Mindfulness has a certain modesty about it. People who practise diligently develop a taste for that. They find themselves appreciating the company of other modest beings. There is no ‘big talk’ about one’s practice. Such behaviours are a hallmark of equanimity, a key ally to mindfulness. If reports of meditatively expanded egos and statistically significant self-enhancement scores amongst meditators are true then they indicate that there are varieties of ‘junk mindfulness’ – conceptually slack, functionally pointless, ethically sterile – operating at large.
These varieties are an unintended consequence of the scramble for adequate operational definitions of mindfulness in clinical psychology in the early 2000s. At that time, mindfulness was an emerging field in psychotherapy and there was a lively debate about its nature, function and potential as a mental health intervention. A mixture of hubris and excitement led many experts to overlook features of traditional mindfulness that, at first glance, seemed extraneous to human flourishing. To disregard, for example, the role of equanimity in sustaining a clear, unbiased eye on the world proved to be a big miss.
Loss of Composure
The debate resulted in several new and influential conceptualisations of mindfulness, all of which conflated it with distinct-but-related mental qualities. In so doing, traditional definitions of mindfulness, which were precise, got stretched to varying points of vague-ness. By the 2010s, the term had become part of the mainstream lexicon but what it specifically referred to had become, unsurprisingly, a bit fuzzy. Over the last decade the word has been twisted and pulled in so many directions that it often looks worn out. Sometimes it’s little more than a catch-all term for a dubious assortment of platitudes in the wellness market.
Junk varieties of mindfulness are to be expected where commercial forces prevail. But there have also been some clumsy standardisations of training programmes in clinical settings that underrate mindfulness practice’s deep conjunctions with our intuitive intelligence and empathic capacity. A characteristic of these programmes is the way they present mindfulness as being exclusively about oneself and the inner workings of the mind, thereby restricting its social dimension to the quietude of softly furnished meditation rooms.
This is a major oversight. Mindfulness that is shrunk-to-fit for ‘private’ spaces, be they psychological or social, is always impoverished. True practice is not just about personal concerns. It is also outward facing. Its nature is to bridge false divisions between ‘interior’ and ‘exterior’.
One of the benefits of a flourishing mindfulness practice is a greater attunement to cause and effect – how mind affects behaviour, and vice versa. The meditator becomes more sensitive to what is a skilful action and what isn’t. They become clearer about what they care about in life – and they get on with caring about it. This ethical sensibility is how one’s mindfulness practice effects change in the world. Here, the mental quality of equanimity contributes the capacity to purposively act in unselfish ways without being attached to the results.
Equanimity also links to a deeper knowing that acting in friendly and caring ways is better for everyone. This is the liberating insight into interconnectedness, which buoys the heart. ‘Practice’ becomes less about self-help and more about service. This is often apparent to people around a practitioner, who notice how that person’s behaviour and attitudes have changed since they started meditating.
Such changes can extend into bold, unselfish acts informed by a refined sensitivity to suffering and a greater willingness to embrace personal hardship in the service of what really matters to that person. Honourable traditions of non-violent resistance to oppression, war and ecocide – being brave enough to endure punishment, censor and violence from state actors because it is the right thing to do – are discreetly steeped in the ethics of mindfulness. Within today’s environmental protest movement alone, there is a whole new generation of activists who draw upon their mindfulness training to engage in courageous acts of civil disobedience and resistance to sound the alarm on the existential crisis facing humans and other species.
Perhaps it would be better if mindfulness and equanimity were taught as separate skills so that people could more easily learn for themselves how they interface with each other and the wider world. That way, ‘mindfulness’ wouldn’t get so misconstrued as a feel-good exercise that’s just about ‘me’.
An added advantage would be a better comprehension of how mindfulness via equanimity is intrinsically linked to the ‘heart’ qualities of friendliness, compassion and joy. It is equanimity that contributes the selfless element to friendliness. It is equanimity that unites with courage in the service of compassion. It is equanimity that stops joy from slipping into sentimentality.
The essence of equanimity is steadiness and poise. It provides the capacity to deal with the difficult without falling into resignation or attack. In this way it is the antidote to becoming aloof or indifferent. True to form, it is just as concerned with the outer environment as the inner one. In worldly action it expresses itself as a full and unselfish embrace of the presenting moment, most powerfully in the service of mitigating danger and suffering. Hence it is the psychological fuel, together with compassion, that has gently sustained not just meditation masters but savvy activists in every peace and social justice movement in human history.
The more you delve into what mindfulness practice is really about, the more layers you will find and the more potential you’ll uncover. You’ll have to look for yourself, though, because important bits got lost in translation. Even then, you’ll still find yourself from time to time stuck down meditative cul-de-sacs, gazing at your navel while congratulating yourself on being able to notice three whole breaths without distraction and thinking you’re brilliant. I’m assuming that’s not just me. Old habits die hard. It’s a humbling path. It’s supposed to be.
Click here for Part 1.