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.