“Tell me about yourself when you’re at your best.” Jon Kabat-Zinn uses this opener teaching mindfulness, and so do I. My response is always the same: “When I’m teaching mindfulness!”
This week I had the pleasure to teach a group of dedicated professionals from Communities in Schools in Delaware (CIS-DE; http://www.cisdelaware.org) on behalf of GIFT (www.moremindfulworld.org), a non-profit focused on bringing mindfulness to underserved populations. CIS-DE works with our children and adolescents who are at high risk for dropping out of school, developing relationships with at-risk youths in hopes of empowering them to complete their education. It is difficult work, stressful at times, and our intention at GIFT is to help the helpers with stress reduction training, at the same time teaching the helpers simple ways they can share mindfulness practices with the population they serve.
The first meditation I guided for the CIS-DE group was simple body and breath awareness that lasted about 12 minutes. The response was immediate: that was SO long! Several members of the group, being new to meditation, expressed how difficult it is to not be doing, and instead focus on simply being. A few mentioned how relaxed they felt afterwards, and one, who we’ll simply call “L,” acknowledged that she struggled with nodding off into sleep. All of these responses are typical of the first exposure to a meditative practice.
The second meditation I guided was the classic “raisin mind” meditation (if you want to try this yourself go to this link for a guide: https://ggia.berkeley.edu/practice/raisin_meditation). This time we worked for about 15 minutes, and at the end, as is usual, I asked “What was it like to use your mind that way? What happened?” The first person to respond was L. As I am recalling this from memory that is three days old, I will have to paraphrase:
“At first I thought that this didn’t make any sense. All I could taste was coffee! I had a cup of coffee shortly before we began. You said to ‘notice the raisin on my tongue’ and all I could notice on my tongue was the taste of coffee. Then you said something weird: ‘notice the feeling of the taste of the raisin.’ I thought ‘the feeling of taste?’ That was strange to me. Taste isn’t a feeling. But when I thought of taste as a feeling I was able to find the taste of the raisin on my tongue. It was a small taste, but it was there. Then I thought ‘if I could miss a small taste on my tongue because I have coffee tongue, then what other small things do I miss during the day because my mind is focused on something else?’ In a way my mind can be just like my ‘coffee tongue,’ and I miss the raisin in the room. When people look at these children we’re helping, do they see the sweet raisin in them or just taste the residue of coffee in their own minds?”
This is a remarkable insight, and one that all of us can benefit from. How often does my mind become a “coffee tongue,” unable to recognize and experience another taste, especially a small taste like a raisin? Do I truly see the other? Or do I see the other only through my own mental filter, an analogue to L’s coffee tongue? And isn’t it the raisins that are most important to see? A teen comes into the room, and he fits a stereotype that brings up my own conditioned responses, my own prejudices. I just can’t get past my coffee tongue to taste the sweetness of the raisin in front of me.
The next time you’re in an experience or an event that is unpleasant for you, consider the possibility that your own mental filters are preventing you from seeing what matters the most. It happens to me all the time; there’s no shame in this happening to you. If we are dedicated to forming the intention every day to be mindful then we can recognize our own coffee tongues with greater skill. Going into the day with the intention to notice the raisins can only make our own lives better, and at the same time enable our fundamentally human gift of compassion to emerge easily and naturally.
By the way, after the second meditation, longer than the first, a few of the group said “thank you for doing a shorter meditation. It was easier when it was not so long.” When I told them how long it actually had been we had a good laugh, and then proceeded to an even shorter meditation of twenty five minutes!