How is it a lifestyle practice? What does it look like as an engaged, applied, practical, modern living person?
The words mindful and mindfulness are everywhere like a golden ticket: more satisfaction, focus, connection, and so it’s now a golden egg for people to sell something. If we walk through some of my own experiences and contemplations as an example, maybe it will help differentiate the trendy social speak of mindfulness and mindfulness meditations from applied, engaged mindfulness or Right Mindfulness as the origins of this now every day word we hear being big key to all better things. “They” are not wrong, but we can expand it beyond a few moments of guided presence on or off a cushion (that sometimes feel unobtainable) into a state of being practice. Also, even though mindfulness practice roots can be traced to spiritual paths, it is not a spirituality in itself, unless that is your choice. It informs and enhances any spiritual practice or simply a state of awareness and being.
First, the words engage and apply are often used when talking about mindfulness practice as a lifestyle. Let’s be on the same page with these terms. Engaged means engaged in the world, applied means how we apply right away and grow in our discoveries. Combined, they ground mindfulness into our everyday lives as a practice in our selves, our families, our commitments, our work lives, our interactions and inter-being. What is inter-being?
Thích Nhất Hạnh, is known as the father of mindfulness, and was a Vietnamese Thiền Buddhist monk, world renowned as a peace activist, and credited with the movement of engaged Buddhism, so he is a good go-to source with our questions. He taught that through the breath and a collective energy of mindfulness we are brought together as an organism, like a river, like one body. As a river is, there is no more separation and we can transcend the body of the elusive or separate self to become liberated from the superiority complex, the inferiority complex, and the equality complex. This transcendence is inter-being. I am you, you are me, we are the river, we are the leaf, in flow, nourishing, having seasons, a single organism, breathing as one, and so on. Spending some time wrapping around this gets to the core of mindfulness as a lifestyle practice and gives a framework to help shape our thoughts, experiences, emotions within ourselves and our interactions with our loved ones, our other relationships, our worldview, our causes. Most simply, it brings us home, it is very grounding. It’s the care and feeding manual to ourselves and that peace we are all hungering for in so many ways.
When I think and feel into this teaching, my immediate passion that lights up, kicks back, triggers is the phrase, “equality complex.” If you ask me on any given day, I will say I do not believe I am more important/superior and sometimes I feel inferior. Perhaps this is more the training of our culture. But this is not really true. We all have bias, judging, comparing. It is societal, even biological. It is deep in us. As an engaged, compassionate person, who strives to apply my understandings to my life, equality has been central to my thoughts, feelings, and actions as long as I can remember. Many situations in my life, opinions, decisions, relationships, have been made considering Equality. What could he mean, what could he be teaching, this exiled peace activist, Equality Complex? Now what?
When I get still, quiet my passionate kick back rebel, when I have a conversation with myself on my struggles and learning, and I consider my development as a person through my day, my decisions and conflicts, (this is all contemplation), this is more through the lens of the precepts of Right Thoughts, Right Words, Right Actions, it becomes clear that of course there are places of superiority, inferiority and equality complexes all over the place. If we look a little deeper, we see how each relate to Right Mindfulness, being still enough to be present, observing, engaged - and this conversation that myself, all selves, are wanting to have with us in our care and feeding manual can be had rather than set aside, pretending it’s something else, or disrupted.
Right Thinking = Right Action, Right Speech/Words
Speech always begins in our mind, we have thought, and so we need a way to take care of our mind, our thinking or our thinking will take care of us for better or worse automatically.
Thich Nhat Hanh talks about it as “radio station NST” - non stop thinking, or unconscious thinking. We can recognize it as a function to protect our separate self, a means of survival.
This deep-seated idea of a separate self needs to be protected, so we keep thinking about it in many ways, comparing, judging, valuing, predicting, and so on. This is an example of wrong thinking. It doesn’t mean we can’t think but we need to cultivate what is right thinking. This means, when we become aware of these thoughts, we become aware of NST and mindfully ask without judgment and with compassion and curiosity: where is it going, what’s it trying to do - is it thinking about the future? or another person - comparing? This goes along with judging self or others, and being curious about the story under this story - how is it is trying to protect the separate self by revealing something about its care and feeding guide.
Here are applied examples from my days:
When walking the other day, I was in a call with my friend. We were talking about the latest in a series of interactions with a neighbor that have been confusing. A local tragedy inspired this neighbor to approach me with expression of a heartfelt statement that they are truly glad I/we were unharmed. I thanked them, and told them I know in a tone and body language that mirrored their concerned and sincere delivery so they knew I understood the words between the words…they would never wish harm regardless of whatever was going on with them amid this unknown difficulty they were expressing over these past months. As I was on this call, relaying the latest with a friend, I was speaking into a headset, and another neighbor was walking, intersecting. They stopped to pet my pup just long enough to hear me say, “I hope this doesn’t re-open a door for more interactions.” They glanced at me as they kept going. The sentence was innocuous enough, but it was not entirely accurate to my feelings either. Truthfully, it could’ve meant anything, but it was an uncomfortable moment for me to be present with in quietness.
Something about this stung me. I felt out of order, caught. In reflection, what I could’ve said was, “I‘m nervous about how this may change things again.” This is more true, and more true to my nature. I was also anticipating more awkward encounters and preferring protective distance, but so relieved kindness was back between us and the air was clearer. The comment I said to my phone friend is more tough, less direct, and it troubled me that it was not Right Speech because they heard something that was both me and not me, that was aggressive in a way that is not reflective of the kindness I am or the compassion I practice. And yet, there was truth in there that I had to search. I am worried. Worry is its own topic in what is Right Thought, and also a task for a practice in engaged, applied mindfulness. It all represents elements in each of the superiority, inferiority and equality complexes.
In thinking of Right Speech, I was reminded of a recent activity in a Zen-based grief group I am a part of. We had an exercise to write a poem with a given list of words (22), and were able to add a limited number of new words, to a total of 49. It created a forced economy and several choices. Was it to be emotionally wrapped or unwrapped, within our experience or created, true or untrue, light-hearted or deep? In this economy, a word like sad was too general. What kind of sad? Weepy? Crushed? Numb? Forlorn? Melancholy? Choked? Grey? Flowers became specific like snapdragons, iris, or shriveled, budding. Suddenly, there was a vividness. And I was brought back the the moments with my neighbors - Economy, Right Speech, Right Thought as part of Right Mindfulness and what it would be in these contexts, how it applies to take steps, have the inner conversations toward release from complexes of superior, inferior, equality which so often is about judgement, comparison, protection or our separate self instead of acknowledging our unified inter-being - what is whole and connected, inextricably same.
The activities were different, the phone conversation and the poem writing, yet they were also the same. In mindfulness reflection, one informed the other and will continue to train my thinking and actions going forward, including my NST radio, like fire drills did in school. In time, it becomes easier, maybe never automatic. It can take longer to type than to experience sometimes. We still need practice. It is a practice, a lifestyle decision that becomes more natural and recognizable.
Continuing the applications and practice forward, we are about to go on a visit for a few days to see an elderly aunt and will be there for her birthday. One of our nights overlaps the last night of a group I have been a part of for many weeks. It will be the night of closure in this same Zen grief group, where we have shared and created a very safe space for some precious things before we are now buttoned up to go back into a world that is less interested. I will likely not see these people again and find myself feeling torn in my obligations, as a team person. Every grain of sand is part of the beach, right? Once signed up, it is a commitment. Especially the last night. And yet, we are having this precious night with our Aunt. We are there to be with her, yet the meeting takes place for 1.5 hours 6:00-7:30, dinner time. Crazy how we think it’s no contest from out side the situation, but inside, we are thinking, “It’s only 1.5 hours. It’s the last night. Family will understand. How can I do this? How can I do/be all the things?” We tend to take for granted these moments with our nearest, our loved ones, they adjust as we fulfill some other senses of duty, to what exactly? In comes the battle that is part of Superiority, Inferiority, Equality - where we are comparing, judging deciding instead of inter-being, flowing as one river. I am one being, as we all are. occupying the same breath and space, the same flow, cycle of life and decay. All we can do and be, is to be here now, and yet, these conflicts of time and space are so real in the demands of our lives. How do we be all things? WE CANNOT. We must accept this. We can simply Be, and inter-be.
It is a question of Right Action. Leo Tolstoy’s 3 questions comes to mind. This has long been one of my favorite parables. Although, we may have differing ideas about why or how we are “put on this earth.” We can perhaps agree that every moment is precious and we have this moment to practice. Practice means we have compassion and refine as we go forward in curiosity. It’s important to not loose a moment, and if we lose a moment, to not lose more moments. We begin peace now, and know that each now is new.
If we transcend the would, should, and listen as one body, which requires us to stop the spin, the non-stop mind chatter and body pressure, all the roots of superiority, inferiority and equality begin to have the conversation with us. Who is most important, why, where, what, how, when start to clarify, or melt away, Judgement vs inter-being engage and where we are protecting our separate self, judging, comparing becomes clear, often defined by the messages of society that we may or may not even be in agreement with while Right Thinking of I am you and you are me clarifies, the way of our deeper true self, and the who, what, where, when, why, how that is unique to each person and situation becomes very stable in our knowing, what Right Action is correct for us in the moment. It may not seem the easiest action, but it is nonetheless clear and stable. This is the conversation Right Mindfulness wants to have with us. It is our true, essential self in presence with the now of our happenings and the influx of social matters.
We can understand ourselves better through Right Mindfulness. As our care and feeding guide become more familiar to us, the seeds of consciousness, the seeds of suffering, the seeds of joy become more accessible and it is no longer about the complexes of superiority, inferiority or equality. Each season, we can see impermanence, the cycles of nature we are a part of, how we may believe we don’t change, things don’t change, but actually we are always in a state of change and also how we engage and apply these ideas in our lives purposefully or on autopilot, and so we decide if we would rather engage directly. We gain trust and inter-be with the all of us that we are in the present. Trust the conflicts we experience to be in good conversation with our true self and our knowing of Right Action through this Right thinking that comes from presence, from learning to slow and steady, dial down the NST and be in silent/feeling or direct conversation with what is the story under the chatter.
This brings us home in ourselves, our relationships and our world around us, regardless of our circumstances. This presences is: Right Mindfulness.
May all beings be in peace.
Ama la vita d’altro,
Rev. Dr. Birdi Sinclair
Interfaith Spiritual Care and Counseling
Wholeness Arts Specialist and Creator
“Begin Peace now. Each now is new.”
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