“In the event of an emergency, please put on your oxygen mask first before assisting others.”
I usually don’t take life advice from corporations that cram me into a metal tube, give me a bag of pretzels, and hurtle me from place to place across the earth at 400 mph, but in the case of the above quotation, the advice is sound. The words are akin to Gospel in self-help culture, and the quote and variations of it (“Fill your cup first”) can be found everywhere. Several thousand years before we put these words on a coffee mug, Siddhartha Gautama, “the Buddha,” taught this concept, albeit in a slightly different fashion.
Thus far, my discussion of mindfulness and meditation practice has been largely self-centered. I’ve talked about my practice, some of my personal and professional challenges, and how the practice of mindfulness through meditation has improved my perspective, my relationships, and my life. I have a forum for these thoughts here on Choralnet, and I post here with the implicit assumption that my experience may somehow be applicable to your lives. The connections I’ve made throughout my career in conducting and teaching have led me to believe that my experiences are not wholly unique. The plane is crashing, and I have put my oxygen mask on.
What I have not yet made explicit, and where secular, corporate Mindfulness diverges from the Buddhist religion is purpose. The purpose of mainstream Mindfulness is unapologetically self-centered: be more productive, be more effective, be happier. What’s in it for me? Buddhism, by contrast, has an unselfish purpose. Buddhists practice self-mastery through self-awareness to liberate themselves from the confines of the self (and the cycle of life and death) with the express purpose of helping others to do the same. The purpose of life is to alleviate suffering in oneself and in others.
The beauty of this is even the most self-centered practitioner of Westernized t-shirt and coffee mug mindfulness can have a positive effect on the other people in their lives. When you are mindful of your speech, your relationships will improve, and you will find yourself needing to apologize to others less frequently. When you are balanced and grounded, you will have the energy to be the best teacher and conductor that you are capable of being, and you will be able withstand any of the inevitable challenges that life will throw at you. When you are mindful of your own flaws and limitations, you have the capacity to be more forgiving of the imperfections of others.
Now, imagine if serving others was your purpose and you saw mindfulness as tool to serve others. This term, I have two classes in a row in the same room, ten minutes apart. Putting aside the “to be on time is to be late, to be early is to be on time” nonsense that was drilled into me as a child – the person who said that never had to get across a college campus in 10 minutes — I take a short walk down the hallway between these classes. I take a few deep breaths and try to put aside whatever happened in class #1 before I start class #2. I put aside both the good and the bad because I’ve learned that what happened in class #1 won’t necessarily happen in class #2. As I’m walking, I internally rearticulate my goals for class #2. Sometimes I refill my water bottle. I’ve made a mindful decision to take time for a short reset so I can be at my best for class #2, and it directly improves my performance and the overall experience of class #2. I’m always on time for class #2 (thank you) and on some occasions, I’ll slow down a student who is rushing by me to get to my class. (Because, seriously, is the student frantically running by me eating a sandwich because they have four classes in a row going to be performing that much better if they are in their seat 5 minutes before class rather than 3 minutes?) Put on your oxygen mask first, then assist others. Just like it says on the t-shirt.
Steve Grives, D.M.A., is a choral conductor, certified meditation teacher, and Visiting Professor of Music at Shepherd University, Shepherdstown, West Virginia. He can be reached with questions or comments through his email, . For further thoughts on mindfulness and some short, guided meditations listen to “Midweek Meditation” on “The Steve Grives Podcast” available on your preferred podcast platform or at https://anchor.fm/steve-grives