Historically, mindfulness has been called ‘the heart’ of Buddhism as mindfulness is at the core of teachings of the Buddha. These teachings are traditionally described by the Sanskrit word Dharma, which means lawfulness or ‘the way things are’.
One of the things I deeply appreciate about Buddhism is this ‘lawfulness’ that underpins it and that of course is why research backs up the practice of mindfulness. Lawfulness relates to all people, past and present, irrespective of context, what you are doing and where you are.
The first observation of the Buddhist lawfulness is impermanence. Everything changes all the time and every moment is different to the next. There is constant arising of new moments with new combinations of textures, sounds, feelings, thoughts, and events. This naturally also means that nothing is fixed. ‘The self’ is an ever-changing process and it is within our power – providing we are aware – to influence this forming of our ‘selves’.
“The self is not something ready-made, but something in continuous formation through choice of attention and action.” ― John Dewey
There is also the observation in Buddhism that people tend to be in a state of dissatisfaction due to the constant urge to get away from something unpleasant and/or the desire to move towards something we think is going to feel good. Or maybe we aren’t aware of these underpinnings and so we are in a state of delusion. Hence, we tend to feel, as the Germans would say, ‘immer unterwegs’; always on our way, rarely present. This urge to move away or towards something is part of our basic survival drive and our system is geared for survival not contentment. We have to override our biology to cultivate that.
Another observation is our interconnectedness and interdependence. We are reminded that in every breath of air there are particles of the ocean, trees, and people who have been here before us.
Finally, there is the observation that we have within us a pure goodness, ‘Buddha nature’, which might at times be obscured but is nonetheless there. Mythologist and writer Josef Campbell describes this goodness as being based on knowing that we are one and we all share the same life force, that which brings life about.
When we experience these principles, they make us bow in gratitude, they make us responsible, and help us let go and accept change. These principles compel us to take care of this planet and each other, and they bring forth a response of inclusiveness, kindness and compassion.
Within every culture new ‘Life Laws’ arise. Unexamined assumptions about what is important and how we should live arise in response to our cultural context and our ego drives. Our task is to consider the consequences of these assumptions or beliefs, and to consider if they are fundamental truths. Are the assumptions relevant to everybody or just some of us? Are they relevant to someone with a disability, to someone living in war-torn Syria? Would they have been relevant to your great-grandparents?
A few months ago I bought an online program from the US called Leadership for Emerging Women. The presenters were talking about the importance of finding your unique purpose and they shared how they owed their success to having found it. I kept thinking of my sister Birgitte, who at 14 started to fit one afternoon as we sat relaxing after school and how nothing for her has been the same since her subsequent diagnosis of epilepsy. How is a unique purpose relevant to her?
On the other hand how well does it meet our disposition of wanting to get away from something perceived as unpleasant, like an ordinary life and moving towards something that feeds a feeling of being special.
During the past week I have in group settings mentioned the problems I have with the idea that is it essential to find your purpose. And every time, people have voiced their relief and expressed their support of me for airing this issue.
There are many interesting underpinnings to this belief; one is the focus on our uniqueness and I am not sure how well that serves us. We are unique but also the same, and the more self, the more tension and suffering. We all matter uniquely through those we stand in relation to, but of all the people who have lived, how many do we remember after three generations? And does it matter once you are dead, isn’t that an attachment of the living?
Finding your unique purpose seems to have become a slogan for making a lot of money and living the high life. Zoom out and consider how well this message sits within a growth-focused political system; it reads like a subtext for how to succeed and live the American-inspired dream.
The pressure to ‘find our purpose’ denies us the satisfaction of deepening our skills while appreciating what we have to offer day to day to those closest to us. Instead, we are plagued by a belief that something is missing or not quite right. It might be healthier for us to find the meaning in the work we have, rather than being preoccupied searching for work that will give us meaning.
Another ‘Life Law’ is ‘The law of attraction’, which gained a wide following after The Secret was published. It states that if you work hard, believe hard, and align your mind with the universe through mental commitment, then you will get what you want, which usually means a lot of money. The initial clip for the film promoting The Law of Attraction showed a writer sticking hundred dollar bills on his ceiling so that he was reminded every night and morning of what was ‘already’ his, what he had created.
The benefit of believing in this is that we take responsibility for our life but perhaps overly so and with a narrow idea of what ‘success’ means. I come back to my sister’s situation, the families in Aleppo, the Jews in World War II, the drought in Somalia; did these people attract their situation? We can explain some of this through cause and effect, but that is not the Law of Attraction and it certainly doesn’t explain everything. Again, this law tends to be more relevant to some groups of people in some countries. Because of this, I would not describe it as a universal law.
The Law of Attraction is very similar to laissez faire and could easily be used by governments to justify not supporting those in need, as they would be seen as responsible for their own predicament. In this vain a coach might ask clients how they attracted their misery, for instance the death of a dear one. In this view there is no separation between ‘life’ and ‘karma’.
I believe they need to be separated, life has no heart, bad stuff happens. Karma on the other hand is a result of how we have responded to life. Karma in this way can be seen as how our brain has formed in response to our life experience, which is the observation in neuroscience.
Watch your thoughts; for they become words. Watch your words; for they become actions. Watch your actions; for they become habits. Watch your habits; for they become character. Watch your character for it will become your destiny.
– Frank Outlaw
The argument here is that in a past life, you attracted this. This is however a belief not a law and it is important to make this distinction.
It is important that we think through the underpinnings of the beliefs that come our way and that we consider the consequences. Ask yourself, ‘Does this way of thinking make the world a better place? Does it expand my heart and make me see things in a wiser, kinder more inclusive way? Does it move me towards taking responsibility, within reason?
When it comes to personal development books and resources, ask yourself: ‘Is this helping me to get better at succeeding within the existing paradigms or does this challenge existing paradigms?’
Buddhism and mindfulness in its pure form– challenges our ideas of self, happiness, relationships, and success and what it is all about. There is a possibility that we are using mindfulness as tool for succeeding as defined by flawed paradigms. Mindfulness is a tool, but it is also so much more than that.
I am curious about what you think, please share your thoughts on this.