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Longing and mindfulness as a panacea or path?

5 April 2019 | , Timothea Goddard

I love this rendering of the power of longing. Saint-Exupery speaks of longing as something noble and inspiring that can take us forward towards our deepest values and draw us out into caring for the world. 

If you want to build a ship, 
don't drum up people together to collect wood and 
don't assign them tasks and work, but rather 
teach them them to long for 
the endless immensity of the sea.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I hear over and over in week 8 of the MBSR course that people have discovered things that they were quite surprising to them. And so often, I hear that at the beginning of the course that they had set their sights way too low in their aspirations for the course – like getting better sleep, or being less anxious, or being less tormented by the world of critical thoughts. Of course these things are centrally important, especially as dealing with them reduces our stress so we can see more clearly. They are a natural place for us to begin. 

But somehow through the practice and the process in the group, and the teachings, what opens up and becomes a driver of the mindfulness in their lives is opening up to their love and longing for spaciousness, for ease, for heartfelt-ness, for connection. Unless we listen for and hear this need, we can get so caught up in the demands of “doing mode”, and soon our whole lives can become very instrumental; every action and decision becomes about making something happen – with no space for the expression of proper longing. I am reminded of Leunig’s little poem:  

"Let us pray for wisdom. Let us pause from
thinking and empty our mind. Let us stop
the noise. In silence let us listen to our
heart. The heart which is buried alive. Let
us be still and wait and listen carefully. A
sound from the deep, from below. A faint
cry. A weak tapping. Distant muffled
feelings from within. The cry for help.
We shall rescue the entombed heart. We
Shall bring it to the surface, to the light
and the air. We shall nurse it and listen
respectfully to its story. The heart's story
of pain and suffocation, of darkness and
yearning. We shall help our feelings live in
the sun. Together again we shall find relief
and joy."

We really do need to take some time to do this listening, to be still and quiet for a time in the company of others who can also be quiet, for this to emerge. No rush.  

Mindfulness is not a thing, or a commodity or a technique.

Certainly there has been a relentless hype about it in the commercial world at the moment – with more offerings of ever efficient and speedy ways of getting “fixed” – usually with tiny amounts of formal practice, if any, and with little opening up to the power of silence or deep listening and often without teachers who are immersed or trained. And with no understanding about what actually contributes to our suffering. Jon Kabat-Zinn writes about this phenomena and his hopes about it:

I do think that the outsized popularity and hype accorded to mindfulness at the moment will be a passing fad, and that those with more opportunistic motivations will soon become bored and move on to the next next thing. Hopefully, “mindfulness” will fast become so “yesterday” to those interests. That will leave those of us who care deeply about it and see its potential for healing and liberation from suffering and the causes of suffering in one form or another to continue doing our work and cultivating our practice in ways that the world is actually starving for, and we might also say, literally and metaphorically, dying for. (2017) 

Mindfulness is part of a path.

Mindfulness can’t be a panacea, cure, solution or answer in the way these forces suggest, because the practice of it literally opens us up to the complex reality of our suffering and the experience of our inter-connectedness. It also shines a light on our very own greed, hatred and delusion when we are off-kilter. These are the old-fashioned Buddhist terms for the impulses that arise quite naturally out of our human biology. Greed is the impulse to always strive to make things go “my way”; hatred is aversion to when things don’t go “my way”. One contemporary teacher who works with people who are dying – Frank Ostaseski  - translates them skilfully as verbs: 

If we are really paying attention we can’t get away from knowing that from moment to moment we can often find ourselves in these states of “demanding”, “defending” and “distracting” ourselves from the reality of how things are in the moment. And how this leads to more suffering.

Hopefully our mindfulness practice can help us sleep better, work better and care for our children and colleagues better. 
And to arrive as best we can for every moment of this precious life. 
And to see that it matters how we pay attention to even ordinary things. 
And to act on important matters that move us. 
And to bear that life, oftentimes, can feel like one insult after another. 
And hopefully it can also open us up to see the possibility that this unfolding life deserves the application of a path that takes time, and care.

No rush.


The Path

If anybody asks you what the Path is about,
It's about generosity.
It's about morality.
It's about concentration.
It's about gaining insight through
focused self-observation.
It's about the cultivation of subjective states
of compassion and love based on insight.
And it's about translating that compassion
and love into actions in the real world

Shinzen Young