The paradox of “Engaged Mindfulness”

“Mindfulness must be engaged.  Once there is seeing, there must be acting.  Otherwise, what is the use of seeing?”  ~ Thich Nhat Hahn 

When I first began the practice of sitting meditation a few years ago, I was very sensitive to the apparent contradiction between taking time out for quiet reflection and using that time for actively working on my list of tasks for the day.  Rarely did I enter into a meditation session without some sense of regret  – possibly tinged with a bit of guilt – about the time that I was “losing”, in which I could have made progress on one or more of my still undone to-do’s.

Never did this inner conflict flare up so intensely as during the 2008 presidential campaign.  During the final weeks before election day, I was volunteering a few nights each week at a local phone bank, engulfed in the noise of my fellow callers speaking to prospective voters.  And during those same few weeks, I was also attending my weekly meditation group on our designated evening, engulfed in the silence of my fellow practitioners sitting in stillness.

The contrast between these two environments was stark and startling.  Not surprisingly, on my nights at the phone bank, the rush of activity – and adrenaline! – swept me along from one call to the next, with hardly a thought of meditation.  Then, on meditation night, I would sit silently – but hardly mindfully – contemplating all those phone calls I wasn’t making on behalf of my candidate, with the election just a few days away!

I wondered how, if I was truly committed to the outcome of the election, I could be willing to give up a night at the phone bank for meditation practice.  And I wondered how, if I was truly committed to my practice – which included a strong intention to become more accepting of life as it is – I could be so intensely attached to that electoral result.

I wish I could say that I have resolved this conundrum to my complete satisfaction.  But in fact, I still wrestle with it every day.

However, over time I have made some progress.  In particular, I’ve come to see that the way I originally framed the situation imposed an “either/or” constraint upon the inquiry, such that any possible answer needed to favor one choice over the other.

Dropping the “either/or” framework has allowed me to entertain a number of more useful questions, such as:  What is the nature of being engaged in action? What is the nature of being mindfully present?  How are these two activities distinct?  In what ways do they overlap?  What can each one contribute to the other?

Exploring the topic from the perspective of these questions has, in fact, made it less of a conundrum to be solved and more of a paradox to be embraced. Uniting both sides of the issue under the term “engaged mindfulness” allows engagement with the world and commitment to goals to exist side-by-side with mindfulness practice and non-attachment to outcome.

Considered separately, the two pull us in opposite directions.  Considered together, they push us down the same path.

After all, to reprise Thich Nhat Hahn’s opening quote, “once there is seeing, there must be acting.”‘


About Tom Cummings

A life-long news and current events junkie, an occasional political activist and volunteer, and for the past five years a practitioner of daily meditation and a student of Buddhist philosophy, I write this blog to explore what I see as the inherent tensions and contradictions between practicing mindfulness - so rooted in the Buddhist virtues of compassion, generosity, and non-attachment to self - and being an engaged citizen in today's world - where the very opposite traits are all too often the ones that prevail.
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5 Responses to The paradox of “Engaged Mindfulness”

  1. erikleo says:

    Hi Tom, I hope you dont mind this rather odd request! I have an idea for a series of blogs and as you are a fellow seeker, I’d like to get your feedback first if you’d be amenable. 🙂


  2. Pingback: An anniversary post, and a political plea | Engaged Mindfulness

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