Mindfulness. To some, it’s the greatest human invention since agriculture. Others fret that mindfulness is an ill-defined and modish term that no-one truly understands. Yet others shrug and say this too shall pass. One thing seems certain, mindfulness is here to stay.
In popular culture, mindfulness has been described as “the heart” of buddhist meditation, a “sacred pause” or just plain “awareness”. More formally, mindfulness is defined as the act of “paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally”.
Whereas the intentional attentiveness to present-moment phenomena seems straightforward enough, it’s the non-judgmental aspect of this practice that appears to most confound people. Yet, perhaps for this very reason, it has been my experience that this element of mindfulness practice tends to hit home the hardest.
At the time of writing, I’ve been practicing daily mindfulness meditation going on seven years, guiding small groups for five years and teaching mindfulness and other buddhist meditation techniques for over a year. Both in my personal experience and in teaching others, I’ve noticed that the edict of acceptance, friendliness and love towards one’s self is hard to grasp.
Even when meditation instructions clearly tell us to “be kind to ourselves”, to “notice the judgment that is there” and “open to it”, or to “accept anything that comes up”, many of us seem to assiduously avoid doing so. I can only explain this phenomenon by positing a kind of cognitive dissonance; we may hear and even understand the instructions, but nothing really clicks.
Practicing diligently, we continue pushing our distractions out of the way, silently berating our imperfect minds for STILL not grasping this meditation thing. Will we ever? How do others do it? Am I really this dense? Maybe this meditation thing just isn’t for me. Ok, let me try one more time, and really concentrate this time… Breathe in, breathe out. … Aaaargh!
Perhaps this style of practice reflects how many of us have succeeded thus far in life. In academics, we might not always find the subject at hand enormously interesting, or we might rather engage in other pursuits, yet we know that we must pass the next exam. So we push ourselves to study and are rewarded by a passing grade and a sense of accomplishment. In our working lives, we are often asked to do things we don’t particularly enjoy, but we get paid to do them and we need to pay the rent anyway, so I suppose this here job isn’t that bad in the grand scheme of things. Just let’s get past this obnoxious little task and anyway it’s 4 o clock Wednesday so we’re past the half-way mark to the week-end. (Sigh.)
This style of living trains into us a certain self-effacement, and a certain measure of self-criticism that has probably contributed a lot to our success as a culture. It keeps us moving ever onward, to bigger and better things. And, when everyone we know is doing the same, unquestioningly, and when people far away that do things differently are held up as examples of laziness or intellectual barrenness, we just fall in line. We hardly even question the line. In a way, we’re like people that grow up inside a cult, rarely looking past the received wisdom of being self-critical, seldom allowing ourselves to rebel. Even when we do rebel and go off on globetrotting expat gap year adventures, it’s hard to leave this particular piece of cultural baggage behind for long.
One of our culture’s highest values is critical thinking. Those with the best critical abilities, professors, researchers, philosophers and artists, are held up as examples of what is attainable in this life. Language itself is critical. We use words to discriminate between different nuances of meaning to convey exactly what we mean to say. As citizens, we are expected to be critical, to follow current affairs and to hold opinions on important subjects.
This is all well and good. Society grows and develops according to the intellectual capacities and informedness of its members. Without self-sacrifice and self-criticism, achievement would not mean as much. Also, without it, basic impulse control is a lot harder. Yet, sometimes, criticism morphs into something darker, something that undermines our ability to enjoy life, to just be. And it may contribute to the sort of things that lead us to try mindfulness.
The trap we do well to avoid is to either implicitly or explicitly exalt criticism. To allow it free reign over all our domains. By forgetting the tool-like nature of criticism, we deify it, and allow it to take control of us. When we are perpetually critical, we lose the ability to be easy. To enjoy.
Ok, so criticism is a tool. We can evaluate the proper uses of (self-)criticism and remain wary, going forward, of the ways in which we employ it. What then are some of the genuine uses for our critical faculties? Problem-solving is a big one. Bullshit-detection, another. Philosophy, perhaps. Generally, I would say that for the world of ideas and problems, criticism is a highly valuable instrument. But when it comes to love? Self-worth? For our inner selves, when it comes to our body-images, our emotional lives, our most valued connections, criticism should play a supporting role at best.
In these and many other internal matters, love should be paramount. Everything in this realm should start with love. Love makes everything softer. It allows you to understand your processes and to grow from there.
Self-criticism can get you to resist certain thoughts, impulses, intentions and actions, but it can never cause them to vanish. Sooner or later, they will once again rear their heads, only to be resisted again. If your attention and will power are strong, that is. If attention and will are somehow lacking, these darker tendencies can have the power to overwhelm and to make us think, say or do things we might later regret. Resistance, even when effective, takes up a lot of energy and causes you to create an artificial distance between yourself and that which is resisted. At the cost of your inner harmony.
Love can’t make these dark tendencies go away, either, but through understanding, love can show you their destination and purpose, and ultimately render them harmless.
So, that’s where we are. When we hear the instruction to “be kind to yourself”, we tend to disregard it as this is so alien to what we have been practicing for most of our lives that we can hardly understand what we’re expected to do.
And that is exactly why it is crucial that this instruction somehow finds its way through our thick craniums. Without a basic understanding of the importance of love in your internal matters, mindfulness practice soon becomes a way to continue being self-critical. It will likely still be effective – being present with your automatic responses clears up a lot of confusion – but it might not get you to look at the ways in which your habit of self-criticism is wreaking havoc in your life. Leaving this untouched might invite another episode of inner disharmony somewhere along the line.
So, and I do realize that this is rather a bold claim, how does love get you to appreciate your darker sides and render them harmless?
Certainly not by allowing these tendencies to run rampant unchecked, but you weren’t doing that anyway, were you? You were **resisting** the anger, the jealousy, the fear, the sadness, the self-loathing, the shame, the fatalism, the self-destructive ideations, intentions and actions as soon as they surfaced. You were so engrossed in this game of whack-a-mole that it could sometimes take up most of your energy in a given day. So much energy that you would sometimes just give up, and get overwhelmed by the very things that you took such great care to resist.
What I’m trying to get across is that both of these ways of reacting – both letting your dark side run rampant, and resisting its every manifestation – are extremes. Only to be used in extreme situations. That there is a whole wide world of colour between the extremes of black and white.
Much more skillful to explore your darker habits with a kind and accepting attitude. To get to know them, up close and personal. To learn that – at heart – most of them only want what’s best for you. That they may have been created at a time when they seemed appropriate or necessary. By getting to know them, you can get better at gauging whether they are appropriate or necessary NOW. If not, there is no need to resist them. After all, they have your best interest at heart. So perhaps experiment with treating them as if they were your little brothers and sisters, and you are the older, wiser sibling. Just hug them close and tell them you love them and that it is fine that they are there.
And sometimes, it can be very appropriate to allow them to enjoy themselves, in safety, and just for a little while. Without judgment, and without shame or regret. In this way, you restore harmony to your inner life and increase your self-understanding in very meaningful ways.
Ok. How to do this getting to know the dark stuff? By emphasising the “allowing”, the “accepting” and the “loving” parts of the mindfulness instructions. **Whatever** shows itself, open to it, accept it, allow it to be present. Allow it to show itself fully, without reservations, perhaps even without your fear or judgment. And if fear or judgment happens to be present, allow it to be there, too. Just allow everything to exist in the space of now. To be seen, known, and yes accepted and loved. If not now, then perhaps someday soon.
Adopting an attitude of wonder and exploration, of a naturalist examining a rare flower, animal or insect. Whereever there is curiosity, disgust and fear can’t be present. They are mutually exclusive. See if you can adopt this attitude of curiosity, of a tender caring about the vagaries of your experience in this exquisite moment, always changing, never quite the same. Notice what happens when dark habits are exposed to the light of your acceptance.
Often, a definite change takes place when this is undertaken. You become more whole. Because your internal struggle subsides, you become more at ease with the less palatable aspects of yourself. More at ease with yourself, period. You’ve just practiced a more harmonious way of dealing with yourself, and that way of dealing with internal matters can manifest outwardly, too. You may find yourself becoming more sympathetic to others suffering from the same conflicts. You may begin to discern ways in which others are a little like you, instead of different from you.
Another way of looking at this, is by noticing that your connection to yourself has strengthened. By connecting with previously unacceptable parts of your experience, your being becomes less prone to wasting its energies needlessly resisting things that only have your well-being at heart anyway. You can use this newly liberated energy to experience your life more fully. And by strengthening your inner connection, your connections to others can be deeper and more fulfilling, too. Sadly, others also have the power to hurt you more, but then, what is life without a little pain? Plus, you’re now able to preclude your reactions to this pain to define you, because you will start to recognise that suffering is not caused by the pain itself, but rather by your unexamined habitual reactions to it.
And so, we grow. By opening up a little more to ourselves, we can open up a little more to the world outside, becoming more vulnerable in the process. This vulnerability enables future learning, uncovering more subtle ways in which you resist parts of your experience. Employing self-love and acceptance in the same way as before enables a new layer of wholeness and connection to be accessed, inviting you to open up even further to the world outside of you. And amplifying your vulnerability, too.
Somewhere along the line, you might get a sense that this vulnerability, in fact, is a kind of strength. That opening up to the difficult things in life and treating them to high tea instead of throwing them into dungeons, is not just counterintuitive. It’s a show of personal power and of an enlightened sense of what constitutes a good life.
The longer and more forcefully you resist these difficult aspects, the less personal harmony you will experience, leading to a shadow of a life. A life that tends to feel barren, empty and unskillful, and in need of copious amounts of external titillation to break the existential tedium.
Whereas the sooner and more comprehensive you love your difficulties, the sooner and more comprehensive your return to a sense of wholeness and connection will be. The richer your experiences, and the richer your life. The greater your appreciation for the sheer fact of your humanity, of your being here right now.
Love really is the base for mindfulness. So, the next time you hear the instruction to “just accept it” or to “be with it”, try to remember that they hold the promise of wholeness and connection, not just with yourself but with the world around you. With the quintessential experience of humanness, right here right now.