In recent decades, our western consumer society, both here in North America and in Europe, has wholeheartedly embraced the East Asian core practices of meditation and mindfulness, but as with all such cultural borrowings, we have dramatically simplified and commercialized these practices, turning them into commodities for consumption in popular magazines, self-help books, TV programs, psychotherapy clinics, and even sessions at corporate conferences or stress reduction sessions for workers in the Pentagon! In the process, we have often stripped these practices of the richness of their original cultural contexts—and in the process, bastardized them.
In part, this is an entirely normal process; as it was with Christianity or Islam, Hindu and (primarily) Buddhist spiritual traditions have adapted themselves to the pre-existent sensibilities of other cultures as they have spread out from their cultures of origin, often losing much in the translation, but sometimes gaining in clarity and simplicity as they shed their original cultural trappings and constraints as well. Very few American Buddhists, for example, practice with the rigorous discipline of Japanese Zen monks, the asceticism of Southeast Asian traditions, or the philosophical subtlety and ritual complexity of Indo-Tibetan traditions.
At their best, such simplifications (as with Thich Nhat Hanh’s stripped-down Buddhism or the Dalai Lama’s charismatic wisdom, simplicity, and humor) have inspired widespread adoption of very useful, effective methods for realizing the benefits of meditative practices, cultivating inner equanimity, and becoming more compassionate, and more actively and effectively involved in healing our social and ecological pathologies throughout the world.
But the widespread commercialization of “mindfulness” and “meditation” has also led, quite frequently, to narcissistic, self-serving attitudes like those found on the “Insight Timer” app (which opens with the query “How are you feeling today?” and features innumerable sappy recordings to play while cultivating self-absorption). This attitude has led to some ludicrous extremes, like one ad from an investment firm promoting “mindful money management” so that participants can get even richer, more quickly, with calm and deep concentration on their portfolios.
What is missing here? One word: Ethics. Every authentic spiritual tradition on the planet, whether Indigenous; Western-Abrahamic (Judaism, Christianity, Islam—and their offshoots); or Eastern-Dharmic (Hindu, Buddhism, Taoism—and their offshoots) has had ethics at its core, rooted in the recognition that, as Martin Luther King, Jr. memorably put it, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.” Or as the Buddhists put it, “This is because that is.” You will not find a single (authentic) religious sage, in any tradition on the planet, who would disagree with this basic insight, from which all ethical responsibility arises. This “inescapable network of mutuality” is, indeed, inescapable. It is our own living planet, and beyond that, the universe.
Hence another beautiful articulation of this core Dharmic insight: “Everything that lives is Holy” (William Blake).
So what does this have to do with mindfulness or meditation? Simply this: Unless meditation is grounded in this fundamental awareness of the “inescapable network of mutuality,” it is just self-indulgence, no more “spiritual” than a prize fighter taking three deep breaths between rounds. It helps him—but nobody else.
So what exactly is meditation? There are, of course, many definitions, and to a considerable extent, those who practice meditation need to discover, for themselves, what it is—through their own practice, whether alone or under the guidance of a teacher or mentor. So here is my own definition, which you can take or leave as you will: Meditation is breathing, observing, and letting go. Again and again.
Let’s unpack these.
BREATHE: Whenever we talk of “spiritual” traditions or “spirituality,” the question arises (whether we visit this question or not), “What do we mean by ‘spirit?’” For many, especially modern Christians, “spirit” refers to something nebulous and supernatural, the “Holy Ghost” that is somehow connected in the Trinity with God the Father and with Jesus the Son. Hence it is, for many, something they “believe in” just as they have been taught all their lives to believe in God and in Jesus as the Son of God. But in fact, “spirit” is rooted in the Latin verb “spiro, spirare” which means “to breathe.” Not surprisingly, the same exact equivalence of “spirit” and “breath” can be found in other languages and religious cultures as well: “ruach” in Hebrew, “pneuma” in Greek, “prana” in Sanskrit, “chi” in Chinese, “ki” in Japanese—and so on. So we can safely say that spirit = breath.
But breath is not a thing; it is a process. From a biophysical perspective, the free oxygen we breathe is a transform of solar energy, released from plants as an energy-rich waste product of photosynthesis, and inhaled into our lungs to power our metabolism. And the Carbon Dioxide we exhale is essential plant food, enabling them, through photosynthesis, to manufacture simple sugars (C6-H12-O6) that serve as storage batteries for the energy they need to grow from seed to flower and fruit. Thus, our breathing in and out is deeply connected with the breathing out and in of plants, another instance of that “inescapable network of mutuality” that entwines us all…
So breath is spirit because it connects us, literally, with everyone and everything else. If we breathe in that spirit (if you will pardon the word play), we are meditating. If not, we are simply doing what someone else told us to do, without knowing why.
OBSERVE: One immediate benefit of simply following your breath with your awareness—the core instruction of meditation—is that you stop thinking about anything else, if only for that moment. And this enables you to observe—to look deeply, first at your own breath, in and out; then at the body which is doing the breathing; then at whatever physical and emotional sensations are playing in and around your body and mind; then (with more practice) at your own mental processes, and finally, at your inner narrative—the things you are thinking about, dreaming about, fantasizing about, or fretting about. Simply stepping back, as it were, and observing these things from a place of calm induced by slow and steady breathing means that you are no longer obsessed with them, whether it is a pain in your left leg, a disturbing memory, a flare-up of anger with your spouse or children, or a craving for chocolate. Observing them detaches you from them; you learn to simply acknowledge their presence, with compassion for yourself and others—and with practice, even for those who may have triggered the anger, desire, or obsessive thoughts and feelings.
LET GO: Just as attentive breathing is a prerequisite to observing yourself and others with insight and compassion, observing, in turn, is a prerequisite to letting go. You know you have let go, as Thich Nhat Hanh points out, when you can gently smile at your own passing thoughts and obsessions. Putting it simply, we breathe in order to observe, observe in order to let go, and let go in order to breathe.
It takes a lot of regular practice—you will not “get it” right away. All of us—even experienced meditators—get distracted, all the time. But rather than beating yourself up for getting distracted yet again, the key—once again—is compassion, first toward yourself and then toward others—especially those who may have triggered you with obsessive feelings of anger, rage, or even the converse, like lust.
And then—once you have forgiven yourself for getting distracted (and other people, memories, or things for having distracted you)—simply go back to your breath and start again.
Here is a simple mantra you can use as “training wheels” for meditation: BREATHING, OBSERVING, LETTING GO, ABIDING. I did not bother expanding on “Abiding” because it is not a practice in itself—it is the goal of practice. We BREATHE with gratitude and benevolence; we OBSERVE with insight and compassion; we LET GO with joy and relief, and at that moment, we are ABIDING in equanimity and peace. Repeat as often as necessary.