Once again, the answer can be found in the NY Times! Here’s a link to a great article to read that was published there on Thursday, March 13, 2014.
I love the title: “The Science of Older and Wiser.” As I grow older (59 and counting) I’m hoping that I’m at least getting a little wiser. As I read this article I was struck by the number of attributes of wisdom that connect deeply with the spirit and attitude of mindfulness. Here are a few examples:
1. “One must take time to gain insights and perspectives from one’s cognitive knowledge to be wise (the reflective dimension of being wise). Then one can use those insights to understand and help others (the compassionate dimension of being wise).”
2. “Wise people are able to accept reality as it is, with equanimity.”
3. “(Wisdom is) an expert knowledge system concerning the fundamental pragmatics of life…(There is) general wisdom, the kind that involves understanding life from an observer’s point of view (for example as an advice giver), and personal wisdom, which involves deep insight into one’s own life.”
4. “If you are wise…you’re not only regulating your emotional state, you’re also attending to another person’s emotional state…You’re not focusing so much on what you need and deserve, but on what you can contribute.”
5. “One aspect of wisdom is having a very wide horizon which doesn’t center on ourselves or even on our own group or organization.”
As I reread these quotes they seem to capture the essence of our mindfulness practice. We sit with our minds calm and focused, accepting everything, curious, not judging, alert yet relaxed. When these conditions become present, then we are fully present to the moment-to-moment emergence of the mental objects that stream through our minds. There are moments of great stillness in our sitting, moments when we see with clarity and are able to let go of the illusions we’ve created about ourselves and the world. From this clarity comes an instinctive compassionate response to our own suffering and the suffering of others (#1, above). But this compassionate response is only possible if we allow ourselves to accept reality as it is, with equanimity (#2, above). These insights are not only about our own experience in the world, but also the nature of the world and the people in it (#3, above). As a result of this clarity, our bodily sensations and perceptions and emotions are no longer “the driver,” but rather simply indications concerning where we can best direct our attention, suggesting the next most skillful response to the unfolding events (#4, above). In our mindfulness work, the ultimate lesson for each of us is that this existence is not about me; ego-centric living becomes completely non-sensical (#5, above).
Why do we sit? Why do we work our minds in this way day by day by day? Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program teaches that mindfulness helps to relieve the body’s stress response, with many beneficial clinical consequences. I’m in favor of that, of course, but is it enough to sit in order to be less stressed out? Maybe it is, but there’s a tiny voice in my mind saying “take more, take more.” Stress reduction may be the roots and stems of mindfulness practice, but the cultivation of wisdom and compassion must surely be the flowering of this eternal plant. The MBSR program clearly invites its participants to go further, an invitation that reappears in each moment of sitting, as our minds become clear, and insights arise, and compassion emerges. Perhaps you, too, might here that tiny voice exhorting you to take more as you sit in the stillness of this day and the next.