For mindfulness to have any ethical weight, it must involve looking out at the world. It’s not enough to just sit there and be concerned with oneself. Some teach that the practice won’t even work if that’s all you do. It’s a beautiful teaching: Yes, you can liberate yourself, but the catch is, there is no liberation of self without the liberation of all beings. Justice is a precondition of enlightenment.

But, to my Western-conditioned mind, it’s harder to deal with the outside than the inside. I may struggle mightily with my habits and tendencies, but at least I can generate an illusion of comprehending them. Even if I’m only fooling myself into thinking I can grasp my own problems, that gives me confidence to keep facing them, and that’s all it takes to make a breakthrough.

But the world’s problems? It’s hard to even try to understand those. Right now, California is on fire, my friends’ houses are burning down, and apparently police think one of these fires was deliberately set by a crazy person. How can we sympathize with that?

I guess the point is not to comprehend the actions or motivations, but to identify with the suffering. The desire to “burn it all down” could describe precisely this frustration with the inability to comprehend the world. The thing is, as the Buddha said, everything is already ablaze. Striving to set it on fire is useless. All we can do is avoid getting burned, so we can do the work to put it out.