The aim of mindfulness is to know suffering fully. It entails paying calm, unflinching attention to whatever impacts the organism, be it the song of a lark or the scream of a child, the bubbling of a playful idea or a twinge in the lower back. You attend not just to the outward stimuli themselves, but equally to your inward reactions to them. You do not condemn what you see as your failings or applaud what you regard as success. You notice things come, you notice them go.
Mindfulness can have a sobering effect on the restless, jittery psyche. The stiller and more focused it becomes, the more I am able to peer into the sources of my reactivity, to catch the first stirring of hatred before it overwhelms me with loathing and spite, to observe with ironic detachment the conceited babbling of the ego, to notice at its inception the self-demeaning story that could tip me into depression.
And I am not the only one who suffers. You suffer too. Every sentient creature suffers. When my self is no longer the all-consuming preoccupation it once was, when I see it as one narrative thread among myriad others, when I understand it to be as contingent and transient as anything else, then the barrier that separates “me” from “not me” begins to crumble. The conviction of being a closed cell of self is not only delusive but anesthetic. It numbs me to the suffering of the world. To embrace suffering culminates in greater empathy, the capacity to feel what it is like for the other to suffer, which is the ground for compassion and love.
Excerpted from Confession of a Buddhist Atheist, by Stephen Batchelor