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Has Mindfulness Become Too Self-Involved?

Mindfulness isn’t all about self-improvement—It’s about remembering we’re all connected. Here are 10 ways to put compassion in action in your community.

Allow us a moment to judge. As we were listening to the various speakers at a recent mindfulness conference, we were struck by how their words didn’t jive with our understanding of mindfulness. Here are a few choice phrases overheard (in ital)and our not-so-mindful reactions):

“I’m convinced mindful breathing saved my life.”

Doesn’t regular breathing save your life every day?

“Those who live in poverty, it’s mostly not their fault…”

Seriously? We never thought it ever was their fault.

“It only takes one person to start a revolution.”

Honestly, name a one-person revolution.

“We need to create an army of compassionate soldiers.”

Sounds like just another kind of war to us.

“Breathe in peace, breathe out light — above you, below you, in front of you, within you.”

And finally, “Observe, observe, observe…” in that meditative FM radio voice we have all come to know so well.

So much of what was being said about mindfulness at this conference seemed syrupy and soporific, and individualistic. It was all about “me,” and that made us feel neither “mindful” nor compassionate. We felt mad (and judgy).

Firstly, If you think mindfulness is only about peace, calm, and returning to the breath whenever you are faced with difficulty, then you have, in fact, missed a key component of mindfulness as a practice. This piece of the practice revolves around facing difficult situations and challenging mind and mood states. In those moments we may be neither peaceful or calm but we can hopefully be aware and deal with our reactions in a skillful manner. Secondly, we need to ask how much of our practice is focused on the self or a caring focus on others? As Dan Harris, in his book Ten Percent Happier says, “It’s a self-interested case for not being a dick.”

We need to rebrand mindfulness and get back to its roots where we can make room for our anger, that can be messy, and that can include responses that lead to compassion in action: the desire to be of assistance to others who are suffering and acting on that desire.

Why Mindfulness Practice isn’t “All About Me”

As mindfulness professionals and teacher trainers of many years, we feel a responsibility to call out what we think is an increasing problem: the tendency to make the practice all about me. Some people think we can avoid our pain or the pain of others by simply breathing through it alone on our cushions.

Our attachment to a fixed view of self (as separate from others) is one of human nature’s biggest challenges

It’s hard for us to see beyond our personal distress. Since we are so self-focused we will likely ask, “what’s in it for me?” Our attachment to a fixed view of self (as separate from others) is one of human nature’s biggest challenges. At its best, we are compassionate toward our family, friends, and the culture that is most like us but simply don’t see the rest. We ignore those who seem different. At its worst, this ignorance results in fear, hostility, violence, and oppression.

Practitioners of mindfulness try “to do no harm” to themselves and others. However, we need to move beyond this and our self-interest so as not to become completely immersed in how to only reduce personal suffering, turning ever inward. Dangerously, we imagine that if I alone am happier everyone else will be happier too.

Compassion in Action: Take Less and Give More

If we wish to bring change to ourselves, others, and the world, we need to put both mindfulness and compassion into action — Neither mindfulness nor self-compassion alone will suffice. We must change our behavior, take less, and give more. This is not easy but all it takes to begin are simple actions. Someone spoke at the conference about the community mindfulness work she does locally and internationally with social service agencies, front line workers, their clients, seniors, those with mental disorders, and the homeless. She works out of the limelight with a small team applying for grants and funding to bring mindfulness to those in need — for the depressed, the stressed, the anxious, the psychotic, and those without means or stable housing. This is mindfulness and compassion in action—This is about acting on the insight that suffering is universal and we’re all connected. By putting compassion in action, we move beyond the “me” and see how we are all part of the same human tribe.

10 Ways to Put Compassion in Action

How can you bring your mindfulness practice off the cushion, beyond your personal breath, and into the world? It’s an age-old prescription:

1) Be of service. 2) Do for others. 3) Smile and look at people on the street. 4) Give people compliments. 5) Pick up garbage. 6) Shovel your neighbor’s walk when it snows. 7) Protect children, the elderly, the disenfranchised, all of those who have less or more than you do. 8) Be kind when you can. Know there will be times when you can’t. 9) Start small. 10) Remember that motivation often follows action, not the other way around. Mike Hoolboom, a friend, told us that when people begin to do this, that’s when we will know we are a mindful community. As Patricia’s father-in-law Ralph Moran (who lived in a small town where helping one’s neighbor is de rigueur) used to say, “Leave each place a little better than you found it.”

There is more than enough suffering around these days. It can be difficult to be aware and stay connected to the pain of others. It is so much easier to walk the other way and watch Youtube, Netflix, have a drink or thinking mindfulness is only about sitting on the cushion, focused on yourself. Believe us, we do it frequently. This is why we do need the breath and the body — as anchors for our attention when we are at risk of being overwhelmed.

Mindfulness is about remembrance. If you can remember we are all connected your capacity for compassion will grow.

Mindfulness is about remembrance. If you can remember we are all connected your capacity for compassion will grow. The mindfulness movement needs a reset. If our goal is to be a mindfulness community then there is a need for a little less me and a little more we.

Find a Grassroots Kindness Community

A little kindness can go a long way. There are a number of mindfulness network/communities that have started up such as:

  • Mindfulness Toronto,

  • iBme (retreats for teens),

  • The Centre for Mindfulness Studies,

  • The Rocky Mountain Mindfulness Center in Colorado

  • The Mindfulness Meditation New York Collaborative

…to name a few.

If you know of more grassroots kindness initiatives in your area, please add them to the comments below! In the coming months, we will be writing a series on this topic of compassion in action, exploring how mindfulness and compassion relate to specific areas of our lives and has relevance to our lives.


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