Provision #841: What Mindfulness Means

Laser Provision

Given my memory challenges, it’s easy for me to live in the present moment with no real sense of time or space. I know that I am sitting here, now – at this table, in the morning – writing this Provision. It’s easy for me to forget what happened yesterday and to not know what we have planned for tomorrow. One friend suggested that this quality of being means I have achieved enlightenment or pure mindfulness – I am here and now with no distractions or concerns. But is that really what mindfulness means? Read on as I rassle with that question and launch us into a new series of Provisions.

LifeTrek Provision

In many Eastern religious traditions “mindfulness” means what “salvation” means in many Western religious traditions: it is both the goal and the way to the goal for those who follow the tradition. I grew up in a Western religious tradition, where “salvation language” is both common and comforting. People who are “saved” in this life, before we die, are rewarded with “salvation” in the next life, i.e., a place in heaven, after we die. Although it’s rather childlike and without any scientific basis, and although different traditions argue over the path to salvation, there is still something tender, heart-warming, and attractive about identifying a simple formula for getting into heaven.

Unfortunately, such simple, “if-then” formulas are also exclusionary formulas. They create “in-group” and “out-group” thinking. Those who are “saved”, by whatever formula, are living in glory land and on the way to heaven while those who are not “saved”, by the same formula, stand outside the gates and fail to enjoy all the goodies of those who are on the inside. In the worst of those religious traditions, those who stand outside the gates not only fail to enjoy all the goodies, they are damned to suffer in hell both in this life and the next.

Although such “if-then” formulas may be a pretty good way to build up membership (get inside to get the goodies), I don’t believe the Universe works that way and, fortunately, there are many religious traditions – both Western and Eastern – that hold and support a more universalist point of view. And universalism is just as challenging, if not more challenging, than those traditions that advocate for “in-group” and “out-group” thinking. If everyone is saved no matter what we say and do, then what’s the point of being good or of worrying about anything? At least one conclusion that follows logically from such universalism is summed up by the famous phrase, “Eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow you may die!” Wow. Is it really worth living like that?

Fortunately, there are other, more edifying conclusions, that follow just as logically. If everyone is saved already, for example, with no contingencies, then why not live from the truth, values, and awareness that flow from such a wonderful gift? I, for one, find that approach and question to be much more appealing, intriguing, and edifying. What does such a truth mean? How would a person live accordingly? And what practices might enhance our awareness of that truth, especially in the face of violence, suffering, and death? It seems as though this edifying conclusion and the realities of life are neither easily understandable nor coherent.

And that’s where those Eastern religious traditions, as well as the whole notion of mindfulness, come into the picture. They ask different questions and advocate different practices so as to make sense of life, or at least to appreciate the realities of life with the hope of not only untangling the knots but also of pulling the line taut with mindful awareness. This may not always make for a “happy-happy” life, but this does make for a measure of contentment as one comes to embrace that things are what they are.

Doing this with my own struggles in life over the past 17 months has been very helpful and I would encourage you to join me on the journey. But I warn you up front: the journey isn’t easy. I’ve found it to be a hard, long, and winding road. It’s far easier to live in blissful ignorance, in mournful despair, or in hateful anger, than to embark on the practice of appreciating the realities of life, of untangling the knots, and of pulling the line taut. I know. I’ve been there. The practice is extremely challenging but it is ever-so worth the effort.

That’s why entire religious traditions and spiritual practices have grown up around the notion of mindfulness. Mindfulness – the full, nonjudgmental awareness of what is happening in the present moment – is, in and of itself, both the path and the destination of life. It is how we get to where we want to go and it is at least one way of understanding where we want to go. We want the “peace that passes understanding”, and that comes only when we abandon all ideas of “how things should be” and adopt an appreciation of “how things are”.

Notice that I used the word “appreciation”, rather than “acceptance”, of “how things are”. Mindfulness is not an amoral practice. Practitioners of mindfulness still care about how things are and want as well as work to make things better. But mindfulness practitioners go about all that in a different way than those who follow more prescriptive traditions, whether religious or ethical. Mindfulness wants people to become more fully aware of what is happening in the present moment and then to act accordingly.

Both kinds of awareness – of what is happening in the present moment and of how to act accordingly – take a great deal of practice and effort. We have to work at paying careful attention and we have to work at making decisions that enhance both our own ability, as well as the ability of others, to act accordingly. And what does it mean to “act accordingly”? There’s no way to say in advance. By paying attention, however, we come to know as we go.

That’s why mindfulness represents both the path and the destination. By paying attention we become more attentive souls, and that’s a wonderful thing. It’s very different than being on high alert, whether to do good or evil. There is no intention in mindfulness other than to pay attention to life. To notice things. To step back, to take a breath, and to behold the sights, sounds, and other inputs that are all around us. When we do this, without judgment or shame, we become more fully able to open ourselves for caring, kindness, and concern.

My hope for this new series of Provisions is that they will come to generate just such a result in me and in you. I hope they will increase our understanding of and ability to be mindful. Thereby, I also hope they will increase our understanding of and ability for compassion, caring, and celebration. And wouldn’t that be a wonder-full thing?

Coaching Inquiries: What helps you to pay attention in the present moment without judgment or concern? How often do you make that an intentional part of your life? In what ways, shapes, and forms have you been able to make it so?

To reply to this Provision, use our Feedback Form. To talk with us about coaching or consulting services for yourself or your organization, Email Us or use our Contact Form to arrange a complimentary conversation.

LifeTrek Readers’ Forum (selected feedback from the past week)

Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Form or Email Bob.

Bob, your weekly Provisions are an inspiration to all who take time to read them. You have helped many people with your words of wisdom. Congratulations on continuing to live into a new way being. May you that continue to be the norm for you and become the norm for us all.

Thanks for this fine poem, Released for Life, but I hope you don’t jump out of any more moving cars

Your last Provision, Released for Life, was beautiful – just like you.

I really enjoyed the Flash Waltz in your Provision. You might enjoy this Flash, too, of a Flash Mob at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.

Thanks so much for making time for us to bless one another during your Chicago visit. I so appreciate your positive spirit in the midst of such “discouragement.” Have a very Merry Christmas and please express my appreciation to Bryn for all that she has done with you and for us all.

Your presence in Provisions is warm, wise, accepting, inviting, humorous, and hopeful. What a worldwide community of readers you have built! Let us all rejoice!

You are amazing. You have always been an inspiration, but now an inspiration over and over again. The affliction makes you better; gives you truck loads of credibility. Thought you might be interested in this article on Jenny LaBaw, the 6th fittest person in the world, as she opens up for the first time about her life with Epilepsy…What it is, how she lives with it, and why it may be the very reason for her successes in life: Things About Epilepsy Nobody Tells You.

Music is, indeed, the ultimate healing. Thanks for sharing your journey.

We have been thinking about and praying for you and your family a lot throughout this trial. I think you captured it perfectly, that the most important thing of embracing and making the most of your gift of life, even when it isn’t exactly how we planned it or wanted it to be. That doesn’t mean we don’t work to improve the situation, but there is a lot to gain as we persevere.

May you be filled with goodness, peace, joy, and health.

Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC

President, LifeTrek Coaching International,
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation,
Past President, International Association of Coaching,
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers

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