain mindful when my whole being hurts?’ Some of you are wrestling with personal crises and wondering how you can free yourselves from constant ruminations and anger about past betrayals, injuries, or negative experiences. As we’ve seen so many times with ‘dukkha’ in this course: we often layer extra suffering onto our hearts by blaming ourselves for having been hurt by others in the past.
There are so many things to be said about all of these situations and feelings, and I will return to some of them in subsequent emails, so that I can be properly attentive to them. For now, I think the most pressing and general questions seem to revolve around feeling overwhelmed or (in the words of ‘Lu’) as though the ‘universe is playing a prank on me.’ Indeed, many of you have written to express the sense of experiencing a relentless barrage of problems at the moment. Even as you emerge from one wave to take a breath, you seem to be hit by another.
The pandemic is only one factor for everyone. Issues of racism and violence might be another. Unemployment or precarious income might be yet another. You might be experiencing the tumult of Brexit or the turmoil of an ugly election campaign. You might be worrying about whether or not to send your kids back to school, or whether to return to school yourself? You may be trying to deal with the fear, suffering, and devastation caused by wildfires on the Pacific coast of North America right now, by hurricanes on the east coast, by floods in China, or by monsoons in India and Indonesia.
To quote ‘Cheri’ out of context: How do I remain mindful when my whole being hurts?
Some of you will be aware of the idea in Buddhist historiography that the purity of the teachings of the Buddha gradually decline as time passes, making it harder and harder for people to live in enlightened ways. In particular, Pure Land Buddhists sometimes talk about there being three ages in history following the death of the historical Buddha: the age of the true law (which lasts 1,000 years); the age of the counterfeit law (which lasts another 1,000 years); and finally the age of the end of the law (which lasts 10,000 years). This last age, known in Japanese as mappō, is the age in which we live now. It is supposedly characterized by strife and struggle, and especially by our increasing inability to practice the ‘law’ – including presumably mindfulness – properly. That is, not only is a period in which there is widespread suffering, but it is also a period in which our capacity to alleviate it through the correct cultivation of mindfulness (and other means) is diminished.
My sense is that many of us feel like we are living in such times at the moment. And yet, in the context of my last message (about the idea of viriya or perseverance), it might help us to remember that the most any of us can do is what we can do, no matter what the circumstances. In challenging times like these, not only will it feel more difficult to keep ourselves balanced and upright, but it will actually be more difficult. Not only will we feel more tired, but we will actually be more tired. It’s not a trick. This is how things are right now. So, in such times, it might be supportive to remember this question (from my last message): what can I do to support myself (and those around me), given how tired I have inevitably become?
Last time, I talked about how there is no single right answer to this question; the answers will vary between different people. But we also saw how some answers might simply be wrong, such as when we delude ourselves about what kinds of activities are really supportive. It is rarely the case that engaging in supportive action doesn’t involve effort, and it is often from that effort that reward is drawn. Even finding 10 minutes to do a sitting practice each day takes effort – and even more effort when we feel immersed in mappō – but making that effort can be much more supportive than drinking another glass of wine, watching endless commercial loops on TV, worrying about yesterday or even fretting about what tomorrow might bring.
One of you wrote to me last week to tell me about how you’d been observing a little black and white cat. She had been wandering around your neighbourhood streets, up and down the fire-escapes, and across the roof-tops. She seems to have great freedom, despite the precariousness of some of her perches. However, the moments that inspired you were those in which in this little cat just decided to flop down onto its back and stretch out in a patch of sunshine, soaking in the heat and looking completely relaxed, without a care in the world, even while a couple of her legs stick out over the edge of a roof, 8 stories up. You observe that she does this so easily and unselfconsciously, without apparent effort. And, for that brief moment, you might even wish you were a cat!
I suspect that many of us might relate to this little story, especially in the midst of stressful times. Indeed, sometimes mindfulness teachers tell us that we should strive to cultivate reflective (or even empty) minds, to help us be completely in the present moment like an animal, undistracted by memories or fears or attachments or aversions. However, it is easy to take the wrong message from this advice: (as far as I know, not being a cat myself) the cat on the sunny roof is not cultivating mindfulness, but simply being a cat in a spot where it feels warm; our quest is not to become a cat. Rather, the key word in that advice is that we should strive to cultivate mindfulness. That is, the intention towards effort – the perseverance in the face of adversity, distraction, and suffering – that is what marks our practice. The cat does not formulate the intention to partake in a practice that will support it (and those around it), and then sit quietly to cultivate gentleness and compassion. The cat (I suspect) thinks it feels nice and warm just here right now, and so flops into comfort. Remember, mindfulness means to pay attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally. It doesn’t mean to stop paying attention: inadvertently, in the present moment, without thinking. Being mindfully present is an intentional activity. It takes work. And effort. It requires us, in the carefully chosen word of the Satipattana Sutta (Foundations of Mindfulness), to be ‘ardent’ in our practice.
So, while we might be able to smile at the apparent contentedness of the relaxed, sunbathing cat, we should not wish to become her. She may well be content (not being a cat, I don’t know), but the simple reality is that you are not a cat, and the activities that will support you (and those around you) will require more perseverance, effort, and ardency, especially in challenging or precarious times.
So, allow me to edit our question for this week: accepting the fact that I am not a cat, what can I do to support myself (and those around me), given how tired I have inevitably become in these days of struggle?
I know that many of you have reasserted your commitment to daily meditation practices over the last couple of weeks, identifying that as a way to support yourself and others, even when it’s hard to find the time and energy to do it. Some of you have decided that it’s more supportive to meditate for 15 minutes each morning than it is to sleep for those 15 minutes, so you’re waking up a little earlier than you might otherwise. Some of you have given up a TV show that you might otherwise have watched, or you’ve stopped compulsively making tea/coffee all day in order to fit in 30 minutes of practice. Whatever choices you’re making, even the realisation that you have a choice to make about how you spend your time is already a step towards mindfulness. May you choose wisely!
Once again, I wish you ease of being and freedom from enmity,
Dr. Chris Goto-Jones.
Leiden University - Centre for Innovation; University of Victoria.
During the 2020/21 COVID19 pandemic, Chris Goto-Jones started writing periodic emails to the participants of the MOOC DeMystifying Mindfulness on Coursera and FutureLearn. Following requests to put them all in one place, they are reproduced here.