I follow Thich Nhat Hanh on Twitter. But, whereas I write my own Twitter posts, I doubt that Mr. Hanh sits in front of his Macbook and types his out for the world to see. My guess is that some minion of his scans his books for pithy statements that fit the Twitter mold and then uploads them. The Thichster probably never even sees them. I rarely see them either. But yesterday this one popped up:
“When you contemplate the big, full sunrise, the more mindful & concentrated you are, the more the beauty of the sunrise is revealed to you.”
So I Tweeted the following back at him:
“@thichnhathanh Sounds to me like mindfulness would get in the way of the sunrise.”
I’ve said here a few times how much I hate the word “mindfulness.” This quote seems to embody everything I don’t like about that word.
To be fair to Mr. Hanh, there are many ways to take this statement. There are a lot of things he might have meant by it. For example, he might have meant it as a sort of advertising for meditation. Yardley Aftershave Lotion might tell you, “You’ll get lots of chicks if you douse yourself with Yardley” as an incentive to get you to buy more Yardley Aftershave Lotion. Perhaps Mr. Hanh wants you to know that you’ll appreciate the sunrise lots more if you do meditation practice. Which is fine, I guess.
But there’s another way to take this statement. And I honestly believe it’s the way most people would take it. They’d look at it and say, “Gosh. I’m not mindful enough. I’m not concentrated enough. Because when I look at a sunrise, I just shade my eyes so that I can get through this traffic jam on West Market Street without running over any of the kids from Our Lady of the Elms. Sunrises kind of annoy me. They give me a headache. I better get more concentrated and more mindful so that I can be more like Thich Nhat Hanh and let the beauty of the sunrise be revealed to me.”
In other words, the concept of “mindfulness” gets in the way of the sunrise. It becomes a big obstacle between what we think of as our self and what we think of as the sunrise. And we make our efforts to try to overcome the obstacle we’ve placed in our own way. Most of the time I hear or read the word “mindfulness” it sounds to me like an obstacle.
Pretty much all of our religions and our various self-help practices are based on the idea that what we are right now is not good enough. We then envision what “good enough” must be like and we make efforts to transform what we are right now into this image of ourselves as “good enough.” We invent in our minds an imaginary “mindful me” and then try to make ourselves into that.
The problem with this kind of effort is right at its very root. We are setting up a habit of always judging ourselves as being not whatever it is we want to be. Whether you’re poor and want to be rich or whether you’re dull and want to be mindful, it’s pretty much the same thing. Of course we’d probably have a better world if more people were ambitious to be mindful than were ambitious to be rich. Probably. But maybe not. Because the effort to be something you’re not always seems to go wrong no matter what it is you want to be — even if you want to be super terrifically nice.
People who are working on fulfilling some image they have of a “nice person” are usually a pain in the ass. Their efforts to be like the “nice person” they’ve invented in their heads almost always get in the way of actually doing what needs to be done. Most of the time I’d rather be around someone who is honestly selfish than someone who is forever trying to be selfless. The kind of forced helpfulness such people engage in is almost never helpful at all. It’s annoying. Sometimes it’s even harmful.
But those of us who realize that we actually aren’t as good as we could be have a real dilemma. What do you do when you recognize that you really are greedy, envious, jealous, angry, pessimistic and so on and on and on?
To me, it seems like the recognition of such things is itself good enough. It’s not necessary to envision a better you and try to remake yourself in that image. Just notice yourself being greedy and very simply stop being greedy. Not for all time in all cases. Just in whatever instance you discover yourself being greedy. If you’re greedy on Tuesday for more ice cream, don’t envision a better you somewhere down the line who is never greedy for more ice cream. Just forgo that last scoop of ice cream right now. See how much better you feel. This kind of action, when repeated enough, becomes a new habit. Problem solved.
As far as mindfulness and concentration are concerned, it works the same way. At the moment you notice yourself drifting off, come back. You might start drifting off again a nanosecond later. But that’s OK. When you notice it again, come back again. Repeat as necessary.
Trying to be more mindful and concentrated is just gonna put you right back to where you were drifting away from the sunrise in the first place.
Here’s an interview I did on Digression Sessions. Completely unrelated to the above article, by the way.