Mindfulness and Nirvana
I wrote last week about the shift of seasons from winter to spring. We’re in an ideal time of year to shed habits that keep us from being our best selves. Let’s unpack this a bit more.
What keeps us in a rut, doing the same things over and over, even if we know our actions or mental patterns keep us from flourishing? We go on auto-pilot, in sense. Our minds and bodies take the paths of least resistance, the ways that are well worn.
If you follow my Wellness Wednesday posts with regularity, you know I am a huge fan of On Being. Krista Tippet’s interviews remind me of how I long to be in the world. They are a reset in my week. The most recent podcast interview that I listened to was with the secular buddhist teacher and writer Stephen Batchelor. I highly recommend listening to the full, unedited version. For today, I’ve pulled some text from the interview that I found most relevant. Batchelor starts by explaining secular Buddhism.
S BATCHELOR: It’s creating the conditions whereby we can embark on a way of life that is not dictated by our instinctive reactivity — our habits, our fears, and so forth and so on — but stems from an openness, an inner openness, that is unconditioned by those forces and that allows the freedom to think differently, to act differently, to respond more fully, and, in doing so, to allow the human person to flourish: to realize more fully the potentials that each one of us has.
K TIPPETT: You talk about this quality of nonreactive stillness, not as an end in itself but as a way that can lead us into a way of flourishing, can be discerning and directive of the right action, right living [when] so much of culture conspires against nonreactive stillness.
S BATCHELOR:We live in a world where we’re bombarded with information; that we are pressed to produce and to achieve in a way that’s almost violent, at times. At the same time, though, what has really surprised me in my 40 years of involvement in Buddhism, is the sudden embracing in the mainstream culture of the practice of mindfulness. Now, what’s going on here? This is a movement that, in its very essence, is questioning this frenzy of activity that our culture is so embedded in. I think it’s, in a sense, timely; that people are looking for something like a nonreactive “stillness,” if that word is helpful. And mindfulness allows them the very simple possibility of stopping: just pausing; opening up a gap in their thoughts and their feelings. And this, I think, is perhaps arising at this time because we are becoming conscious, as a community, as a society, as a human community, of this stressful overload that is so demanding and, I think, so undermining in many ways. It prevents us, I think, from really living fully.
This is like medicine for me. I shared last week that I often opt for a digital diet this time of year as I emerge from the depths of winter. It’s certainly work to break my screen habits, but I find that when I introduce just a little stillness and quiet to my life, I crave more. The more I practice stillness, the easier it becomes. Strengthening our neural pathways is like building muscle - it’s hard to get started, but with practice and effort each day we rise to the challenge.
Batchelor suggests that we flourish when we practice mindfulness - this pause, this consciousness of how our thoughts start a chain reaction. In his view, we achieve nirvana in these moments.
S BATCHELOR: Nirvana means a non-reactive state of mind that is not driven or compelled by our attachments, by our fears, by our hatreds and in a serenity and stillness and quietness that is not achievable at the end of year and years and lifetimes and lifetimes of practice but is actually imminent. There are strong suggestions that the Buddha understood nirvana to be a capacity that is imminent within each person in each moment. The capacity to be non-reactive is how I would describe it.
Doesn’t that sound glorious? To not be driven by our fears and our habits, but instead to take action from conscious serenity? I know my daily life would look and feel a whole lot different if I remained calm and intentional in every interaction I have with my toddler, not to mention other relationships. Though I know I will often fall short, I believe it’s still important to set an intention for non-reactivity. The practice of non-clinging – of un-hooking from our habitual patterns of moving through the world – is the essence of compassion, for ourselves and others.
Rebekah Papé is a writer, yoga teacher, and The Riveter member. She teaches breath, meditation, and yoga asana on Fridays at 11:30am and noon at Capitol Hill.