I was just invited to participate in an online mindfulness course geared toward health workers. During the pandemic especially, many of us have read articles or watched programs about mindfulness, as one of a myriad of self-care suggestions to keep ourselves going, but what does mindfulness really mean? Is it about meditation? Sitting cross-legged and chanting Om? Thinking about – nothing? Realizing that pain is mere delusion and we can escape it all through our mindfulness? Rise above this human condition and have nothing bother us forevermore, a heaven on earth? Not to me, at least.

One of my favorite Buddhist folk tales explains a key practicality of enlightenment in the simplest terms. A young monk approaches the master with a question he has been asking himself since arriving at the monastery. What is enlightenment? What is it really, on the ground? How will it change things? He gathers courage and in one of his mindfulness training sessions, he asks. Master, what will I do once I am enlightened? The master answers with a question. What do you do now, child? Master, I chop wood and carry water. But Master, what will I do once I am enlightened? The master smiles at the young innocent, and says, “You will chop wood and carry water.”

Moral of the story: We will still live in the world. No matter how mindful we become.

A dear friend of mine heard a lecture years ago by a renowned Eastern philosopher, who was on his first tour of the US. He observed that while people in his home country meditate to reach enlightenment, to become one with all that is, to attain nirvana, he was very surprised to find that these were not the typical goals of the Western meditator. The Westerns, he observed, had converted meditation into one of their many forms of strenuous self-improvement, like diet and exercise. They reportedly pushed themselves to do it so they could sleep better, lower their anxiety, be healthier, become happier, have better focus, and be more productive at their jobs. So these ancient traditions were transformed into one more task, rather than a path we can take to ease our minds, connect us with spirit and allow for more joy and compassion in our daily lives. I think this has been changing in many communities, and I am glad for it.

I once knew a man who was so disconnected from his feelings that I had to tell him what he was feeling. And ironically enough, when I noticed he was mad, and told him he was mad, he would claim he was not mad, but only became mad because I said he was mad. He really believed that I made him mad by noticing that he was mad. An astute young observer told me in confidence that “the reason he gets mad when you say he’s mad is because he’s embarrassed that you can tell when he’s mad before he can tell that he’s mad.” There is the extreme distance from mindfulness: dissociation. Disconnect. Lack of awareness. How can we have any hope of emotional regulation, of balance, let alone inner peace, if we don’t notice how we are feeling, if we never check in with ourselves? This is where mindfulness comes in.

A simple definition of mindfulness is cultivating the ability to know what is happening in your head at any given moment, without being carried away by it. Imagine noticing that you are getting mad before you get mad and act out. Noticing when you need a break. Noticing what thoughts are repeating themselves, and releasing them. Just being aware. Being here and now. Reflecting calmly and even with compassion – for ourselves as well as for others. And reminding ourselves that calm is just as contagious as fear and anxiety. Calm is just as contagious as impatience and frustration. We can spread calm. Within ourselves and without. And we can do so while continuing to chop wood and carry water, through our work in the world as well.