Originally posted on My Journey of Conscience
In my experience, a misguided practice of mindfulness can lead to an unfortunate restriction in my engagement with life – to the detriment of myself and others, particularly when it comes to social responsibility. It invites me to create a manageable mindfulness bubble around myself – reaching no further than my immediate surroundings, existing only this moment, and centered on my body.
More and more people in all walks of life recognize the benefits of mindfulness practice. It creates some space between “you” and your thoughts, emotions, and habits. It relieves stress and gives you more choice about what happens next. Mindfulness can be defined many ways, but basically it is paying attention to your present experience with a receptive attitude. You maintain an open awareness of what is going on this present moment, including any thoughts and feelings you may be experiencing. You let go of reactivity and commentary and just notice what’s going on.
You generally begin practicing mindfulness by learning to shift your attention from abstract thinking to direct sensation. Abstract thinking includes thoughts about the past or future, commentary, evaluation, planning, fantasizing, and justification. Simple sensations can be physical, such as awareness of your breathing, sounds, or posture. “Sensations” – that is, things you can sense – can also be internal, such as a thought or an emotion, which you “sense” with your mind. The point is to turn your awareness to things that are happening in your present, direct experience.
With mindfulness practice we come to appreciate how, ultimately, our life is only what’s happening here-and-now. We can use abstract thought as a tool to help us function in the world, but the abstractions are not inherently real. They are a gloss for reality, used to predict things, communicate, and plan effective actions. What’s real (for us) is what’s happening right in front of us – the beings, problems, projects, opportunities and experiences that we personally encounter as we go about our day. Responding to our reality with wisdom and compassion is the central matter of our lives, and mindfulness helps us do this.
For me, mindfulness practice has had many benefits but it has also given me justification for living in a mindfulness bubble. To be fair, I should call it “a bubble justified by a limited understanding of mindfulness,” because I think real mindfulness is much more than this. However, suffice to say that I have spent many years consoling myself with the thought that I am only responsible for responding to, or taking care of, what I personally encounter within my mindfulness bubble. This limited little sphere is what I define as “my” life.
After all, how am I supposed to wisely and compassionately respond to, or take care of, things that aren’t here-and-now, for me, at least at some point during my days, weeks, or months? I can say good morning to the homeless guy outside my apartment building and put my returnables where he can easily collect them on his daily rounds, but how do I respond mindfully to an abstraction like “homelessness?” It feels natural to do a favor for a sick friend because of our connection, but how to I allow a natural response to arise to a school shooting in another state? It’s hard enough to take care of “my life” (that which ends up passing through my bubble on a regular basis) by maintaining mindfulness and doing the next thing; How do I take care of global warming without shifting my awareness away from my reality toward abstractions and ideals?
Many of us take solace in the idea that taking care of our own lives, dealing with what we encounter with as much wisdom and compassion as we can, will have a positive ripple effects that spread outward. We figure a whole bunch of us carefully and mindfully taking care of our own lives will add up to the changes needed in the world.
I think there’s truth to the ripple-effect principle, but I feel I sell myself and the world short if I rely on it entirely. Such a principle can also allow me to become complacent, and give me justification for enjoying my pleasant life while elsewhere things are falling apart and beings are acutely suffering.
So I come to the question: How do I burst my mindfulness bubble without losing my mindfulness entirely? If I allow my attention and concern to be drawn outwards in space and time, won’t I lose touch with the reality that allows me to stay grounded and sane? If I expand too much my sense of what I’m responsible for, won’t I get caught up in abstractions and forget that I can only really function right here, right now?
Here’s a possible answer: don’t draw boundaries in space and time around what constitutes my life. In other words, don’t create the edges of the bubble. Stop defining as “my” life only those things relatively close to me in terms of space and time. Don’t limit my sense of reality to the three-dimensional physical world around me. Allow news about suffering far removed from me in time and space to be as much a part of my reality as the taste of my lunch. Let go of the conclusion that I am only responsible for things I can directly and obviously influence.
As I contemplate doing these things, fear arises that if I don’t draw boundaries around what’s mine to pay attention to and take care of, I’ll fail even at that and get sucked dry by the neediness of the universe. This may sound dramatic, but it’s a real fear. Fortunately, even though that seems like the logical outcome of bursting my mindfulness bubble, it’s not my actual experience of it (not that the bubble’s burst once-and-for all – it keeps reforming and needs moment-by-moment attention).
Instead, without the kind of boundaries I discuss above, life’s pretty much the same. It’s just more open. That’s because I may arbitrarily create a bubble but it’s not actually necessary. It doesn’t reflect reality, only my efforts to manage reality. If I maintain mindfulness without boundaries and actively participate in the process, responses flow. They’re just not always what I think of as real and personal responses (namely, actions taken within my personal sphere that have observable effects).
For example, my natural response to a friend will of course differ in nature from my natural response to something like a school shooting. My proximity to a person or event affects my relationship to it, and in many cases the most authentic and natural response may not be immediately obvious or simple. My primary role may be witnessing with compassion (see my post mentioning Kanzeon) – letting the facts and images enter my conscientiousness and heart. Simply because I don’t physically engage with the people involved with a school shooting doesn’t mean the event and its repercussions are not a real part of my life, or that my response is abstract. And if I don’t categorize such a thing as outside of my sphere of responsibility, a more directly engaged response may arise. Perhaps I will be moved to educate myself more about the problem of random violence in America. Perhaps I will be more patient and kind when I encounter a teenager who’s acting out in public because I am reminded of how difficult things can be for young people.
The important thing, for me, is to remember that the practice of mindfulness without boundaries is not about drawing a boundary around the known universe and taking everything on as my responsibility. Although my awareness is centered in my body, it isn’t necessary or helpful to define anything as mine or not-mine. Of course I can only perceive, understand, and do so much. I need to to care for my body-mind and the things I conventionally consider “mine.” But at no point do I get to conclude, “Ah, good enough! My life’s all taken care of, now I can relax.” I may need to relax, but there will always be something to take of in my life if there are no boundaries around it.
Photo "Big Bubble" by h.koppdelaney, Creative Commons Photo "pop" by jenny downing (cropped), Creative Commons