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A plea for mindfulness in mindless times

If we are truly mindful, we can see that nothing is at it appears to be.

Looking deeply, as all sages have taught, shows us that the root cause of our suffering can be traced back to our thoughts, and acts of violence that promote further suffering can themselves be traced back to earlier suffering – also stemming from earlier violence, and always caused by ignorance. It doesn’t really matter what or why. The suffering is there and the desire to make another suffer springs from that. Misery loves company, as the saying goes.

However much we would like to imagine it so, our spiritual practice and awareness can’t be separated from “outer” life. We can’t ignore our active or passive role in the world that appears around us by pretending that some things are not our responsibility, too far away, too high up, or too “different” from us to matter. Mindfulness requires that we look deeply at how every action – through our thoughts, choices, purchases, associations… all of it – supports or prevents further violence, separation, and intolerance around us.

Mindfulness also equips us to question and reflect deeply upon the consequences of what we hear and see before deciding what it means to us. Awareness of the inherent illusion of things – knowing that on the level of mind and matter there is always a lack of information which prevents a complete and truthful picture from emerging – allows us to see that what we are told and shown in this contemporary world of soundbites, open and hidden political agendas and power plays is never as it might appear to be.

An open-minded, politically and ethnically unaligned awareness of world events allows us to see the endlessly shifting allegiances that make friends of enemies and enemies of friends as constantly and subtly as sand dunes are transformed moment to moment by the ocean breeze.

Because of our mindfulness, we can see how nominally democratic world leaders, in the name of unwilling or unknowing citizens, wage wars far afield whose sheer existence (let alone casualties) may or may not be noticed, may or may not be concealed, by those in whose name – and for whose supposed security – the wars are waged. We are therefore not surprised when this violence lands on our doorstep; only shocked and saddened, because this time we know the names and faces of the victims.

Being truly mindful, we are aware of the visceral pain of a mother who has lost her child, whatever the age, whatever the faith, whatever the colour. We are aware of the vast suffering that spreads among all sentient beings – brothers, sisters, dogs, cats, trees – when ignorance leads to violence. We can hold the suffering with compassion for all parties, because we are mindful enough to realise that events arise in a beginningless and endless continuum, whose source and consequences can’t be fathomed by our little minds.

Mindfulness allows us to see that the entire universe operates on a level we cannot fathom, and that our lives are not simply affected from within the earth’s atmosphere. Astrologers consider that the energies of the planets are like being spoken to by divine forces, and in the past few days the warrior planet Mars made a (notoriously) disruptive conjunction to impulsive Rahu, the north node of the moon. Why do things happen when they happen? We don’t know for sure, but we can remain humble in the awareness that many forces unite for any event to arise.

Looking deeper we can see that our karma (literally meaning the actions of our hands) leads to the results we see in life around us. What we are doing and thinking now – individually and collectively – leads to consequences in the next moment, throughout all time, generations, communities, and over lifetimes. Beware of who is placed upon a pedestal, or pilloried, depending on inherently unreliable opinions. Who is truly innocent? Who is truly guilty? At what point in time? It’s hard to say. Fundamentally, there are simply actions and the results of our actions, visible and invisible.

There is, of course, a moral Truth. Ahimsa, non-harming, is an important part of this Truth, as is Asteya, avoidance of taking more than we need, or what is not ours to take. We are inter-connected in infinitesimal ways that boggle our individual minds when pondered. When one part of this universal being is harmed, we all pay a heavy cost, even if this is not immediately obvious. The challenge is to cultivate kindness, compassion and open-heartedness in the face of violence. Cultivate tolerance in the face of intolerance; knowledge in the face of ignorance.

Being mindful does not mean being above emotion, it means we fully embrace what is true for us in the moment, even if we have been educated to believe this might be politically or socially “incorrect”! Anger is there. Sadness is there. When we are mindful we are acutely aware of our deep pain, on our own or another’s behalf. Denying what we actually feel will perpetuate ignorance and therefore suffering. To be mindful is to be open to our actual experience of life, and our response to it. Once we can identify our suffering, we can begin to alleviate it, and prevent us from spreading it around.

Above all, don’t run away from suffering. Run towards it. Don’t wallow in it, but fully feel it in your body, and in your tormented mind. Then notice how it can be noticed – it is separate from you, even though you are experiencing it. Breathe. Relax your body. Soften your throat, your heart, your stomach. You are not your suffering. You are life itself. What do you live for?