Mindfulness, Compassion & Wisdom: Three Means To Peace

A central question confronting spiritual life today is how we can best respond to the tremendous conflicts and uncertainties of these times. The war on terror, the seemingly intractable violence of the Middle East, poverty and disease, racism, the degradation of the environment, and the problems in our own personal lives, all call us to ask: What is the source of this great mass of suffering? What are the forces in the world that drive intolerance, violence and injustice? Are there forces that hold the promise of peace? Do we really understand the nature of fear and hatred, envy and greed? Do we know how to cultivate love and kindness, energy and wisdom?

The great discovery of the meditative journey is that all the forces for good and for harm playing out in the world are also right here in our own minds. If we want to understand the world, we need to understand ourselves. Can we do this?

I believe something helpful has emerged from the interaction of various Buddhist traditions in the West over the last thirty years. I call what has arisen from this sometimes confusing and other times illuminating interaction of traditions the “One Dharma of Western Buddhism.” This term does not refer to some hodge-podge of teachings mixed together in a watered-down, confused mix of methods and metaphysics. Rather, its defining characteristic is the very Western quality of pragmatism. It is allegiance to a simple question: “What works?” What works to free the mind from suffering? What works to engender the heart of compassion? What works to help us awaken from ignorance?

This pragmatism not only serves our individual practices, but it also illuminates a question that has plagued religious (and other) traditions for thousands of years: is it possible to hold differences of view in a larger context of unity rather than in conflict and hostility?

Rather than take religious views and teachings to be ultimate statements of absolute truth, they might be better understood as skillful means to liberate the mind. Instead of pitting one view against another, we might let go of rigid attachment to any view, and ask the very pragmatic question, “Is this teaching leading my heart and mind to greater wisdom and peace, to greater kindness and compassion? Or does it lead to more divisiveness, to more selfishness, to more violence?”

This approach to religion is of vital importance now, as we explore methods for understanding the various forces at work in the mind. Whatever particular spiritual path we follow, we can draw on elements from different traditions, harmonizing methods of mindfulness, the motivation of compassion and the liberating wisdom of non-clinging. These three qualities—mindfulness, compassion and wisdom—are not Burmese or Tibetan, Thai or Japanese, Eastern or Western. They do not belong to any religion but are qualities in our own minds and hearts, and many different practices enhance their growth.

Mindfulness is the key to the present moment. Without it we simply stay lost in the wanderings of our minds. Tulku Urgyen, the great Dzogchen master of the last century, said, “There is one thing we always need and that is the watchman named mindfulness—the guard who is always on the lookout for when we get carried away by mindlessness.”

Mindfulness is the quality and power of mind that is aware of what’s happening—without judgment and without interference. It is like a mirror that simply reflects whatever comes before it. It serves us in the humblest ways, keeping us connected to brushing our teeth or having a cup of tea. It keeps us connected to the people around us, so that we’re not simply rushing by them in the busyness of our lives. The Dalai Lama is an example of someone who beautifully embodies this quality of caring attention: after one conference in Arizona, His Holiness requested that all the employees of the hotel gather in the lobby so that he could greet each one of them before he left for his next engagement.

The Buddha also spoke of mindfulness as being the path to enlightenment: “This is the direct path for the purification of beings, for the overcoming of sorrow and lamentation, for the disappearing of pain and grief, for the attainment of the Way, for the realization of nirvana.”

We can start the practice of mindfulness meditation with the simple observation and feeling of each breath. Breathing in, we know we’re breathing in; breathing out, we know we’re breathing out. It’s very simple, although not easy. After just a few breaths, we hop on trains of association, getting lost in plans, memories, judgments and fantasies. This habit of wandering mind is very strong, even though our reveries are often not pleasant and sometimes not even true. As Mark Twain so aptly put it, “Some of the worst things in my life never happened.” So we need to train our minds, coming back again and again to the breath, simply beginning again.

Slowly, though, our minds steady and we begin to experience some space of inner calm and peace. This environment of inner stillness makes possible a deeper investigation of our thoughts and emotions. What is a thought—that strange, ephemeral phenomenon that can so dominate our lives? When we look directly at a thought, we see that it is little more than nothing. Yet when it is unnoticed, it wields tremendous power. Notice the difference between being lost in a thought and being mindful that we’re thinking. Becoming aware of the thought is like waking up from a dream or coming out of a movie theater after being absorbed in the story. Through mindfulness, we gradually awaken from the movies of our minds.

What, too, is the nature of emotions—those powerful energies that sweep over our bodies and minds like great breaking waves? In a surprising way, mindfulness and the investigation of emotions begin to deepen our understanding of selflessness; we see that the emotions themselves arise out of conditions and pass away as the conditions change, like clouds forming and dissolving in the clear open sky. As the Buddha said to his son, Rahula, “You should consider all phenomena with proper wisdom: ‘This is not mine, this is not I, this is not myself.'”

On the subtlest level, we learn not to identify with consciousness itself, cutting through any sense of this knowing faculty as being “I” or “mine.” As a way of cultivating this radical transformation of understanding, I have found it useful to reframe meditation experience in the passive voice; for example, the breath being known, sensations being known, thoughts being known. This language construction takes the “I” out of the picture and opens us to the question, “Known by what?” And rather than jumping in with a conceptual response, the question can lead us to experience directly the unfolding mystery of awareness, moment after moment.

The wisdom of understanding selflessness finds expression in compassion. We might say that compassion is the activity of emptiness. Compassion arises both on the personal level of our individual relationships and on the global level of great cultures and civilizations interacting with one another. The integration of the understanding of our own minds with what is happening in the world today has enormous implications.

Six weeks after 9/11, I was teaching loving-kindness meditation (metta, in Pali) at a retreat for lawyers. In this practice, we start sending loving wishes to ourselves, and then send those loving wishes to various categories of beings, including benefactors, friends, neutral persons, enemies and, finally, all beings. At the retreat, I suggested the possibility of including in our metta even those involved in acts of violence and aggression. One of the participants from New York commented that he couldn’t possibly send loving-kindness to al-Qaeda, nor would he ever want to.

For me, that simple and honest statement raised a lot of interesting questions. What is our response to violence and injustice? How do we understand the practice of loving-kindness and compassion? What are our bedrock aspirations for the world and ourselves?

In doing the meditation on loving-kindness, we repeat certain phrases; for example, “May you be happy, may you free of mental and physical suffering, may you live with ease.” However, when we get to people who have done us harm, either individually or collectively, often we don’t want to include them in our loving wishes. We don’t want to wish them happiness. In fact, we may well want to see them suffer for the great harm they have done. These are not unusual feelings to have.

But right there, in that situation, is the critical juncture of contemplative practice and our life of action in the world. If we want to enhance the possibilities for more compassion and peace in the world—and in ourselves—we need to look beneath our usual and, perhaps, instinctive emotional responses. In situations of suffering, whether small interpersonal conflicts or huge disasters of violence and destruction, there is one question that holds the key to compassionate response: in this situation of suffering, whatever it may be, what is our most fundamental wish?

In the current Middle East situation, with so much violence on both sides, I find my metta practice including all in the wish, “May you be free of hatred, may you be free of emnity.” If our aspiration is peace in the world, is there anyone we would exclude from this wish, whether they are terrorists, suicide bombers, soldiers lost in violence or government policy-makers? “May everyone be free of hatred, free of emnity.” These are the mind states that drive harmful acts. If our own response is emnity or hatred or ill will, whether we acknowledge it or not, we are part of the problem.

This message is not new, but the challenging question remains of what to do with these feelings when they do arise, because for almost all of us, in different situations, they will. How do we find compassion in the middle of storms of anger, hatred, ill will or fear?

Most importantly, we need to acknowledge that these feelings are arising. In this regard, it is mindfulness that can bring the gift of compassion, both for ourselves and others. Mindfulness sees the whole parade of feelings, however intense, without getting lost or drowning in them, and without judging ourselves for feeling them.

One of the transforming moments of my meditation practice happened when I was lost for several days in recurring feelings of intense fear. I tried being aware of them as they arose, noting “fear, fear,” but I still felt caught in the intensity of the emotion. Then, at a certain point, something shifted in my mind and I said to myself, “If this fear is here for the rest of my life, it’s O.K.” That was the first moment of genuine acceptance, and it entirely changed my relationship to fear. Although it would still arise, I was no longer locking it in with my resistance. Genuine mindful acceptance allowed the fear to just wash through.

Through mindfulness, our hearts become spacious enough to hold the painful emotions, to feel the suffering of them, and to let them go. But it takes practice—and perhaps several different practices—to open to the difficult emotions that we’re aware of and to illuminate those that are hidden.

There are some particular difficulties and challenges in being with difficult emotions. We often live in denial. It’s not always easy to open to our shadow side. And even when we are aware, we can get caught in justifying these feelings to ourselves: “I should hate these people—look at what they did.” From justifying these feelings of hatred and emnity (which is quite different than being mindful of them), there can come a strong feeling of self-righteousness. We forget that the feelings and emotions we have are all conditioned responses, arising out of the particular conditions of our lives. Other people in the same situation might feel very different things. Although at times it may be hard to believe, our feelings are not necessarily the reflection of some ultimate truth. As Bankei, the great 17th-century Zen master, reminded us: “Don’t side with yourself.”

Self-righteousness about our feelings and view is the shadow side of commitment. We sometimes confuse this self-justification with the feeling of passionate dedication. But great exemplars of compassion and social justice, people like Martin Luther King, Jr., Gandhi, Aung San Suu Kyi and others, illuminate the difference.

It is not a question of whether unwholesome mind states will arise in us—or in the world around us. Feelings of hatred, emnity, fear, self-righteousness, greed, envy and jealousy all do arise at different times. Our challenge is to see them all with mindfulness, understanding that these states themselves are the cause of suffering and that no action we take based on them will lead to our desired result—peace in ourselves and peace in the world.

The method is mindfulness, the expression is compassion and the essence is wisdom. Wisdom sees the impermanent, ephemeral nature of experience and the basic unreliability of these changing phenomena. Wisdom opens our minds to the experience of selflessness, the great liberating jewel of the Buddha’s enlightenment. This understanding, in turn, engenders a compassionate engagement with the world. Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, a great Tibetan master, taught: “When you recognize the empty nature, the energy to bring about the good of others dawns uncontrived and effortless.” And wisdom reveals that non-clinging is the essential unifying experience of freedom. We see that non-clinging is both a practice to cultivate and the nature of the awakened mind itself.

T.S. Eliot expressed this well in a few lines from “The Four Quartets.”

A condition of complete simplicity
(Costing not less than everything)
And all shall be well and
All manner of thing shall be well.

Joseph Goldstein is a cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts, where he is one of the resident guiding teachers. He is the author of several books, including Mindfulness: A Practical Guide To Awakening.

This article was originally published in the March 2004 issue of the Shambahala Sun, and is excerpted in the 30th-anniversary collection of the finest meditation teachings from the magazine, as printed in the January 2010 issue. To read all of the other excerpted pieces in their complete form, click here.

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