For several years now, the word “mindfulness” has saturated American culture. The extent to which it’s been propelled into the mainstream is seen in the books published in the country. From 1979 to 2008, usage of the term increased 807 percent. But this wunderkind of modern psychology, business consultants and the media isn’t new; it stems from centuries-old traditions, one of which is Buddhism, known for its deep-rooted meditation methods. In an updated edition to Buddhism for Busy People: Finding Happiness in a Hurried World, British author David Michie uses an “unashamedly personal account” to explain core elements of Buddhism and their use in day-to-day life.
Mindfulness is often promoted for stress reduction, whether through conventional meditation or more informally taking time to clear your mind and pay attention to the present moment. This mass market mindfulness helps explain why it’s fashionable but it’s a tiny, secularized element of Buddhism. First published in the U.S. in 2008, Michie’s book helps illustrate why mindfulness and Buddhism attract increased interest.
Affluence is a hallmark of modern western society. Yet those Michie calls “the luckiest 10 percent of the human population” also are plagued with “grinding dissatisfaction.” The situation hasn’t improved since Buddhism for Busy People was originally published in Australia in 2004. The internet, mobile technology and social media dramatically increased the demands on our time and attention.
Buddhism aims to shift the focus of busy people, Michie says. The goal is not to control what’s happening around us but to take control of our how we experience the world. This all proceeds from the Buddha’s Four Noble Truths. Buddhism for Busy People delves most comprehensively and comprehensibly into the first two.
Dukkha, the first noble truth, is most often described as “suffering.” Yet, Michie notes, it embodies the concept that our underlying state of mind is dissatisfaction. That is explained by the second noble truth, samudhaya. According to Michie, we yearn for objects or goals but once achieved they don’t live up to our expectations or, if they do, it is short-lived. We think our happiness is dependent on some object, person or situation when, in fact, we alone determine our state of mind. Ultimately, we “keep deluding ourselves that the achievement of some particular milestone will represent a major personal breakthrough. But after sometimes the shortest of honeymoons we wake up one morning and discover we’re still just us.”
Michie details the purpose and goals of meditation, as well as particular exercises. Like virtually all books on the topic, though, it is much easier to write about specific practices than for the reader to successfully implement them. Other aspects of Buddhism and its practices are addressed largely through Michie’s own experiences. Sadly, only a certain percentage of readers have comparable firsthand access to Buddhist organizations, centers and teachers like Michie. He does deserve credit for his intriguing exploration of the concept of karma. In essence, “[t]he desire to give others happiness (love) or prevent their suffering (compassion) in the past was the karmic cause of our current life.”
Buddhism for Busy People also examines compassion and its role in finding happiness in daily life. Michie views “Self” as the most significant and deeply rooted obstacle.
We do our best to make [Self] feel special, brilliant, successful, popular, wealthy, powerful, enlightened or whatever trip he happens to be on. Most frightening of all, somewhere along the line we allow Self to so dominate our consciousness that we even start to think of him as our essence. Our true being. Our “real me.”
From a Buddhist perspective, this indulgence is responsible for “all our dissatisfaction, every last ache of suffering we experience.” The antidote, Michie says, is the altruistic bodhichitta. Instead of letting Self dominate the mind, bodhichitta calls for thinking of others with profound compassion in the hope of freeing all living beings from suffering. Like many Buddhist concepts, understanding what to do isn’t hard, it’s actually doing it that is most difficult. Michie suggests generosity, ethical behavior and patience are the keys to implementing it in daily life.
With both this and the concept of karma, Buddhism for Busy People ventures into the fundamental Buddhist tenet that when a person dies they are reborn and the process continues until they attain nirvana. Because each life is just part of our ongoing mind stream, today’s (and yesterday’s) actions and thoughts affect our future mind stream. While many of us may find this a dubious concept, Michie says that in Buddhism “it is what you do that counts, not what you say you believe.”
Michie is adept at using his own experiences and those of friends and colleagues to illustrate his theses, as well as Buddhist concepts and practices. The extent to which they assist understanding will be in the eye of each reader. Overall, though, Buddhism for Busy People concisely and distinctly provides a deeper understanding of how and why mindfulness and meditation are of such interest and practical advice on implementing the concepts into everyday life.
Michie’s ultimate and most fundamental message may be epitomized by his observation that “true happiness arises when we are able to change our minds rather than the world around us, when we loosen the bonds of self-focus enough to care more for others.” And one certainly need not be a full-fledged Buddhist to agree.