Our body’s immune system is an amazing thing. I’ve heard that we are exposed to about 60,000 different germs every day, yet we rarely become sick. Though we come in contact with all those different bacteria and viruses, we don’t become sick because our immune system prevents them from entering our cells. If these potential pathogens aren’t allowed into our body’s cells, they can’t make us sick. Our immune system allows us to contact all these germs safely.
We can think of mindfulness as the backbone of our mind’s immune system. It allows the mind to contact all sorts of things that might make us sick if allowed to enter our hearts. Things enter our heart and mind when we identify with them. Once we take something to be me or mine, it has already entered our cells, and may start to make us sick. Mindfulness creates some space around what is encountered in our daily lives so that it isn’t immediately absorbed into the heart/mind.
There are all sorts of potential mental pathogens that we are exposed to every day: physical pain and illness, a moment of sadness or grief, a moment of worry or fear, a flash of anger, it is even possible for joyful exuberance to make us ill at times. When mindfulness is strong, we can come into contact with all these things, and clearly know them in the present moment, without identifying with them and bringing them inside so that they become part of us. The “clearly knowing” part is important. Our mindfulness-based immune system is an active system. It’s not that we are just trying to ignore things. We need to see them clearly and knowingly let them pass – just as our physical immune system is not a passive system, but actively engages with what it is encountering.
Of course, for this mental immune system to be effective, it needs to be operating all the time as we never know when a mental germ might show up. If our immune system is down, these things can just walk into our hearts. We need to strive to keep our mental immune system functioning continuously, just as our physical immune system is always running. If our body’s immune system only worked for an hour every Saturday, or for 20 minutes every morning, it wouldn’t do us much good. Our weekly sangha meetings or daily sitting practices are like booster shots for our mental immune system, but to be protected, we really need to try to keep it running all the time.
This is why, in the Mahasati tradition, we teach people to be mindful while their bodies are moving and their eyes are open. From the get-go, we are trying to help people see that it’s possible to keep one’s mental immune system running all the time, regardless of the activities that one is engaged in. We try to help them see that it is possible to encounter thousands of potential pathogens a day, and to know them all clearly in the present moment, without allowing them to enter our hearts and make us ill.