A Strong Mind and a Tender Heart

Several years ago I put my energy into learning about the psychology of forgiveness.  This search led me to the research of Everett Worthington of Virginia Commonwealth University and Robert Enright of the University of Wisconsin at Madison.  Both Drs. Worthington and Enright have published extensively in this area, both in the scientific and popular presses.  Both of them also appeared in the powerful film “The Power of Forgiveness,” released in 2007, which you can still find on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=C1-BDwAqaPg).

In The Power of Forgiveness Dr. Enright’s wife, Jeanette Enright, while working with children and educators in Belfast, Ireland, described the mindset of the forgiving person as “being tough minded but tender hearted.”  That phrase really struck me at the time I first heard it in 2007 and has stuck with me ever since.  Working with people as a Pastoral Counselor over the years I’ve heard stories of horrible perpetration, sometimes sitting with the victim/survivor of perpetration, sometimes with the perpetrator.  Except for rare instances, the people I’ve spoken with have grown tired of seeking justice through punishment or compensation for their losses.  Even people who have been compensated or seen their perpetrator punished have told me that it’s an empty outcome, that there’s no real payoff.  What I’ve learned is that healing comes when the heart grows tender once again, and punishment or compensation does nothing to soften one’s heart.

I believe in being tough minded, though I prefer to say strong minded.  I believe that a mind that is strong is one that can withstand disappointments, tolerate emotional and physical discomfort, bend but not break.  I believe that a strong mind sees each person and each event as worthy of attention and acceptance.  I believe that a strong mind is able to respond with compassion whether witnessing the consequences of suffering or the causation of suffering.  I believe that a strong mind is able to be as compassionate to the perpetrator as to the survivor.  The strong mind sees through what is most easily apparent to what is beneath, never judging, always ready to love.  The strong mind is able to notice the current of emotions as they flow, make space for them and honor them, and then respond in ways intended to resolve strong feelings and restore loving relations.

A participant in the MBSR class I’m leading along with my teaching partner Shannon Ayres asked us what having a mindfulness practice is all about.  It was a good question, and not one with any sort of standard answer.  Actually, it is a question that can be answered any number of ways, largely depending on the need and intentionality of the questioner.  But it seems to me that what we’re developing when we practice mindfulness, both in a formal sense and in an informal, moment to moment everyday sense, are strong minds and tender hearts.  We strengthen our minds through the cultivation of steady focus, the mindful gaze upon our breath, our bodies, and our minds.  We soften our hearts through our acceptance of each moment, never judging our thoughts, our distractions, our sensations, our selves.  Each time I sit with the intention to be mindful I am exercising the attention and compassion muscles of my mind.  My intention is to bring this capacity to be fully present and compassionate, cultivated within my own mind, out into the world and to the minds of each person I encounter.

One final thought arises in me.  Another person who is just learning to be mindful complained about her “monkey mind;” that is a mind that is filled with all kinds of distractions.  “I just can’t get it to stop!”  We processed this a bit, and then I wondered if there was a great benefit to having monkey mind sometimes when we sit to meditate.  When my mind is so active, so wandering, it gives me so many chances to notice the wandering mind, thus becoming mindful again, and forgive myself for not being able to focus on my breath.  Over and over I’m able to say “that’s OK Jim, that’s OK” as I gently escort the wandering mind to the simple breath that keeps me alive.  When I have monkey mind I have to exercise those focusing muscles so many times, they have to be getting stronger.  And each time I lose my focus is another opportunity to speak gently to myself in my mind’s voice.  Yes, the power of forgiveness cannot be understated.  Sometimes it is so difficult to forgive ourselves for the dreadful things we imagine we do.  Just think of how your life, and someone else’s, would change if you could easily say to yourself “that’s OK, that’s OK,” and easily say the same to another.  As Louis Armstrong sang so beautifully, what a wonderful world!



PS If you want a treat, here’s a link to listen to Louis sing about that wonderful world:

Warming Up for the Practice

I was teaching a workshop last week about cultivating a mindful classroom, and I had an interesting question posed to me by one of the attendees.  I had just led an introductory meditation.  Nothing fancy, following the breath, some body awareness, making space for whatever sensations found in a simple awareness meditation.  As is typical in such a setting, there was a mixture of experienced and novice meditators in the room, and several people who had never meditated at all.  After we were done the floor was opened up for discussion so people could talk about what it was like to use their minds that way.

One gentleman stated strongly that it was rather a waste of time.  “Nothing happened” he said, “it didn’t work.”  So we began to process what had actually happened when he heard my meditation guidance, but he interrupted me to ask this question: “Why didn’t you have us do preparation to be mindful before we did the meditation?  If you had done that then maybe it would have worked.”

At first I was a bit taken aback, as the teachings I was sharing were making clear that mindfulness isn’t something that “works” in the way he he seemed to mean.  But then I considered his actual question, his wondering if there’s something I should have done, in essence, to “warm up for the practice,” and I thought “what an excellent question!”

What do we do to prepare for a formal mindfulness practice, whether it’s breath-based sitting meditation, mindful yoga, walking meditation, or any number of the mindful practices available to us.  I began to think of my own preparation for a formal sitting session, and realized that I actually do prepare for meditation.  But the preparation is so implicit in my routine at this point, that I no longer notice it.  So I thought I would share how I prepare for meditation, in hopes that it might give readers some ideas as well.

When it’s time to get on a cushion, or walk mindfully, or do some yoga (my three preferred ways to engage in formal meditation), I become focused on my awareness that I am about to do the practice.  In becoming mindful of the intention to be mindful, I begin to slow down a bit.  The simple process of walking up the stairs to the meditation room is done with intentionality, placing attention on the sensations of stepping, climbing, the exertion of it all.  As I enter the room my mind is drawn to awareness of my breath, if it isn’t there already.  Steps are taken slowly; the cushion is placed carefully before my small shrine, or the yoga mat is put in place.  If I am walking through the gardens surrounding my home I begin by lacing my shoes or pulling a sweater over my head or striding toward the door with great focus.  In all cases, the moments leading up to the formal sitting become intense, with great moment to moment mindfulness.

I also have the great honor of leading different groups of meditators, most notably our group that meets monthly and shares deep fellowship founded in our mindfulness practices, and deepened by our conversations and communal meals (especially the meals!).  When preparing to meditate with this group, most of whom were meditation students with me at one time or another, I’ll often read literature that is directly about mindfulness or invokes a mindful quality.  Sometimes poetry, sometimes prose, and sometimes a podcast interview with a great teacher.  All of these resources are inspirational, and a great “warm up” again to leading our formal practice as a group.

I suppose what I am saying is that we can begin our meditation practice by becoming mindful moment to moment.  And the moment to begin being mindful is…..now!  The moment I rise from my cushion or mat or walk away from my garden, that is the moment to be mindful, and, in a way, that becomes the moment in which I am preparing for my next period of formal meditation.  What a beautiful way to live!

The issue, then, comes down to this:  It’s not “when do I start to warm up for my next formal practice period” but rather “why would I ever STOP warming up for my formal practice!”

So go out there and get ready to be meditative, be mindful, in every moment of every day.  Set the intention to live this way.  And learn from our friends in Alcoholics Anonymous who say “we seek progress, not perfection.”  We all get mindless from time to time, but as long as your intention is true, you will find your mindless times shorter and shorter in duration.