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An Interview for the Franciscan Spirituality Center Newsletter

questions by Joe Orso, responses by Santikaro

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness, basically, is paying attention to and being present with whatever is going on in our lives, especially with what is most significant in this moment. It involves a degree of direction or intentionality but doesn't work well when ego-driven. Being mindfully aware of what matters -- rather than distracted by the myriad trivia of modern life or emotionally reactive -- involves having learned from life as it has flowed though and around us over the years, which meant being mindful at least some of the time.

Traditionally, Buddhism situates mindfulness within a path guided by clear understanding and supported by healthy effort, among other factors. Without such discernment and perseverance, mindfulness becomes a toy. With a practical spiritual foundation, mindfulness enables us to experientially explore what is most important in our lives -- physically, emotionally, ethically, spiritually, inter-personally, socially, and ecologically. Mindfulness does not replace thinking but gives thinking a depth and reality so often lacking. It creates space for flexibility and creativity. Without it, we remain trapped in ego patterns without true freedom.

What are some of the benefits of a meditation practice?

The benefits of meditation are many and vast. The word itself, at least in Buddhism, covers a wide diversity of practices. The benefits range from improved memory and better handling of stress to insight into what moves us and a deepening sense of the natural reality that surrounds and permeates our lives. Meditation involves the cultivation of spiritual virtues, emotional grounding and maturity, stability and clarity of mind, insight and wisdom, and compassion. It can also be a way to drop our worries and preoccupations in order to find inner peace, quiet, and joy.

None of these, however, are givens. Sometimes meditation can be half-baked or goes astray. Other times we just spin our wheels. This is why I believe that healthy meditation requires grounding in ethics and a genuine spiritual context (not necessarily Buddhist or even formally religious), such as the 12 Steps of AA. With commitment, humility, honesty, courage, and mindfulness we slowly understand what contemplation is and how to let it flow.

What are the challenges people face as they develop a mindfulness and meditation practice?

These days it seems that "being too busy" is the biggest challenge. As it is important to maintain a regular practice, one needs to give meditation quality time and attention. Looking more carefully, tho, we may find that the real obstacle is a matter of priorities. Eventually, contemplative practices show us that we always have choices, especially with the freedom that mindfulness opens up for us.

The challenge, then, concerns our own confusions about what really matters in life. Our personalities and ego patterns also present a number of obstacles as well as strengths. Properly guided, mindfulness practice helps us to see such patterns and disentangle. That, however, requires honesty and humility. Do we sincerely wish to face the facts? Can we set aside our defensiveness and other egocentric "needs"? Does the call to a deeper sense of peace, meaning, and intimacy really speak to us or are we content to continue pursuing the stuff mainstream value systems throw our way.

"Busyness" isn't the only excuse or rationalization our minds toss up. Self-consciousness, restlessness, doubts, boredom, and other hindrances are common. In the end, tho, they all come down to choice: what is most important in our lives and how do we attune ourselves to it?

For those who have never meditated before, how do you suggest they begin?

With a sincere interest in living an unselfish life. You don't have to be particularly unselfish or spiritual to begin but selflessness is what meditation and contemplation are about. There's no single approach, tradition, or method that is best for everyone. Be satisfied with "good enough."

Find a group of meditators who have their heads on straight, are ethically honest, and who treat each other with kindness and respect. (If there's a lot of flash, hype, money wheedling, and the like, it's better to stay away.) Learn how they practice and give it a try. Understood broadly, this can include practices like yoga and qigong when they are taught as mindfulness practices. Some body work may facilitate sitting still for extended periods of time. If possible, find a teacher with whom you can connect and develop an ongoing relationship. Buddhism considers spiritual community and companionship to be a core refuge; this is especially crucial in our hyper-individualistic culture.


This interview helped introduce a series of meditation classes as part of FSC's continuing interfaith dialogue:

Meditation and Mindfulness within the Buddhist Path

Schedule: Thursdays, March 4, 11, 18, & 25, 6:30 to 8 pm

Description:

Mindfulness training and meditation are important aspects of the spiritual path, yet they alone are not the path. Furthering the Center’s dialogue with many faiths, this series will introduce the basics of mindfulness and meditation and situate them within a broader understanding of the spiritual path as understood in original Buddhism, as well as in our lives today. We hope that a clear presentation of Buddhist perspectives will stimulate clarity about each person's approach to spiritual path. Each session will include guided meditations, instruction and time for questions. Wear loose-fitting, comfortable clothing. The center has chairs, but if you prefer to meditate on a cushion or bench, please bring your own.