By Barry Boyce
Senior Editor of the Shambhala Sun
Welcome to The Mindful Society Pages, the online counterpart to my new column in the Shambhhala Sun, “The Mindful Society.” It’s a chance to talk about interesting people who are doing groundbreaking work in bringing mindfulness and other contemplative disciplines into all areas of society.
A prime example of the sort of person I’ll feature in the Pages is Nancy Bardacke, a midwife who developed Mindfulness-Based Birthing and Parenting, which married her experience of being a midwife with the training she later received in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction from Jon Kabat-Zinn and others. We talked together for about an hour the other day, and it became clear that Nancy is a lively and lovely talker who would clearly be great to have around if you’re planning to engage in the birth process. (I’ll be featuring her work in The Mindful Society column in the August/September issue of the Shambhala Sun.)
Nancy understands birth, not just physiologically and psychologically, but also from the point of view of what a vital moment it is in the lives of a network of human beings. The parents, the extended family, the community, the child. The time leading up to the birth, the birth itself, and the aftermath — parenthood! — are life-changing. So often, sadly, the whole process is inordinately painful, and very bad results can ensue.
Parents don’t necessarily allow this primal process to bring their attention to what’s truly important in life. It’s easy to see it as something to get through, and perhaps mindfulness will help you get through it better. But what Nancy and the people she is training to do this kind of work offer, and what parents discover, is an opportunity to be transformed by getting intimately in touch with what’s going on in the bodies and minds of all concerned. It’s a ensemble. Not a solo performance.
That’s what The Mindful Society is about. It’s not about how if we pay closer attention and increase our focus, we’ll get better and better at what we do and become better and better with each passing day until we become truly, awesomely, mindful. Perhaps from a certain perspective that is true. But what is much more true — and what the pioneers in the field of bringing mindfulness into all walks of life emphasize — is that paying attention is transformative. The attention-payer finds him or herself being born into a new world that is also the same old world.
Mindfulness practice is not the nanny state of the mind, the idea that if we watch ourselves incredibly closely, we’ll get it right. (I’m reminded of all those signs that can end up cluttering retreat centers, such as “Be Mindful of Shower Curtains.” I get the point but we won’t break free from an overemphasis on ourselves by watching ourselves like hawks.) By paying real attention and more and more comprehensively, we begin to notice how the world is coming into being all the time.
Many teachers I’ve talked to lately have emphasized that as we begin to become more and more accustomed to paying attention, it becomes less of what John Tarrant calls “a peak performance kind of thing” and much more about being open to discovery. We become less concerned about being mindful of X, Y, or Z (shower curtain, raisin, the smell of a shirt that needs to be washed) and rather just let ourselves be mindful. Full stop.
In chatting with Joan Sutherland about the development of an attitude of feeling your way along arising from meditation practice-which helps us with uncertainty, chaos, and loss, since we don’t have any idea of what is “out there” to be mindful of-she called it “improvisatory mind.” I said “What?” She repeated it, and I tried to pronounce it, and failed several times, until I noticed it ended in “satori.” Then it came out beautifully: improvi-satori. We had a real big laugh.
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When I had a coffee with Frank Ostatseski, the founder of Zen Hospice and the Metta Institute, recently in San Francisco, he talked about the quality of having to feel your way when spending time with the dying. You need to be able to improvise, even to play, in the space surrounding death (a friend’s hospital room, for example), rather than enter it with a preconceived notion of what death is and how you can help someone deal with it.
We talked about an improvisatory jazz concert I had heard several nights before, when the group Oregon played at Yoshi’s. Ralph Towner and Paul McCandless, principals in that group (who have played together for almost 40 years) both taught improvisation at the Naropa Institute. The thing that rang true for Frank about the seemingly strange similarity between the space swirling around with a jazz quartet and the space around a dying person is that good players listen very deeply, with trust that something will be born out of the mutual space. They do not spend their time thinking about what they can contribute next, what they can do next. Real mindfulness allows us to be comfortable with the pregnant quality of open, uncertain space (what is known in Tibetan Buddhism as a bardo), knowing that birth will surely follow-no matter what we try to do about it.
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To top it all off, the week after talking to Frank, I ended up interviewing Ed Sarath, who founded the now flourishing Bachelor of Fine Arts in Jazz and Contemplative Studies at the University of Michigan. It is one of the most successful programs in contemplative studies in higher education in the nation. Sarath started it because he had long felt there was a very close relationship between improvisation and meditation practice, in that “both are grounded in a heightened sense of the present moment and they complement each other quite nicely.” We ended the conversation talking not about working together, but about playing together. That gets it, I think. Mindfulness may start out as work but it ends up as play.
If you know of any areas of life that mindfulness is infiltrating, where mindfulness can help us be more creative and playful, please let me know. If you know of any people or groups of people who are doing interesting work, I’d love to hear about them and feature them in the Pages.