A couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to attend a day long mindfulness retreat with Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. This was a wonderful experience for a variety of reasons including the luxury of devoting a full day to building my mindfulness practice with wisdom and guided exercises (meditation, mindful lunch, mindful walking, etc.). However, the message from this that I have come back to over and over and shared with others is this,
This is far too serious a matter to take too seriously.
He was talking about this at the retreat in terms of the challenges of global terrorism as the retreat was happening shortly after bombings in Paris. I also heard him use this same phrase in talking with Krista Tippet in an On Being podcast referring to the challenges of being present and creating a healthy sense of self in an age of technology and social media.
I’ve come back to this again and again as I see myself, others, organizations, and society in general grappling with really critical and difficult problems. This quote has become a helpful reminder that holding on to challenges too tightly can prevent us from seeing possibilities, solutions, and space for opportunity. When we take our problems too seriously, we might be getting in our way of addressing them as effectively as possible. By finding space for humor, we don’t make them any less real or urgent, but we create space for creativity, innovation, and new thinking.
The Middle Path
I often am reminding individuals and organizations wrestling with really difficult problems, that they might be better off if they cared a little bit less. At first, many are shocked (or appalled) because they are so committed and passionate about the issue, the people, or the cause that to suggest that they care a little bit less feels like an affront to their values. However, I’m not suggesting that they don’t care at all. I am suggesting that caring too much is getting in their way of being able to see new possibilities and solutions. I’m suggesting practicing what Buddhist’s would describe as non-attachment or the “the middle path.”
On one hand, we have the path of caring too much. On this path we are holding onto the issue or the need to address it SO tightly that we are unable to see any possibilities, new ways of thinking, or we end up paralyzed to inaction because any action could be too risky. This is a path of fear, anxiety, risk aversion, and the status quo.
On the other hand, we have the path of not caring at all. On this path we are indifferent to everything without values, commitments, or people we care about. This path leads up to inauthenticity and living a lonely and soulless life out of integrity.
The middle path is the path where we hold on lightly. We keep perspective. We realize that things are important but they are also impermanent and constantly changing. What and who we care about so deeply shifts and changes over time. Buddhist describe the middle path as the path of wisdom, because it allows for our commitments but it also allows for possibilities.
Could caring a little bit less about your job make you better at work by fostering less stress and more joy and more innovation and creativity? Could you letting go a little bit help you to become a better parent? Could you hold on a little less tightly to relationships that are important to you, so that you could be more present in those relationships, rather than constantly worried they might change or end?