Many Buddhist teachers, especially in the Zen tradition, would contend that the entirety of the dharma can be realized through clear and awake presence in this moment. Inasmuch as my own most powerful experiences of awakening have come through simple presence, I would agree with that sentiment. So, given that I acknowledge the power of mindfulness, and given its professional acceptance and empirical support in Western psychology, why do I want to spend time thinking and writing about other concepts and techniques of Buddhism?
My primary reason for doing so is that there are innumerable gateways to presence, and for many of us, training ourselves to stay with the breath (or body, sound, etc.) can be a difficult undertaking. As much as we want peace, we also crave constant excitement, and we live in an overstimulating world. For those of us accustomed to using our minds analytically and getting things done by force of will, slowing down and letting go can be exasperating. Unable to do something as seemingly simple as being still, we then add self-judgment. I can’t begin to count the number of times I’ve had thoughts like “I’m not cut out for meditation,” or “I’m a bad meditator.” Early negative experiences make it unlikely that we’ll persevere long enough to experience the fruits of meditation.
Those using mindfulness-based therapies have attempted to address this problem by utilizing brief initial experiences with mindfulness or employing techniques like walking meditation. While these approaches are certainly beneficial, I believe we should consider expanding our toolboxes by employing techniques not directly related to mindfulness. In particular, I often think of Buddhism as having two wings, mindfulness and compassion, and the latter has generally received short shrift in Western psychology (though that is beginning to change). In a society in which alienation and self-judgment seem endemic, I believe the development of compassion, especially self-compassion, is a valuable practice in its own right, and can also improve our ability to pay attention to the present moment in a non-judgmental way—and to bring ourselves back when we notice that we’ve become lost in thought. For our own happiness and for the world we live in, an awakened heart is every bit as important as a receptive mind.