This year, Harvard University marked a significant milestone with the establishment of the Thich Nhat Hanh Center for Mindfulness in Public Health, endowed with a substantial budget of $25 million.
The center’s mission is multifaceted, focusing on the pursuit of “evidence-based approaches to improve health and well-being through mindfulness.” This event represents a remarkable transformation in societal attitudes towards mindfulness and mindfulness practices.
Just a generation ago, the idea of a prestigious university like Harvard launching a scientific institute dedicated to the contemplative practice of “paying conscious nonjudgmental attention to the present moment” would have seemed implausible. However, the landscape has evolved significantly.
In recent decades, a multitude of peer-reviewed studies have demonstrated the profound potential of mindfulness meditation in addressing various aspects of mental, physical, and social health, ranging from alleviating chronic pain and enhancing immune system function to mitigating anxiety and improving memory.
Thus, mindfulness has traversed a remarkable journey from its origins in monasteries and the counter-cultural movement to becoming a prominent feature in corporate boardrooms, academia, and other centers of influence. While this widespread accessibility to mindfulness is undoubtedly a positive development, it also raises important considerations and trade-offs.
The success of academic research on mindfulness has led to a perception that mindfulness meditation is primarily an individual mental health intervention or a personal wellness tool that can be practiced in isolation from others. However, it is essential to recognize that mindfulness encompasses a broader dimension.
Throughout its history spanning thousands of years, mindfulness has been a conduit for fostering a sense of collective belonging and interconnectedness. As Jack Kornfield, a pioneering American meditation teacher, aptly describes it, mindfulness serves as “a practice that enhances our sense of connection to ourselves and others.”
The late Thich Nhat Hanh, the inspirational Vietnamese Zen master after whom the Harvard center is named, was not only a profound meditation practitioner but also a vehement advocate for mindfulness as a means of establishing connections and facilitating social action.
He coined the term “The Order of Interbeing” to describe the Zen community he founded, a concept centered on the understanding that human existence is intricately linked to other individuals and nature.
Survival, according to Thich Nhat Hanh, relies on interdependence, and meaning is inextricably tied to connection. He emphasized that mindfulness transcends stress reduction or the improvement of health outcomes; its ultimate purpose is to unveil the reality of our interdependence and compel us to take action based on this insight.
Thich Nhat Hanh championed the concept of “socially engaged” mindfulness, advocating for collective meditation practices, the formation of strong ethical communities, and active involvement in addressing social and environmental injustices.
He believed that mindfulness, with its focus on slowing down, connecting with one’s breath, and observing thoughts and emotions, could dismantle ingrained thought patterns that perpetuate a sense of separation among individuals.
The notions of interbeing and ubuntu, which resonate with Thich Nhat Hanh’s philosophy, extend beyond Buddhist principles. Nguni Bantu traditions in Southern Africa embrace ubuntu, a concept conveyed by Leymah Gbowee, a Liberian peace activist and Nobel laureate, as “I am what I am because of who we all are.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu elaborated on this in Zulu, defining it as “A person is a person through other people.” These ideas emphasize the profound significance of belonging, a state of connectedness not only to other individuals but also to nature, agency, and shared purpose.
In today’s world, these concepts take on greater relevance. Loneliness and isolation have reached epidemic proportions, as declared by the U.S. Surgeon General. Feelings of disconnection from the environment and the decision-making processes at political and economic levels contribute to crises ranging from climate change and biodiversity loss to global extremism.
So, how can mindfulness serve as a path to belonging in this contemporary context? Here are some practical mindfulness practices to counteract modern isolation:
1. Meditate In Community:
While the conventional image of meditation often portrays solitary individuals perched atop remote mountaintops, the history of meditation involves communal practice. In a time when religious participation is declining, and technology mediates our interactions, engaging in mindfulness meditation with friends, loved ones, or groups can foster connections and meaningful experiences. Mindfulness meditation can help individuals become more aware of their biases, enhance communication skills, and make more conscious decisions, thereby contributing to the development of harmonious and equitable communities.
The practice of Metta, translated as “lovingkindness,” centers on cultivating feelings of goodwill towards all individuals, including those with whom you may have varying degrees of warmth or aversion. In an era marked by divisions and polarization, practices like Metta can rewire the nervous system to nurture compassion and positive emotions.
3. Connect With Nature:
Mindfulness extends beyond stillness. Thich Nhat Hanh encouraged meditation through conscious walking on the Earth, urging practitioners to feel each footstep and express gratitude for the natural world. The practice of “walking as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet” embodies the interdependence between humans and the environment.
4. Contemplate Interbeing:
Thich Nhat Hanh advocated for bringing mindfulness into everyday life by delving more deeply into routine experiences. For instance, savoring a morning cup of tea can become a mindfulness practice. By taking a few minutes to savor the flavor of the tea and contemplating its growth – the sunlight, rain, and soil that facilitated its development – individuals can reflect on the interconnectedness of existence and cultivate gratitude for the web of life.
The concept of using mindfulness meditation as a route to shared belonging may appear counterintuitive. However, these mindfulness practices illustrate how individuals can train themselves to experience deeper connections with others. In the 1960s, another tumultuous period, Thich Nhat Hanh established a close friendship with Thomas Merton, a writer and Trappist monk.
They shared a vision of how contemplative practices could heal both personal and global crises. Their dialogue encompassed Buddhism and Christianity, as well as collaboration in opposing the Vietnam War.
Merton articulated a paradox that remains pertinent to contemporary questions regarding introspection and communal life: “We cannot find ourselves within ourselves, but only in others.” He emphasized the value of mindfulness reaching the mainstream, where “evidence-based approaches” underscore real and tangible benefits.
A growing number of people are engaging in contemplative practices that enable them to “find themselves.” However, it is crucial to remember that the ultimate purpose of mindfulness practice extends beyond personal health, relaxation, or self-improvement.
The core purpose is to find ourselves “in others” and belong to a greater whole.