I’m not alone in feeling that the practice of mindfulness has utterly transformed my life. When I say that Zen gave me my life, I’m basically talking about mindfulness – that simple and life-changing instruction to pay close attention to what’s happening, beyond any judgement or conceptualization, in each moment. To notice that I’m alive.
That deep debt notwithstanding, the “Mindfulness Movement” bugs me. (And I’m not alone in this either!) It bugs me like maybe only family really can, and on a lot of counts, not all of which are even consistent with each other. For instance, it bugs me that it’s too secular, and it bugs me that it’s too Buddhist. The list goes on.
Instead of just griping, though, I want to offer an alternative word. A companion word that offers a useful angle on Buddhist practice.
This is menmitsu – “attention to detail.” “Continuous intimacy.” “Soft and subtleness.” “Warm-hearted, thorough diligence.” Suzuki Roshi says that it is to be “very considerate… very careful in doing things.” This menmitsu is the defining character of the Soto Sect – it is the flavor, the style of the lineage (menmitsu no kafū 綿密の家風).
Menmitsu is about caring for things. And of course we can’t care for things without some basic attention; of course “mindfulness” underlies menmitsu.
But there is an important difference. Mindfulness as it’s usually taught points inward. That makes sense – “inside” is where we spiritual types think the real deal is. (Thank you, Descartes.) Menmitsu points outward. Outward. To relationships with people and (maybe especially) with objects.
Volumes have been (and are currently being) written about how “mindfulness” – what could have been a powerful antidote to the excesses of our age – instead risks being swallowed up by the narcissistic, gain-oriented, capitalistic self-improvement culture we live and breathe in. It’s about how I feel, and what I’ll get. What matters is me.
Menmitsu, as an enactment of the immutable truth of the total connectedness of all things, includes but is not fundamentally about looking within, or about any kind of inner awareness. Menmitsu isn’t about an inner state. It’s about taking care of things. It’s not about me; it’s about the fork, the dish, the person I’m looking at.
That shift from “me” to “you” goes hand in hand with another transformative shift, from “what can I get” to “what can I give.” Mindfulness, at least as it’s being sold around town, can seem like something I will get – something for me, by me, about me. And of course our self-centered, gain-oriented patterns will follow us into any practice we take up, but menmitsu is more sharp, more clear on this point: it is about what I can give, not what I can get. If we’re going to live in the world of “you” and “me,” let’s at least see the practice as something from me, not something for me.
How about letting that one take over our culture? How about a Menmitsu Movement?
[I say some more about menmitsu in a recent public talk.]