In his book Wherever You Go There You Are, Jon Kabat-Zinn includes a thought-provoking essay entitled “Stopping”, in which he suggests that the best way to understand, and to practice, meditation is simply to stop for a few moments – completely stop whatever you’re doing, and simply be present.  It doesn’t have to be about sitting in proper meditation posture, and you don’t need any special props or attire.  You simply stop for a few moments, wherever and whenever you are able.

Just this insight alone makes reading the essay worthwhile, because it shows us how little effort it actually takes to be mindful and present throughout the day. Stopping – that’s all.

But then he goes on to make this compelling further observation about stopping:

“It’s as if you died and the world continued on.  If you did die, all your responsibilities and obligations would immediately evaporate.  Their residue would somehow get worked out without you.  No one else can take over your unique agenda.  It would die or peter out with you just as it has for everyone else who has ever died.  So you don’t need to worry about it in any absolute way.”

Think for a minute about that last sentence – “You don’t need to worry about it in any absolute way.”  It practically jumps right off the page, it’s so counter-intuitive.  Isn’t it the most natural thing in the world – worrying about our responsibilities and obligations?  Imagine the consequences if we failed to meet our responsibilities and fulfill our obligations. Even the worrying itself seems to play a useful role, by providing the motivational energy we need to keep busy at our tasks, and thus avert all those potential negative outcomes.

And of course, Kabat-Zinn is not advocating that we stop taking our responsibilities and obligations seriously.  What he is advocating, I would suggest, is that we stop taking them so seriously.

As always, the mindful way is about balance.  In this case, the balance is between engaging diligently in our daily projects and reflecting mindfully on their legitimate place in the overall scheme of things.

It seems to be the very nature of our human consciousness that we each consider our self to be the absolute center the universe, and thus to hold our individual daily agenda as utterly essential and necessary.  And it also seems to be in our very nature for each of us to believe that we will go on living indefinitely, and that our agenda is therefore of permanent significance.

From this egocentric point of view, it’s easy to overlook the very likely possibility that every other conscious human being on the planet is acting under the same illusions of centrality and essential necessity, and of immortality and lasting importance.

Stopping for a few moments in the midst of our busy day can help us to correct for those egocentric misconceptions.  It can keep us open to a more holistic view of ourselves as essential yet transient members in a vastly complex interconnected world of continuously changing individuals and groups.

Stopping – that’s all.  From this perspective, our own agenda still matters – just not as much as we might like to think.  Everyone else’s agenda also matters – and not as much as they would probably like to think, either.

Stopping – that’s all.  Realizing that, in fact, we “don’t need to worry about it in any absolute way.”

When you stop and think about it, that can be quite a relief.


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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