By Mr. Justin Maaia
We are all connected. To lose sight of this connection brings suffering, while to remain mindful of it brings joy. Mindfulness is the way we keep sight of our interconnectedness.
How are we all connected? First, everything in the known universe started out as just one thing. A singularity, as physicists call it. Then the Big Bang happened, starting us on the course of endless diversity that we have today. But this current fact of diversity cannot erase the original fact of our oneness. For one thing, there is the universe’s cosmic microwave background, or “relic radiation.” This is the electromagnetic radiation that still exists from the time of the big bang, stretching throughout all space and time.
Most people aren’t surveying the universe with a radio telescope, so how do we know this prior oneness is still a fact? Just take it away for a moment—as we did sometime around mid-March of 2020—and our interconnectedness becomes instantly apparent. We are relational beings, and every one of our actions has some bearing on everyone and everything else around us. That is why we have to be mindful.
What we call “mindfulness” can be found in every life-philosophy I have encountered. Buddhist sammā-sati, or “right mindfulness”, Christian “contemplative living,” and the Hindu Bhagavad Gita’s injunction to “Perform every act without concern for the results” are just three examples. Why does this practice emerge in every culture?
Compare the following scenarios:
Scenario #1: I stand hunched over the kitchen sink, doing the dishes with resentment because I have a vague idea it isn’t my night to do them. I rush my way through washing, breaking a dish along the way. Exhausted, I finish cleaning up by taking the trash out. As I rip the bag from its container, a giant gash appears and wet garbage floods the floor. Family members scurry to other corners of the house as they hear swear words coming from the kitchen. I re-bag the trash, take it outside, and return to the kitchen in a huff to mop the floor.
Scenario #2: I stand at the kitchen sink, gently washing each item. I am grateful for these beautiful dishes that play such a central role in my family’s nutritious, lively dinners. After I finish the last dish, I look down at the trash. As I gently lift the bag from its container, I notice a tear starting to form in the bag. I grab a new bag and double-bag it so that there is no mess. I skip down the hall to take out the trash, feeling accomplished and knowing that my work is done for the day.
As a cancer survivor, I live every day in relationship with death. This sounds dark, I know. But that awareness, that mindfulness, is what makes me aware and grateful for the gift of life every day. That is why I try and practice scenario #2. Sometimes I fail, but that is why we call it “practice.” We have a chance to practice every single moment of our day. Every morning when I turn on my computer and open my Zoom room, I greet my students with a smile. And you know what? They smile back. Despite the early hour, despite the pandemic, despite all they are dealing with, they smile back. And maybe those smiles aren’t entirely willful. Maybe some of those smiles are only the result of mirror-neurons firing, forcing my poor students to flex muscles they aren’t emotionally ready to flex yet that day. But it doesn’t matter: The flexing happens, the muscle memory links their body-minds with all of the genuine smiles and joy and laughter they have ever experienced, and the day gets better. That is interconnectedness. That is the power of mindfulness.
I just realized I am not being entirely truthful here. The Zoom scenario actually starts a bit earlier. I open my Zoom room, harried by thoughts of all that I need to remember for my class. Then my first student signs on, the same one every day at 8:15am, and she smiles at me. Despite the early hour, despite the pandemic, despite all that she has going on in her life, despite my lack of smile, she smiles at me. Now I am smiling. And now all the other students come online, forced by their mirror neurons to smile, to tap into their deep well of good feelings, to make each other’s mornings a little better with their dialogue and ideas and good cheer. That is the power of one person’s mindful smile to tap into our interconnectedness and transform the world.
The more we can remain mindful of the ever-present miracle of life, its endless diversity and its never-ending oneness, the more joy we will bring to ourselves and to each other.