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Coming to Our Senses

Jon Kabat-Zinn's 2005 book Coming to Our Senses, subtitled "Healing Ourselves and the World Through Mindfulness", is an intimidating brick-thick tome that I recently checked out of the local library and hesitated to begin. But like his 1994 Wherever You Go, There You Are, once I dipped a toe into it I found the waters warm and welcoming. Already, only a quarter of the way through its 600+ pages, thickets of sticky-note tabs have sprouted from the margins. Many of Kabat-Zinn's observations are reminiscent of Stephen Batchelor's Buddhism Without Beliefs. From the chapter "Meditation is Not For the Faint-Hearted" of Part I ("Meditation: It's Not What You Think"), a sharp-edged scientific-analytic metaphor:

Because mindfulness, which can be thought of as an open-hearted, moment-to-moment, non-judgmental awareness, is optimally cultivated through meditation rather just through thinking about it, and because its most elaborate and complete articulation comes from the Buddhist tradition, in which mindfulness is often described as the heart of Buddhist meditation, I have chosen to say some things here and there about Buddhism and its relationship to the practice of mindfulness. I do this so that we might reap some understanding and some benefit from what this extraordinary tradition offers the world at this moment in history, based on its incubation on our planet over the past twenty-five hundred years.

The way I see it, Buddhism itself is not the point. You might think of the Buddha as a genius of his age, a great scientist, at least as towering a figure as Darwin or Einstein, who, as the Buddhist scholar Alan Wallace likes to put it, had no instruments other than his own mind at his disposal and who sought to look deeply into the nature of birth and death and the seeming inevitability of suffering. In order to pursue his investigations, he first had to understand, develop, refine, and learn to calibrate and stabilize the instrument he was using for this purpose, namely his own mind, in the same way that laboratory scientists today have to continually develop, refine, calibrate, and stabilize the instruments that they employ to extend their senses—whether we are talking about giant optical or radio telescopes, electron microscopes, or positron-emission tomography (PET) scanners—in the sense of looking deeply into and exploring the nature of the universe and the vast array of interconnected phenomena that unfold within it, whether it be in the domain of physics and physical phenomena, chemistry, biology, psychology, or any other field of inquiry.

In taking on this challenge, the Buddha and those who followed in his footsteps took on exploring deep questions about the nature of the mind itself and about the nature of life. Their efforts at self-observation led to remarkable discoveries. They succeeded in accurately mapping a territory that is quintessentially human, having to do with aspects of the mind that we all have in common, independent of our particular thoughts, beliefs, and cultures. Both the methods they used and the fruits of those investigations are univgersal, and have nothing to do with any isms, ideologies, religiosities, or belief systems. These discoveries are more akin to medical and scientific understandings, frameworks that can be examined by anybody anywhere, and put to the test independently, for oneself, which is what the Buddha suggested to his followers from the very beginning.

More light-heartedly, the chapter "No Attachments" later in Part I jokes:

Have you heard the one about the Buddhist vacuum cleaner? ... No attachments!


Two monks in robes who have obviously just finished a period of sitting meditation. One turns toward the other. ... "Are you not thinking what I'm not thinking?"

Then a serious synopsis, perhaps, of the entire enterprise:

The Buddha once said that the core message of all his teachings—he taught continually for over forty-five years—could be summed up in one sentence. On the off chance that that might be the case, it might not be a bad idea to commit that sentence to memory. You never know when it might come in handy, when it might make sense to you even though in the moment before, it really didn't. That sentence is:

Nothing is to be clung to as I, me, or mine.

In other words, no attachments. Especially to fixed ideas of yourself and who you are.

If I did New Year's resolutions, "No Attachments!" sounds like a good candidate ...

(cf. EngineeringEnlightenment (1999-10-09), My Religion (2000-11-06), ThoughtfulMetaphors (2000-11-08), MostImportant (2002-05-16), OldYearRestitutions (2008-01-03), The Meaning of Life (2008-07-24), ...) - ^z - 2009-01-01

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