Alan Marlatt uses mindfulness to address our national substance abuse problems. Marlatt is the founder of Mindfulness-Based Relapse Prevention. Thousands of mental health counselors and therapists are teaching clients mindfulness to help with depression, with social anxiety, with obsessive-compulsive disorder, and other mental health issues.
Midwife Nancy Bardacke, the founder of the Mindfulness-Based Childbirth and Parenting Program, has found that expectant parents who learn mindfulness “develop skills for working with the stresses of pregnancy and everyday life.” (163).
Others have adapted MBSR (mindfulness-based stress reduction) specifically for teens to equip teens during that very stressful time of life with “the skills they need to keep themselves balanced in a world that can be difficult and complicated for young people.” It trains the brain for resilience and cheerfulness.
Oakland’s “Mind Body Awareness Project” is bringing mindfulness training to gang members. Mindfulness enables 12- and 13-year-old boys to “see for the first time that it’s OK to be who they are and that they don’t have to belong to a gang to attain self-fulfillment.” (164).
Mindfulness has the power to liberate us from the manacles of our own reactivity. Reactivity. Something occurs; we don’t like it; the limbic system is triggered, and we just react. Stress levels go up; the capacity to empathize goes down. Reactivity in our schools produces increased stress from the negative judgmentalism of peers, which, at the extreme, includes bullying -- and sometimes a corresponding inability of bully victims to get unstuck from the role of victim. Reactivity in our military can put soldiers in a mindset of “shoot ‘em all and let God sort it out.” Reactivity in our police is a contributing factor in readiness to shoot unarmed civilians. Traumatic stress levels can lead to PTSD for the rest of their lives.
Some frustration and anger is inherent in the work they do. Absence of skills to manage those feelings is not. Reactivity shows up in disease rates, and pain, and pain medication, and self-medication with alcohol or drugs, licit or illicit. Reactivity shows up in gang loyalty to one’s insiders and gang violence toward those seen as rivals.
There is no easy way to health, no magic bullet. It’s not easy to get out and exercise everyday. That’s a hard discipline. But the heart attack you could have prevented hurts a lot more. If we haven’t been training ourselves in nonjudgmental awareness, in identifying our feelings, in empathizing with ourselves and with others, then when the reactivity comes – and it does come from time to time for everyone – we have no resources for managing it.
Problems, there will always be. As the Congressman points out, and my own experience certainly confirms:
“We will still misplace our keys. We will still forget people’s names. We will still say and do things that may hurt others, including those we love. We will say the exact wrong thing at exactly the wrong time. But in each of these instances, with mindfulness we may do it just a bit less. We may see the humor in our mistakes and be able to laugh at ourselves more. We may be just a little less critical of others, and of ourselves. Or we may deal with our mistakes more quickly and with a more sincere and kind heart. We may more easily forgive the people who have hurt us. We may sit down and have civil political conversations with those who strongly disagree with us.”So it’s not like this is going to solve all your problems.
Last Jun 5, a headline in the Washington Post read “Meditation and Mindfulness Aren’t As Good for You as You Think.” I don’t know if this is true, since I don’t know how good for you you think they are. The article points out that
“we still can’t be sure what the active ingredient is. Is it the meditation itself that causes the positive effects, or is it more to do with learning to step back and become aware of our thoughts and feelings in a supportive group environment?”Everything I know leads me to emphasize the importance of both. There’s a magic in being still and quiet every day. There’s also a magic in a supportive group environment. And the combination is greater than the sum of the parts. I always recommend both daily practice by yourself and weekly gathering to practice in a group.
The article then points out that for some people sitting alone and being fully present to whatever thoughts and feelings arise can be disturbing. Sometimes the thoughts and feelings aren’t pleasant ones. Mindfulness practice can be emotionally and psychologically disturbing.
This is true. You can bring it forth, get to know it, gradually work out a peace with it – or you can keep trying to keep it buried, and then, from the depths it will poke through in various unexpected ways. You can plunge into what is disturbing now -- or you can hide from it, for a while. Eventually, it always catches up. Remember that verse from the Gospel of Thomas:
“If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”And again, it’s invaluable to have a supportive group, and if possible, a teacher, to help you work through disturbing experiences that may arise in meditation.
We all have our demons. Rather than keep fighting to suppress them, better to welcome them, embrace them, and befriend them – though that can be difficult, frightening, and disturbing at first. The only way out is through.
In addition to the demons within, there’s the suffering around us. In a recent meeting of our Journey Group facilitators, one of our facilitators told about having undertaken, for the last three months now, to really be attentive to people and surroundings. This facilitator reported,
“It’s not always good. There are some sad things that I would have preferred not to think about. Some of what I’m now noticing is not fun and not happy.”That is exactly right.
Showing up for life means showing up for all of it. Presence to the sadness is as important as accessing wellsprings of love, peace, and joy – and, really, presence to the sadness, the tragedy, the pain and loss and grief that is all around, is a necessary and integral part of accessing the wellsprings of love, peace, and joy.
When I offer the prayer each Sunday, I aim to, among other things, bring our collective attention to the hurt in this world because mindfulness that isn’t attentive to the magnitude of pain isn’t mindfulness. The strategy of just not thinking about the enormity of the world’s anguish – or of your own -- is sooner or later going to fail.
Old age, sickness, and death come for all of us and all our loved ones. Best to get ready now. Moreover, in the meantime: compassion. Compassion requires attention to suffering.
It all begins where you are. Wiggle your toes again. Feel the way they push against your shoes. Feel the weight of your feet on the floor. Now notice the pressure of your body on your seat. Notice how your back feels.
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This is part 3 of 3 of "Mindfulness"
Part 1: Mindfulness
Part 2: Mindfulness in Unlikely Places: Congress