Last Sunday, Sixty Minutes reran a story by Anderson Cooper on “mindfulness” that was originally aired in December of 2014. For the transcript, see http://www.cbsnews.com/news/mindfulness-anderson-cooper-60-minutes.) Mindfulness is simply living in the present. It involves focusing on what you are experiencing at the moment. This is difficult because the mind naturally wants to rehash the past, worry about the future or wander. Monitor your thoughts if you don’t believe me. We like our distractions and in today’s electronic age, distractions are readily available. The experience of mindfulness, I suppose, is like “being in the zone” in sports. Have you ever played a game where your concentration is so strong that you are no longer thinking at all, you’re just initiating action and responding to the movements of teammates, the ball and the opponents? Intense experiences are often mindful. Drinking and other drugs may be a means for some to experience mindfulness. There are also moments of mindfulness with friends, where you are spontaneous, relaxed, and unconcerned with anything other than your immediate interactions. Mindfulness has been shown to have health benefits, such as lowering blood pressure. The way to become more mindful is to meditate. Mediation helps you to cut down on the extraneous mental noise. One expert Anderson Cooper interviewed said that meditation is exercise for the brain. With practice, we can strengthen our ability to return our focus of our attention to the moment at hand and keep our minds from wandering.
I’ve never tried seriously to meditate. Over the years, however, I’ve read a bit about Buddhism, the nontheistic “religion” where mediation was born. One thing I’ve found out about Buddhism is that if you don’t meditate, you’ll never make progress as a Buddhist. Why not? You can become an expert on the statistics of professional baseball, but if you haven’t played the game, you won’t become a baseball player, no matter how much you study baseball. Buddhism is all about getting control of the mind, so you have to mediate to be a practicing Buddhist.
Buddhism’s first principle is the somewhat pessimistic pronouncement that suffering is the core of our existence. To alleviate suffering, Buddhists argue, you have to give up your desires. Thinking about what you want, you see, is not living in the present. Most of what we want, you see, are not things we really need. Our culture is tells us that we need to be more attractive, that a bigger house, newer car and a fatter wallet will make us happy, and that the more desires we fulfill, the the more we will have lived. Buddhism suggests the opposite. You don’t eliminate desire by trying to satisfying it; you eliminate desire by not wanting so much in the first place. Our culture also tells us to ignore the suffering of others. It’s a competition–those who suffer generally deserve it. By contrast, when the Buddhist ideas that everyone suffers, that we should live in the moment, and that we need to reduce our desires are accepted the result is compassion for others. And, with compassion comes forgiveness.
Most of us will never become practicing Buddhists. Yet we can try to live more in the present. We should rethink and reduce our desires. We can pay more attention to the suffering of others and listen to people with undivided attention. We can show more compassion for others and forgive them more readily. We may not get to nirvana, but if we act ethically and try to live our lives better each day, we will be happier; we’ll live our lives with fewer distractions. We’ll face life’s challenges more calmly and confidently. We’ll better appreciate the things that really matter in our lives. Go meditate on that, please.