Mindfulness is an Act of Love

Whenever I introduce mindfulness meditation to a group of people largely unfamiliar with the practice there are certain types of responses that are pretty typical when I ask the question “What was it like to use your mind that way?”  Some will say “relaxing,” some will say “awful,” and others will say pretty much everything in between.  Occasionally someone will tell me that “I’m not very good  at this,” and I think that’s the most important response of all.

What does it mean to be “good” at mindfulness meditation?  I hope that someone can tell me, because I surely don’t know!  I’ve been meditating for quite a while and I don’t think I’m particularly “good” at it either if I were to apply the standards that people seem to use.

At a recent gathering I led a brief breath meditation for a group of mostly non-meditators.  After I asked what it was like to use your mind that way a woman I’ll call “Deb” told me she wasn’t very good at meditating, and as she did so she looked down at the floor, in a way that seemed to me to indicate that she was embarrassed at her “failure.”  I asked her what she meant and she said “my mind kept wandering off throughout the meditation.”  I asked her “did you notice it wandering off?”  She said she did, every time.  “And then you returned your attention to your breath, and then it wandered again?”  She said “yes, over and over again.”  Then I asked her “when you noticed it had wandered, did you think “I’m awful at this” or did you think “that’s OK, that’s OK Deb, that’s just what minds do”?  She answered the latter, that she had told herself it was OK to have a wandering mind.  I asked her how it felt to tell herself it was OK to have a wandering mind, and she said “it felt good.”

After this exchange I smiled broadly and exclaimed “Deb, you’re an expert meditator!”  “I am?”  I said “of course you are.  You noticed your wandering mind every time, and returned it to your breath every time, without judging yourself.  That’s what it means to be mindful: to notice the activity of mind in the present moment, without judging yourself.  That was hard work, but you persisted.  Well done!”  Deb looked happy, relieved, and, frankly, hopeful.  I asked her what it would be like to practice for 10 or 15 minutes every morning and every evening, training the mind to be present and not judging.  She said that might be a good thing to do, and she might give it a try.

In that moment, as Deb looked at me feeling at ease, I asked her “who is your harshest critic, Deb?”  I asked her that because she had shown such a shame response earlier when she told me that she wasn’t very good at meditating.  Deb looked away from me, toward the floor, and said “I am.”  I looked around the room and so many faces were looking down, and I realized how self shaming so many of us are.  I turned back to Deb and asked her if training her mind to say “that’s OK Deb, that’s OK” might be helpful to her.  Crying softly now, Deb told me that she never thinks like that, in a self forgiving way, but that she would work on this and maybe become less self shaming, gentler with herself.  She smiled and said “maybe if I trained my mind to be kind to myself I’d be kinder to other people too.”

Imagine that.  Imagine training your mind to be aware in the moment, but always with the intention to accept and forgive.  In other words, imagine having a strong mind and a tender heart.  Imagine that when someone is unkind to you or antagonistic or angry, if instead of feeling defensive or ashamed of yourself, you were able to stay present with that person (strong minded) and wonder “what has happened to this person?” (tender hearted) instead of “what’s wrong with this person?” (hard hearted).  I’ve come to the conclusion after many years of observation that the unkindness or antagonism or anger of another person is not about me, and is evidence in the moment of their suffering.  Imagine having a compassionate response in those moments.  How would that affect your relationship life?

Practicing mindfulness is an act of love.  In our formal practice we cultivate a deep feeling of compassion toward ourselves, a gentleness to our own suffering and anguish.  In so doing, we are able then to practice metta, or lovingkindness meditation, in which we allow ourselves to feel deep compassion for the people in our lives.  Having brought compassion to the deepest parts of our own being, we become more deeply compassionate in a world that is thirsting for love and forgiveness.  As our capacity for love strengthens, we truly come to understand what Gandhi meant when he said “Be the change you wish to see in the world.”  For as our gaze becomes compassionate, and our neighbors feel our compassion, you’ll notice more often than not compassion is returned.  Your love returned for love, your love returned for hatred, love simply returned in every moment.

This may seem unlikely to you, but take time to gaze at a newborn infant.  Notice how it returns your gaze, and how its gaze has nothing but attention and love in it.  Then you’ll know that lovingkindness is not earned, it is our birthright.  And with a mindfulness meditation practice, you’ll come back to your original self, back to the loving being you were born to be.

Peace,

Jim

Watch Me Pop Pop, Watch Me!

On Thanksgiving Day my wife and I traveled to visit our daughter and her husband, but most important of all, our grandson Ian.  Ian is about two and a half years old, and I don’t think I exaggerate when I say he’s the cutest and most wonderful two and a half year old boy on the planet.  He is witty and wise, adventurous, always curious, and most of the time very gentle.  Spotting a band aid on my finger that day he looked mournfully at me, pulled my finger to his lips and kissing it said “I a little sad.  Pop pop has a boo boo.”

So on that Thanksgiving Day, while waiting for the massive turkey our son in law was roasting, my wife (mom mom) and I took Ian into his yard to run off some energy and have some fun.  We ran and played and enjoyed a delightful autumn day.  But then Ian got serious, pointing out all of the acorns on the ground under an oak tree and telling us that “the ‘quirrels like to eat the acorns.”  It should be noted that Ian hasn’t yet figured out how to say the letter “s” when it begins a word.  So you may think he is looking for his “tool,” but he actually wants his “stool.”

In any case, Ian went on to say that “the ‘quirrels are hungry” and that if we picked up the acorns and put them in a pile then “the ‘quirrels will be very happy.”  Ian then directed his mom mom to go “over there” to pick up the acorns.  When I volunteered to do the same Ian put up his right hand, very dramatically, in the universally recognized sign to “STOP,” and said with great firmness, “NO, pop pop, you stay here and watch.”  This led my wife to retort “once again the women work while the men watch,” a charge I accept as likely to be true.  So I stayed in my place, and waited to see what would happen next.

After making sure that I was in exactly the right spot, Ian proceeded to say with great exuberance “watch me pop pop, watch me!” and then ran toward the acorn gathering spot.  Halfway there he stopped and turned, and I smiled, clapped, and waved, to which he grinned broadly and continued to run, turning to look back to make sure I was still watching.  It was then that I realized something so simple that I overlook it again and again: how much we all yearn to simply be seen.  Ian wanted to be seen, that’s all.  He took such delight each time he looked up and saw me watching him, and saw the delight in my gaze as he gazed in delight back at me.

We all have some basic needs.  Abraham Maslow, in his hierarchy of needs, noted that physiological and safety needs were foundational, but that our need to be loved was paramount to both.  And, in a way, the foundation of loving is simply being willing to see the other person, and the fulfillment of being loved is in knowing that we are seen in return by those who mean the most to us.  Ian’s world of beloved people include his mama and dada, his grandma and grandpa, and his mom mom and pop pop.  For Ian, being seen means everything, and I think simply being seen means everything to each of us.

Safety and being seen.  To those of us who are therapists we know how important these two qualities are.  No therapy client can do the hard work of psychotherapy without feeling safe, without feeling seen.  Safety and seen-ness are felt experiences; the person whose presence transmits these qualities is a very special person indeed.  And it may be that once a person truly feels safe and seen one’s psychic and emotional wounds begin to heal spontaneously.

I am writing this post in mid-December, a time of year called Advent to the billions of Christians around the world.  Many people mistake Advent as “pre-Christmas,” a time to shop and buy and visit Santa Claus at the Mall and go to parties and drink egg nog.  I’m not against these sorts of things; I enjoy them myself.  But from the spiritual perspective Advent is a time of waiting and watching, a time of anticipating the emergence of the Divine in a material world consumed with the mundane.  Who is it that we wait and watch for?  We can answer in religious ways, saying “the baby Jesus” or the angels announcing his birth and sing versions of Handel’s Messiah and feel quite content.  As for me, I’m waiting and watching for the Divine in the form of my neighbor.  And who is my neighbor?  Ask that of Jesus, and you’ll get a story about the outcast, the despised person, a lowly Samaritan.  In this Advent, your Advent, whether you are Christian or not, you may want to ask yourself this question: who is it that you truly watch for?  Who is it that you truly see and make safe?  Your answer to those questions will tell you what it means to you to be spiritual in this world.  Answer carefully, as we live in a day and age when it is dangerous to be the outcast and the despised, and dangerous to be a person seeking to see and make safe the outcast and the despised.

Mindfulness: the intention to “see,” both literally and metaphorically, the entire bandwidth of phenomenal experience.  Not judging what we see, accepting everything that comes within the range of our gaze.  All Ian wants is to be safe and to be seen.  Will you do that for the people you meet today?

Peace,

Jim

PS Here’s a photo of Ian with his Pop Pop getting on “the BIG train!”

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A Simple Solution

A few weeks ago I led a short retreat for a group of people in our Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program along with my teaching partner, Shannon Ayres.  It was a gorgeous November day, a bit blustery and cold but fueled by the inner warmth of our shared spiritual journeys.  We were joined by our current students and by old friends as well, which made the day very special.

During the course of the day one of the current MBSR students described her version of “monkey mind,” an affliction we’ve all experienced.  She said that when her mind wandered repeatedly she discovered a scolding voice that told her “you should stay focused, you should stay focused” over and over again.  With a small smile she described it as “shoulding on myself,” and we all agreed that we’ve done some “shoulding” too.  Then one of our veteran meditators in attendance, Kristen, offered sage advice.  She told us that when she finds her mind wandering she discovers her voice that states “a kinder phrase such as “oh, what an opportunity to be mindful,” turning the criticism into an attitude of curiosity and acceptance and maybe being more likely to to notice that opportunity in the future.”

To me this seemed like such a simple intervention but also a very powerful one.  In our mindfulness training we learn to be focused, and there are tremendous benefits to this focus.  But of equal importance, and maybe even more important, is that we train the mind to be gentle, forgiving, and accepting.  Kristen’s remark reminded me that having monkey mind is actually a benefit, in that we get to be gentle, forgiving, and accepting over and over again, each time our minds wander away from the simple breath that keeps us alive.  By noticing and responding to the wandering mind with Kristen’s gentle voice we become skilled at being gentle, forgiving, and accepting.  Living in a world consumed with being dominant rather than gentle, punitive rather than forgiving, and judgmental rather than accepting, Kristen’s gentle voice is a true antidote to our suffering.

Another simple intervention for our wandering minds is to find your voice that can say “that’s OK, that’s OK” whenever focus is lost.  In the moment we notice our minds are adrift a simple reassurance like this helps us to regain our mindful state and to cultivate a deep state of compassion and caring for ourselves, and ultimately for each other.

By the way, isn’t it wonderful to teach!  My students become my teachers, and leave me in a state of awe when I witness their wisdom.  In an email exchange with Kristen about our recent retreat she went on to share with me her point of view about the phenomenon of shared mindfulness practice in a group setting.  She told me that mindfulness “provides a sense of connectedness, not only to humans but spiritually as well.  Which, for me, provides a sense of hope.  In times of stress or struggle I am able to sit and reconnect with the greatness we are all born from and know that this greatness is bigger than any challenge I am facing.”

There’s nothing I can add to Kristen’s wisdom except to consider how blessed I am to have students who become my teachers.

Peace,

Jim