…ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.John F Kennedy
Every society is made up of a collection of individuals, and it is these very individuals who create the culture of the society in which they live. Culture, in it’s turn, influences what individual members are taught to believe or to see as acceptable ways of behaving. Sometimes this gives a sense of belonging, yet at others times it falls into rediculous stereotypes. All Scots eat Haggis, toss the caber and wear the kilt. The English eat roast beef. All Australians wear corks on their hats and box with kangaroos.
Culture sets up the necessary conditions for a society to flourish. If the conditions we choose are beneficial, then our society will thrive. However, if the ideals and beliefs underlying a culture are negative and racist, for instance, then that society will foster similar attributes in it’s members, and so become a self-perpetuating somewhat deviant way of organising our world.
We are all dependent on what we are taught when we are young, and then on what we choose to learn and accept as we grow up. We all seem to accept too much on trust. The saying about not believing everything we read in the papers seems to hold true today more than ever. So we make assumptions – the police would not arrest someone unless they had good reason, or that governments work in the best interests of their citizens, often based on the coverage given to these issues by news organisations that have their own agendas, or the biases we picked up at our parents’ knees. This does not seem to be the healthiest of recipes for creating enduring happiness or harmony in the world.
Although there is a lot of agreement that happiness is good for people, there remains a considerable degree of debate about how best to achieve this. Should the focus be on altering the way that society works so that it is possible for people to be happier? Should the concentration be on the individual and the workings of their internal world, and by helping them to live a much happier life, influence the society in which we all live? The Dalai Llama famously stated that there was no real argument here, and that the concentration of effort should be on both areas. The two models generated by this debate would seem to go hand in hand, one being both a cause and effect of the other.
William Shakespeare famously asserted that no man was an island
One beneficial way to bring about such a change focusses on the development of the individual. There is growing evidence that the levels of well being and happiness of a community increase in areas where there are meditation centres; even among those who do not attend them. This may well be due to the benefits of living in a happier society, and the effects that this has on generating greater happiness in the individual, as well as providing a safe environment in which to practice.
The main form of meditation that seems to generate these benefits is mindfulness. Mindfulness meditation helps us to challenge what we have been taught to believe, and does so by increasing our focus and awareness of what is happening right here, right now. This focus on the present moment helps to create greater clarity about cause and effect. Helping us to understand our thoughts and feelings.
We come to see that all things are interdependent. That causes lead to effects, and that these effects, in their turn, can act as further causes in their own right. It is not unusual for this to be a circular phenomenon, where the effect generates its own cause in a never ending iteration.
If we were to stop to consider, in a fully mindful way, what we were doing right now, perhaps drinking a cup of coffee, it can be quite overwhelming to consider just how many people and processes have been involved in giving us our momentary pleasure. From the people who first planted and harvested coffee, to those who continue to do so to this day, everybody involved in the supply chain, moving the coffee from the country in which it has been grown, to the place where we are drinking it. The Artisan roaster who has created our favourite blend. The sugar manufacturers and growers, the dairy farmers, and even the potter who made the cup or the barrista who served it.
mindfulness generates a great deal of energy both in the self and in our community
William Shakespeare famously asserted that no man was an island and this is certainly borne out by the global economy which clearly demonstrates the interdepe6of all things. Mindfulness helps to generate more awareness and greater clarity of how other people affect us, and how our actions, in their turn, affect other people. This sense of unity tends to generate a much stronger sense of compassion and empathy for all those others with whom we share this planet. Out of this mindful awareness comes a greater tendency to act differently in the world we inhabit.
We tend to be kinder, and to be much more compassionate, meaning that we are much more on the look out both for ourselves and other people. Happier individuals generate happiness in those around them, and this synergistic effect tends to act in a positive cycle. When we act differently, it has effects on others that can amplify our attempts to change the conditions in which we live. The idea that we should pay forward, rather than pay back, has much to recommend it.
The effect is to create lasting changes in society that make it easier to live a happier life. Working to develop our senses of empathy, compassion, and kindness inevitably leads to more active engagement in the world and reinforces the move away from the passive quietude in which most of us seem to exist.
Developing a stronger sense of community, based locally, and working together on a wider basis, can underpin the development of a much stronger societies. Using mindfulness to increase general levels of individual happiness, and so improving our peace of mind, is one way to do this.
If we change ourselves, then we can change the world. Stronger communities will lead to the development of greater trust. We can move away from focusing on weaknesses and vices, and instead concentrate our attention on people’s strengths and virtues. If we are mindful of the world we can appreciate people for who they are, rather than feeling the need to build them up just so that they can be torn down again.
The practice of mindfulness, whether this be in the form of day-to-day mindful living or through practising more formal mindfulness meditation, generates a great deal of energy both in the self and in our community. Mindfulness is, by it’s very nature, activism in action. By using such practices we can help to set up the conditions for a happier life for ourselves and others, and start to tear down the walls that divide our own societies and keep us apart and in conflict.
We can change the world one breath at a time.