“Our practice is not selfish. We don’t practice for ourselves alone. As we change, the world changes. Our practice makes us more compassionate, more generous, more patient, more loving, more caring human beings. Our practice is a powerful form of activism that makes the world a better place.”
These are words I say to my fellow meditators at the end of the meditations I lead. And I believe in them. I really do.
Yes, I teach mindfulness, a millenary practice that helps reduce anxiety and stress. This is good, isn’t it? Calmer and less reactive people are better for everyone, right?
We live in a violent environment of oppression and exploitation of the many by the few. And, yes, as many critics of mindfulness point out, mindfulness can be used by “The System” to make more docile, less combative, and more productive workers.
But who can say that mindfulness is not also allowing people to see reality more clearly? Who can say that mindfulness is not making the hidden forms of oppression and exploitation more visible? Who can say that that mindfulness is not waking up a crowd of sleepwalkers from the vain promises of achieving happiness through consumerism? Who can say that mindfulness is not challenging meaningless living? Who can say that mindfulness is not allowing us to realize that we are both oppressed and oppressors? Who can say that mindfulness is not making us feel, in a very deep way, that we are all in this together? Who can say that that mindfulness is not augmenting the contingent of wiser activists for social justice and preservation of our planet?
The practice of mindfulness does not make us indifferent to the suffering in the world, or oblivious to injustices and perils. I argue that it has the opposite effect. Mindfulness practice makes us more sensitive and compassionate. It makes us more aware of the suffering of others, of the damaging impact our wasteful way of living is having on other people and the planet, and of the perilous path toward extinction our civilization is on. The higher consciousness that arises through mindfulness practice activates in us the desire to engage in actions that can bring about a better world for everyone.
Mindfulness makes us very aware of our interconnection and interrelation. Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “We are not separate. We are inextricably interrelated. The rose is the garbage, the soldier is the civilian, the criminal is also the victim. ‘This is like this, because that is like that.’ No one among us has clean hands. None of us can claim that the situation is not our responsibility. The child who is forced to work as a prostitute is that way because of the way we are. The refugees who are forced to live in camps have to live like that because of the way we live. The arms dealers do their business so that our economies can continue to grow and they can benefit. Wealth and poverty, the affluent society and the poor society, inter-are. The wealth of our society is made of the poverty of the other.” ~ Thich Nhat Hanh, The Other Shore
I, like so many others, believe that we need to change the way we see life, the way we understand the world, the way we treat each other and all sentient beings. The way we live on this planet needs to change, and the practice of mindfulness meditation, as well as other similar practices, by changing our paradigms, is the best way I know to promote the beginning of effective, healthy change.
Each one of us finds his or her own way of responding to the suffering of the world. There are innumerable forms of expressing compassion and working to improve the lives of the downtrodden. We, all of us, are unique in the combination of talents and skills we came to this world with, and it is up to each one of us to discover how we will bestow the gifts that we were given in order to alleviate the suffering of others. Some will heal. Some will feed. Some will shelter. Some will teach. Some will invent. Some will actively engage in social activism for change, while others will meditate and live mindfully with the aspiration that the practice will benefit all sentient beings. This being my choice, many people challenge me, saying, “What are doing? Your mindfulness practice is not changing anything. You are not helping anyone.”
I am convinced that the practice of meditation, and of other similar disciplines of introspection and inner exploration in silence and solitude, have a huge impact in the betterment of society. By getting to know oneself more intimately, by developing a better understanding of life, by becoming more aware of the suffering of others, by becoming more compassionate and generous, meditators wisely engage in the work of restoring Heaven on Earth, and have an effective impact. Like the ripples created on the surface of the water when a stone is dropped on a pond, so too selfless acts of kindness create ripples that travel far and wide and bless others with love.
When people accuse my meditation practice of being pointless and ineffective, I think of the impact the Buddha and Jesus had on the world; two meditators who dedicated their lives to their own awakening and the awakening of others, and whose teachings still influence and benefit us to this day. The exemplary lives they lived inspire us to do no harm; to do good, be good, and savor the good. They inspired and continue to inspire multitudes of social activists. To say that meditation doesn’t change anything nor help anyone is, in my opinion, a misconception.
“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.” ~ Blaise Pascal, Pensées
Through the practice of meditation we become more compassionate. We reach the understanding that no life matters less than any other, and that all lives matter equally. The Dalai Lama said, “I try to treat whoever I meet as an old friend. This gives me a genuine feeling of happiness.” Meditation practice makes it easier to smile and treat each person we meet as an old friend. We become sensitive to the suffering in the world and we let go of any impulses to put anyone down, replacing them with the desire to bring everyone up.
“Here’s an ancient truth about being human: we cannot give gifts to others that we are unable to give to ourselves! That’s why “inner work” done well is never selfish. Ultimately, it will benefit other people.” ~ Parker Palmer
I say to the detractors of mindfulness, “One does not exclude the other. Practice meditation and work for social justice, and see what happens. Go to the silence and be surprised by the changes in the ways you see and behave. Knowing that the most effective nonviolent civil disobedience initiatives — the ones that brought about lasting social change — were inspired and carried out by those who had deep disciplines of introspection and inner work, choose to be like those who have used the formula effectively. Be like the Buddha, Jesus, Thoreau, Gandhi, Howard Thurman, Martin Luther King, Jr., Mother Teresa, Thich Nhat Hanh, and others. Go to silence, know yourself, and then come out. Work calmly within your circle of influence, and change the world. Don’t get discouraged.”
I always remember that we, practitioners of mindfulness, are bringers of peace and sanity during moments of turmoil, and that’s why the practice is so important. Our practice is not selfish. We don’t practice for ourselves alone. Our formal meditation practice and our commitment to living mindfully is a powerful form of service to others. I tell my students, as an encouragement, that “In a boat full of fearful and agitated people, one sane, calm, and steady-minded person can find the way through the fog and the storm, through the winds and the waves, and sail the boat to a safe harbor, saving not only his or her life, but also everyone else’s lives. Practice mindfulness. The world desperately needs more steady-minded individuals.”
“May you have the serenity to accept what you cannot change, the courage to change what you can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
“You may not be able to do much about the great problems of the world or to change the situation you are in, but if you can awaken the eternal beauty and light of your soul, you will bring light wherever you go. The gift of life is given to us for ourselves and also to bring peace, courage, and compassion to others.” ~ John O’Donohue
“Of course, I value independence, national and personal. But I also value collaboration because little that’s good has ever been achieved without it. I, for one, would be utterly lost without the many people who’ve invested time, energy and love in me.” ~ Parker Palmer
“In general, mindfulness begins with one-pointed focus on where we are and what’s going on inside and out. Over time, though, this will bleed into a wider awareness that sees connections and explores what drives us and what effects we’re having on the world around us and the people, plants, and animals in it. It brings us into direct contact with our values, and the fundamental aspiration all of us have to make a better world, the part of us that cares.” ~ Barry Boyce, Editor-in-Chief of Mindful and Mindful.org in “Is Your Mindfulness Practice a Political Statement? Mindfulness brings us into direct contact with our values and our desire to create a better world.”
Thanks so much for sending your thoughts on the effects one person practicing mindfulness can have on the world. I totally agree with the ripple effect one person can have. In fact, change cannot really occur without individuals changing their perception of what’s within them and around them. Personally, I am called to show up in my body to loudly protest inhumane practices (I’ll be outside of ICE in Miramar tomorrow morning taking part in a national day of protest). I would not use physical violence against workers at ICE and those that give them their directions, but the anger within me is violent and I will let my loud voice be heard, so in a way I’m spreading violence. I struggle with that because I want to always realize the love and interconnectedness between all humans and anger is not loving. Yet, it lets people know in a very direct way that you have not forgotten them and their suffering and it lets those who are perpetuating suffering know that you don’t agree with what they’re doing and you’re not willing to accept it. And angry protests can precipitate change in policies (I would argue perhaps faster then mindful meditation alone can) even though it’s better if the change comes about because of empathy for other humans and not because they fear protesters in the streets.
Thank you for your gentle presence, Piero. You spread peace wherever you go and it’s a beautiful thing to behold.
Piero Falci is an author and educator who believes that the inner work that leads to personal awakening and transformation is indispensable to create a wholesome world. He is an explorer of the mysteries of life who loves to observe, reflect and write, and who not only aspires to live a life that matters, but also hopes to inspire others to do the same. He is a promoter of peace who believes in advancing the idea that Heaven is here if we want it to be. He teaches Mindfulness Meditation and Mindful Living, and the acclaimed Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program as taught at the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Healthcare, and Society of the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He leads mindfulness silent retreats and organizes Silent Peace Walks. He lives in Florida, USA. Join his Mindfulness Meditation and Mindfulness Living sessions at Yoga Source in Coral Springs (Sundays at 9:00 AM) and at Shiwa Yoga in Deerfield Beach (Thursdays at 6:30 AM and 12:30 PM)
Take a look at these books at the Peaceful Ways online store
– “Peaceful Ways – The Power of Making Your Wishes Come True”
– “Pay Attention! Be Alert! Discovering Your Route to Happiness”
– “Silent Peace Walk”