Mindfulness = Happiness?

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I read an article recently questioning the purpose of the current mindfulness bandwagon… the author implied that present day mindfulness’s focus is on individual happiness, which upset her as it  gives us the idea that we do not have to deal with problems in the world, such as hunger, poverty, violence, misogyny, racism, etc., etc., etc.! I was surprised that this is part of the current take-home message about mindfulness…that it is a way to avoid dealing with issues by focusing on our own peace of mind.I was also chagrined because part of what I do is teach and encourage mindfulness, and it is painful to think that people believe that our individual happiness is the goal, when my understanding of the teachings is that one cannot separate our individual state from that of the world’s.

I see this path as much more of an interwoven dynamic – that to face the suffering in ourselves INCLUDES facing the suffering in our world, and vice versa. Ultimately, we need to expand our capacity to “be with what is,” whether it is to celebrate a joyful moment or feel the pain of the many disconnections that can happen or to be truthful about the injustices in the world or to recognize our own human limitations. In order to expand our capacity to be with what is, a regular practice of observing, noticing, letting go of judgment, and breathing can help. Once we are more comfortable being with what is, neither clinging to the positive nor pushing away the unpleasant, clarity can emerge about what engaged action we can take with whatever thorny issues we are involved.

But what does this mean – to be with what is? My sense is the answer to this has as many variations as there are human beings and, at the same time, has some fundamental basics. Some examples of the possible variations: I might need to increase my ability to enjoy a simple walk on the beach – take in the sun and sand and waves and truly allow myself to enjoy the sensations without fretting about an undone project. For you it might be to leave the beach and tackle some clutter – to take in the sense of overwhelm and reach out for support so that you don’t get swallowed up by the overwhelm so much that you don’t do anything. For someone else, it might be to face a sense of helplessness at all the suffering in the world and to come to a place of knowing that their “small” contribution towards ending suffering is worthwhile. Being authentic with our next step in being our full selves is something we each have to figure out on our own – often in fits and starts and getting comfortable with doubt, ambiguity, and confusion along the way!

In terms of the fundamentals, the essence, in my opinion, is expanding our capacity for love – to love ourselves as we are and to lovingly imagine the possibility of changing; to notice the places our hearts are closed or judgmental or fearful and to patiently understand how and why we feel that way; to be vulnerable and risk opening our hearts in new ways – saying hello to a stranger, being honest about our judgments and being open and curious to learn about the “other.”

In my experience, mindfulness practices do not promise happiness per se but rather happiness that contains within it a journey of being with unsettledness, self-consciousness, and humility. Contentment that can be with the times that calm, patience, and tenderness are elusive. The joy of being alive – fully – to the suffering as well as the delight of this precious world in which we live. As Pema Chodron writes in When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, “We don’t set out to save the world; we set out to wonder how other people are doing and to reflect on how our actions affect other people’s hearts.”