essays on suffering and awakening

Mindfulness practice: how do we affect others?

I once woke up to find our kitchen sink brimming with stinky brown water that had already poured down to form puddles on the floor beneath. The drain had clogged the night before, and the pipe was on a line shared with the neighbors upstairs. As I mopped, I told myself it was just dirty dishwater, and hoped that I was right. Eventually, a plumber came and fixed the sink, but not before I had to clean up several more floods.

My mood then was grim. Now, what strikes most me when I think about that day was that our neighbors had no idea what was going on below. They didn’t realize that they were flooding our apartment and putting a real damper on my day. They were just going about their ordinary business—and by doing so, their business became ours.

At enough of a remove, the whole experience becomes a fascinating reminder that everything we do affects others. We might never know whose lives we touch and how. Only that we do, simply by living our own.

For me, this makes living mindfully, consciously, and aware of what I’m doing an important practice to follow. The question: how does what I am doing now affect others is a good one to ask if we can muster the presence of mind to do so. Most of us are aware of the big stuff—that it’s a good idea not to physically harm anyone, for example. But how often do we consider that even our most boring daily routines, from using our phones to buying groceries to washing dishes, ripple into the lives of others?

It’s a big question, and the asking is best accompanied by a generous dose of self-forgiveness. The key aspect of any practice is that it’s practice. I may cause harm in one way or another every day, but if I can pay attention, I can keep that harm to a minimum today and try again tomorrow. Or at least that’s the idea.

We don’t always know whose kitchen floor we’re spilling on, but somewhere, someone is probably mopping. What can we do to keep the overflow down?

Ian Cooper