Friday, September 03, 2010

Leaving Others Out

Sometimes I'll hear the statement "everything is Zen."

Last time I heard it, it was during a fractious board meeting at a tiny Soto Zen Center a year ago. Two of its members were adamant about adding a lot of extra-curricular programming. More yoga, more classes about the arts and other things, lots of things that weren't part of the Zen Center's central mission. When the priest pointed out that these classes already exist elsewhere, and the purpose of the Zen Center was zazen, that was the outraged reply: "Everything is Zen!" (The two members got angry and don't come at all anymore.)

The statement "Everything is Zen" actually leaves out something important.

The idea of "mindfulness" is used in the same way -- just be mindful, mindfulness is everything. Petteri Sulonen considered this yesterday:

The only point of contact between mindfulness and ethics is that it can—but does not have to!—direct your future actions. To paraphrase Markus "Uku" Laitinen, "if you want to be an asshole, be an asshole—just pay attention to what happens, and maybe you don't want to be an asshole the next time around." So mindfully torturing kittens is ethically meaningful only if what you learned from being aware of the motivations and consequences stops you from torturing kittens the next time you get that particular urge.

That's okay, but let's not forget one other point of contact: the other. People. Other sentient beings. Mindfulness is an important personal practice. Zen can bring about an exhilarating sense of personal freedom. But social function is an important grounding influence. If it's all about you and your freedom, you're not really being mindful.

Mindfulness is not about ignoring things.

1 comment:

Petteri Sulonen said...

Ethics are, by definition, about other beings.

I think we're using a slightly different definition of mindfulness here: your definition includes the process of awareness directing action under the term, whereas the one I used explicitly excludes it, and only considers the inner process of awareness.

I actually like your definition better, since it captures what I think is the whole *point* of mindfulness, i.e., the way it helps one act morally: under your definition, "mindful immorality" is an oxymoron, since "morality" is included in the definition.

However, I think that the one I used it is closer to the way the people touting "mindful smoking" and "mindful drinking" use to argue their point. That's why I picked it for the posting.

I also think that the root of the conjuring-trick that gives us "mindful smoking" is an equivocation between these two definitions: the proponent implicitly starts out with yours (the one that subsumes morality into the definition), and by the time he gets to the smoking bit, he's slid into mine (the one that excludes it), with the reader tricked into thinking that it's still there, although it's been quietly dropped.

Fascinating stuff, semantics. No?