Such is the subtlety of mindfulness that it’s easy to get muddled about its what’s, how’s and why’s. A common confusion is to divorce, often unintentionally, the cultivation of present-moment awareness from a warm-hearted embrace of the world. If your mindfulness isn’t umbilically connected to your heartfulness, it’s not mindfulness fully bloomed. By contrast, if your mindfulness is allowing you to be more awake to the world around you so that you might respond skilfully, then your practice is in good shape.
The how’s of mindfulness involve particular orientations to the presenting moment: turning towards, opening up, non-resistantly contacting, ‘standing near’, holding in mind. Implicit here is an inclination, even willingness, to dwell in the midst of all that is happening. Mindful presence is active, not passive, and never detached. Traditionally, the mental quality of mindfulness is understood as interfacing with the heart qualities of empathy, friendliness and compassion. This gives us to the why’s of practice: noticing, appreciating, attending to, caring, dealing wisely with adversity.
When the nuances of practice get overlooked, all manner of misinterpretations abound. For example, if mindfulness is undertaken solely with the aim of reducing unpleasant emotions, it can lead to unintended, negative consequences. A recent research study found that meditating can reduce feelings of guilt in a practitioner, which can lead to a disinclination to repair social relationships after a harmful action. I suspect this finding has a lot to do with how mindfulness was inadequately presented and taught to the practitioners interviewed here.
A separate study in 2021 suggested mindfulness can cause “heightened egotism” and make us more selfish. When you think about it, it’s unsurprising that mindfulness, if taught and practised as a form of introspection in an individualistic mental culture, will not work out well. Here lies a perennial danger: misapprehend mindfulness as a method for turning inwards to focus solely on oneself and the heart of your practice will quickly grow cold.
The pitfalls are many but the path of mindfulness is endlessly forgiving. We can always start again. We can reconsider first principles. Just as skilful practice requires that we do not over-identify with thoughts and feelings, by extension it involves not over-identifying with the self. ‘Attending to’ need not mean biasing the ‘inner’. It should be equally concerned with sensitising to the world at large.
Well-practised mindfulness clarifies our interconnectedness and mutuality. On a species level, this is the insight into common humanity: the fact that we all live in the same world and are bound by the same existential conditions of transience, vulnerability, unreliability and mortality. Life in its countless shades and fluctuations, its joys and sorrows, is something we’re all going through rather than something that is happening to ‘me’ alone. Seeing this clearly allows mindfulness to entwine with empathy and compassion. Active presence ceases to be just an aspiration for the meditator; it becomes how they do their life.
The human potential for facing suffering is where the path of mindfulness leads. There is much to derive inspiration from along the way: the effortless little kindnesses we manifest for self and others; the loving people we know; the compassionate acts we read about daily, such as the efforts of communities and individuals to care for those fleeing warzones, cruelty and oppression, and helping those in need of shelter, food, medicine and support.
Small actions matter. If you’re not sure about your next move, or you feel overwhelmed by the scale of the suffering you are witnessing or experiencing, you might like to consider meditation teacher Martine Batchelor’s guidance on how to develop ‘wise compassion’. She frames this on a spectrum that lies between ‘What is the least I can do?’ and ‘What is the most I can do?’. First, she suggests, we need to reflect on what our best input might be, so that we don’t overload ourselves or inflame the situation. Only then do we act. Regardless of the kind of action we take, a sturdy meditation practice will underpin our baseline intention to do no harm.
I recently came across an inspiring story that bore all the hallmarks of wise compassion. A woman rescued an orphaned baby bird and, over several months, fed, nurtured and housed him – in her hair! She learned the fledgling’s calls and how to communicate with him. She foraged for his food and, ultimately, allowed him to thrive.
What struck me about her story was the careful attention she sustained over an extended period of time. Equally, she accepted all the inconveniences that came with the task, for example, eating and going to the toilet one-handed while the fledgling napped in her hand, and cleaning up his litter from the nest in her hair. But there was one more thing she did, something exquisitely wise: she didn’t give the bird a name. She understood he didn’t belong to her. She knew she would need to let him go at some point. That’s the heart of mindfulness right there: all the love in the world and not an ounce of grasping. What’s left is a sublime letting go.