A Sioux saying has it that the longest journey we’ll ever make is the journey from our head to our heart. As an Ivy League-trained academic, some part of me still winces when I hear this kind of adage, thinking it sounds a bit trite or misguided.
But if there’s one thing that more than 20 years of mindfulness training has taught me, it’s this: Few challenges are more important than making that short and inestimably long trip from head to heart.
What brings me to this topic? America is in the throes of a “mindfulness revolution” (see Time magazine’s cover article and Wisdom 2.0). In every sector from business to politics, education, parenting and the military, people are using mindfulness techniques to become more self-aware.
This is good news. Across the nation, women and men are learning simple practices to handle the overwrought stresses of post-modernity with more grace and aplomb. Corporations are teaching executives how to increase focus and attention. Schools are teaching children to be more self-aware and self-regulating. And books offer sage counsel to help parents navigate modern child-raising without losing their marbles. In myriad ways, mindfulness is offering us critical and fabulous skills to slow down and reconnect.
But I also see a worrisome trend afoot. Increasingly, mindfulness is being equated with stress reduction or learning how to center under pressure to enhance performance. This is cause for alarm.
The intention of mindfulness is not to make us more “chill” with the insanities and inanities of our post-modern lives.
It is not designed to help us better tolerate the steam-rolling experience of 12-hour work days and three-hour commutes, short shrift meals and dwindling hours of sleep. It is not there to make us endlessly up our performance inside a crushing cascade of information overload. And it is certainly not designed to have us watch calmly as the earth’s weather patterns erupt into a contagion of calamity.
Mindfulness is not meant to make us better at living lives that drain our ingenuity, silence our compassion, or demoralize us into a state of collective catatonia.
The purpose of mindfulness is to wake us up. It’s designed to reconnect us with our intrinsic ingenuity and our indestructible, innate excellence. The Buddhist world that modern mindfulness practices emerged from is explicit about this: human beings are wired for excellence.
It maintains six ways — known in Buddhist Sanskrit as paramitas — that we are designed to be extraordinary.
1) We are wired to do the right thing, no matter how much the world tests us.
2) We are wired to tolerate what feels intolerable to become fearless in making the world a better place.
3) We are wired for stamina, the kind that has us stand by our vision, unflagging, even when no one believes in us.
4) We are wired to be decisive, acute and undeterred in pursuing what really matters.
5) We are wired to see ourselves and others with the wisdom of kindness and tolerance.
6) And, finally, we are wired to kindle greatness in others through our generosity of spirit.
I’ve taken some liberty in translating from the Sanskrit to make a point: Mindfulness is not about retreating into some bastion of heady, personal calm. Mindfulness is about courageously turning our hearts inside out so that we can actualize our deeply human ability to find solutions and stand in our universal goodness, no matter what the circumstances.
I’ve had the privilege to witness this kind of excellence up close with many of my teachers, mentors and friends, not least of all in the Tibetan communities where I lived and studied for over two decades as a scholar of Buddhism. My mentors there were from all walks of life — lay and monastic, men and women, high-level ecclesiasts and ordinary outback herders. Many of them were survivors of political torture.
And time and time again, they showed me a quality of human spirit that was indomitable in the face of cruelty and unflagging in its commitment to kindness. These were people whose culture of mindfulness had taught them early on the power of dropping from head to heart. I will save more details about that for another blog, but hope to leave you with this:
Practice mindfulness to be calmer. Hone your breathing meditation so you can be more resilient at work and more present with your kids. Do your noting practice so that you know yourself better. But more than anything, practice mindfulness to break your heart open to your extraordinary excellence and the excellence of everyone around you.
Maybe, just maybe, if we do this kind of work — thankless, heartbreaking, and upending though it may be — we can usher in the kind of collective ingenuity that our world calls for.
This blog was reprinted with permission from The Shriver Report.