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The Core of Mindfulness: Moving from Reactivity to Response

Applied dharma and mindfulness practice

When Jon Kabat-Zinn, through his work as UMass Hospital some 20 years ago, introduced the language of applied dharma and mindfulness practice, people latched on to his ideas with fervor. As with so many Western misappropriations of Eastern ideas, -- yoga, kung fu, meditation, feng shui, wabi sabi, etc. -- that fervor caused the language to be misinterpreted and misapplied, while a great deal of Kabat-Zinn's intention became lost in translation. So, what is "applied dharma" exactly? What, for that matter, is this "mindfulness" that everyone talks about, and how do you do it?

Applied dharma is exactly what it sounds like - taking dharma practice and, using the language of the moment, re-purposing it for "real world" application. What Kabat-Zinn did was to take the essence of a core dharma practice, meditation -- a highly focused form of mindfulness - and apply it to the real world problem of intractable pain and illness.

At first blush, traditional teachers might dismiss this as a "gaining idea", or goal-oriented dharma practice -- something eschewed as decidedly un-Zen-like. But, in truth, the path is something to be shared and, once revealed, is available to anyone. Bringing dharma practice out of the monastery or retreat and into practical daily experience is the essence of skillful means - using what is at hand to guide and encourage human potential.

And it is also within the context of elevating human potential and personal evolution that mindfulness has proven to be an effective instance of applied dharma. By attending to both emotions and experience with focused intention, those elements come into profound relief. As the depth of our understanding increases, so does the ability to recognize and work with that understanding.

To that point, a client recently said to me, "I am so angry, but I don't know how to do that - be angry". I said to her, "Just be angry. Be with the experience of your anger and then step back from it to find its source. Work, then, with managing or shaping the source of the anger, rather than just displaying the anger itself."

This is the key aim of mindfulness practice -- to move from reacting to responding -- and we respond through awareness. By paying attention to a thing and seeing it for what it is, rather than becoming drawn into its inertia, we are able to respond, rather than simply react.

For this client, being with her anger and being angry prompted in her two things: the first was the ability to say out loud what was bothering her and then creating change, and the second was the ability to ask for what she wanted.

Her anger was driven by her frustration and resentment. That frustration and resentment was fed by her fear of confrontation and it consequences. Coming to an awareness of her fear of confrontation, exploring the consequences of engendering confrontation and gathering evidence to show that her expectations about engendering confrontation were false, allowed her to both develop a more positive and dimensional social style, as well as dispel the anger that was a self-imposed veil for the real issue. She did all of this simply by being with, and paying attention to, her anger.

For the first time in her life this client not only feels like she has a sense of place, but that she also has some clear direction. She survived the ultimate confrontation - facing her own fear - simply by looking at it, seeing it for what it was and choosing to recognize it, should it arise again. On the cushion (meditating), this would be akin to coming back to the breath when the mind wanders; establishing awareness and staying with it.

Mindfulness is a simple, but subtle tool. The Zen aphorisms surrounding it abound -- "chop wood, carry water", "be here now", "be still and know" - but, in essence, it is really nothing so profound or cryptic. It is simply bringing to bear the power of our attention, establishing awareness of body, mind, and breath. This can be, quite literally, life changing.

© 2009 Michael J. Formica, All Rights Reserved

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