An Ethical Path to Compassionate Community: The fire in the heart of mindfulness

(This is a transcript of talk given at the inaugural meeting of Mindfulness Ottawa, Ottawa ON 2012 November 21.  The preliminary section on “laying down the path by walking” has been excluded.)

Let me share here what we have distilled out of 10 years of our path – what Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi calls “one continuous mistake.”




Mindfulness-Based Interventions are composed of three components:

1 – Contemplative practices, in particular sitting, walking, lying down meditations;

2 –Buddhist insight that experience can be perceived in this moment through our six senses, is knowable, and constructed or an emergent property of a myriad of sensations[1]; and

3 – Western psychological theories that propose experiential avoidance is the root of our psychological difficulties.

These three components underlie the various forms of Mindfulness-Based Interventions (MBIs).  Specific programming may hold one or the other of these components in the foreground but that’s a reflection of the individual intent of the program.  This model is not just about what we do in teaching mindfulness skills; it is also about who we are. Furthermore, it applies to us as individual teachers of mindfulness practices and – most important – as an evolving community of practitioners.  

First, to evolve from our complex history and emerge as beings open to intimate connections, we – as teachers of mindfulness – are called upon to cultivate a contemplative life, engaging in practices that steady us in the face of personal and professional challenges.

Second, to co-create a community that is supportive and compassionate, we need to examine our experience and relinquish our perceptions that we are separate from one another.  We need to begin to see ourselves as emergent properties of an innumerable set of interactions.  This, more than anything else, calls forth the practice of sila or ethics.  It is not a call for moral constraints or moral code but of a considered approach to what brings us mutual care and encouragement.  I’ll expand on that in a moment.

Third, we are not immune to our own tendencies to experiential avoidance.  As health care providers, we have both personal and professional agendas that set our intentions when we teach.  We have our fears of disappointing, not meeting expectations, feeling insecure. 

We slide into adaptations when we are uncertain of the impact of what we are doing.  And, this is our work: to face our own nature and be intimate with it.  To bring best practice to our work, we begin by reaching deep into our professional training – whatever that may be – and stepping out from there.  We remember – the meaning of sati or mindfulness – that our love for this mindful path arises from our passion for what we already do for others.

Now, let me return to ethics, the fire in the heart of mindfulness:

Laying down the path to community is a challenging one.  Laying down the path to a compassionate community can be both challenging and threatening to many who may see it as mushy tree-hugging. 

In Buddhist philosophy, ethics is made up of compassionate action, discerning livelihood, and compassionate communication.  However, in a market economy, it is a challenge to turn away from our survival-derived impulses to competitiveness, ownership, and exclusion.

When we take a narrow view of our work as a share of a shrinking market or a competition of funding resources, issues of competition and ownership arise.  And exclusionary tactics are not far behind.  Constrained by these ideas, it’s hard to imagine that suffering is boundless and that there will never be a lack of beings to serve.  

Let’s start with the first component of the Ethical Path to Mindfulness: Compassionate Action.

In a conversation with one of my dear friends many years ago, we figured out that Ottawa with its population of about 1 million or more, would require – if everyone was suitable for an MBI – 83,333 courses (of 12 people in each course) per year to treat all ills.

If we look at the prevalence of mental illness in Canada, 20% of Canadians will experience a mental illness in their lifetime (200, 000; that’s 16,666 courses).

In a single year (based on a population of 1 million in Ottawa and using the lower end of range from A Report on Mental Illnesses in Canada. Ottawa, Canada 2002)

  • 4% will experience major depression (40, 000/ 3,333 courses)
  • 0.2% will experience bipolar disorder (2,000/167 courses)
  • 0.8% will experience dysthymia (8,000/667 courses)
  • 12% will experience anxiety disorders (120, 000/10,000 courses)

At the OMC, we see approximately 150 people each year by offering 3-4 courses three times a year.  I don’t know how many participants you have in your courses each year but I suspect our impact on the statistics is going to be similar to yours; that is, it will be minimal.

The point is – to riff on the Bodhisattva vow we recite in Zen practice – beings are numberless and suffering is inexhaustible.  Not only are we unlikely to exhaust the population available for compassionate action, we cannot do this alone.  The Ottawa Mindfulness Clinic cannot do this alone.  Any combination of the words Ottawa and Mindfulness cannot gather enough people to meet this need alone.

WE cannot do this without each other.  And we particularly cannot do this through the framework of a market economy and an attachment to the fiscal bottom line.  Or the ego bottom line.

This brings us to the second component of the Ethical Path to Mindful Community: Right or Discerning Livelihood

We are of necessity adhered to the idea of livelihood.  We have families to raise, bills to pay, children to put through college and university, and for some of us elderly parents who need our support.  Pushing hard to earn an income and meet these needs and pay the overhead is part of living.  Buffering for life after work is part of our views of livelihood.  Vacations, cottages, and just plain having fun are part of livelihood. 

However, these pulls in one direction or the other can lay down paths that are antithetical to a mindful and compassionate life.   In running fast to fall behind, we can become caught in the industry of work and forget our intention was to live our life fully and compassionately.

This means, as a community of mindfulness practitioners, it is important to develop a discerning eye for the line between the Industry of Mindfulness (which addresses immediate needs) and the Embodiment of Mindfulness (which reaches into the 7th Generation)

The Industry of Mindfulness is the doing arm of Discerning Livelihood.  There are courses to run which means there is marketing those courses, designing an attractor for those courses, dressing them up, and selling the wares in the marketplace.  It’s easy to get swept away by the anxiety and fear, wondering if what we have is going to sell, if what we think we own is going to be taken, if what we’ve built is going to last.  Caught in this type of doing, we forget that our intention was to be open-hearted with our clients and each other.

One of my teachers often said: Give it away.  Give it all away.  Teach with an open hand.  Hold nothing back.

This is the embodiment of mindful work.  It is a commitment to 7 generations from now. 

In The Work that Reconnects, deep ecology activist and Buddhist scholar, Joanna Macy[2] invites us into a wonderful exercise where we today are queried by the 7th Generation about our in role slowing down the rise of oceans and easing suffering in this time.  Their question is ”When all was broken and failing in your time, what did you do?  How did you meet these events?”

When all was broken in the health system, schools, society, what did you do? 
How did you meet these events?

I would like to believe that embodiment of mindful work could be our answer to the question.  We would respond, “We came together as a community and joined in non-competitive, compassionate action.  We took our obligations to this time and to you, the 7th Generation, to heart.”

But try taking that to your bank manager.  You might fill in the form: “My co-applicant on this loan is someone from the 7th Generation.”  And this may not get very far.  However, this is Radical Mindfulness. 

And not everyone will be on board with it.

Recently, we asked for an endorsement of our forthcoming book.  The reply we received was that our book was “too competitive” with their own initiatives.  That’s OK; and it’s not OK.  Fear is an opportunistic infection and it’s not restricted to small fish in this large pond.

If we are to convey the idea to our participants that there is so much more that is precious in living than the bottom line, we too must invite ourselves to live that aspiration.  We lay down that path by living out our heart, fiercely and fearlessly.

To build compassionate community, we renounce the concepts of I, me and mine.

From David Whyte:

Taking the first vulnerable steps into our own experience, no matter how small or hidden at the beginning, opens us to a more generous life, where what we have to give figures as largely as what we receive. We stop trying to draw infinitely from a finite world and begin to learn how little is necessary to live a life that honors the soul of the world. 

— David Whyte
from “The Heart Aroused: Poetry & the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America” ©1994 Doubleday/Currency

And so we come to the final component of the Ethical Path to Mindful Community: Compassionate Communication.

At one level, mindful speech is about what we say, how we say it, and when we say it.  It is about whether it is true, kind, timely, and helpful.  It is about whether it is congruent with our intentions and whether we are transparent about those intentions.

Compassionate Communication is all that and something more.

  • It is to be a good friend. 
  • To step into the fire and sit with each others’ suffering. 
  • It is our willingness to bear witness to each other.
  • In the words of Jack Zimmerman[3]:
    • It is to listen from the heart and to speak from that heart.
    • To be lean of expression and spontaneous in response.

Again from David Whyte:

The ultimate touchstone of friendship is not improvement, neither of the other nor of the self, the ultimate touchstone is witness, the privilege of having been seen by someone and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another, to have walked with them and to have believed in them, and sometimes just to have accompanied them for however brief a span, on a journey impossible to accomplish alone.

– David Whyte
from Readers’ Circle Essay, “Friendship” ©2011 David Whyte

Compassionate communication is about companionship.  In Pali, it is called kaliyanamitta – a spiritual friend, a warrior companion who is willing to wield the sword of wisdom when necessary. 

Another 7th Generation exercise is to be asked: what helped you get through all the turmoil and uncertainty?  When all seemed hopeless and impossible, what helped you get through the turmoil?

I invite us to practice in our own life so eventually we all can answer: Compassionate Community.

Here, I would like to add a cautionary note from T.S. Eliot:

Half of the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm. But the harm does not interest them.

Being interested in the harm we can cause is the path away from our delusions of self-importance.  Bringing the light of compassionate interest in our own blind spots and self-importance destroys the viruses that infect community.

Mindfulness Starts Here – in our own hearts, in our own practice of returning over and over again to this moment, this breath, this intention.

Out of this emerges community to which we give this precious and treasured heart that we hope will be held in safeness and with care.

[1] Olendzki, A. (2003). Buddhist Psychology.  In Encountering Buddhism, S. Segall, Ed. SUNY, Albany

[2] Macy, J. (1998). Coming Back to Life: Practices to reconnect our lives, our world.  New Society

[3] Zimmerman, Jack & Coyle, V. (2009). The Way of Council, 2nd Edition.  Bramble Books, Florida


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