The truth is: without a genuine willingness to let in the suffering of others, our spiritual practice remains empty.
Father Theophane, a Christian mystic, writes about an incident that happened when he took some time off from his secular duties for spiritual renewal at a remote monastery. Having heard of a monk there who was widely respected for his wisdom, he sought him out. Theophane had been forewarned that this wise man gave advice only in the form of questions. Eager to receive his own special contemplation, Theophane approached the monk: “I am a parish priest and am here on retreat. Could you give me a question to meditate on?”
“Ah, yes.” The wise man answered. “My question for you is: What do they need?” A little disappointed, Theophane thanked him and went away. After a few hours of meditating on the question and feeling as if he were getting nowhere, he decided to go back to the teacher.
“Excuse me,” he began, “Perhaps I didn’t make myself clear. Your question has been helpful, but I wasn’t so much interested in thinking about my apostolate during this retreat. Rather I wanted to think seriously about my own spiritual life. Could you give me a question for my own spiritual life?”
“Ah, I see,” answered the wise man. Then my question is, “What do they really need?”
Like so many of us, Father Theophane had assumed that true spiritual reflection focuses on our solitary self. But as the wise man reminded him, spiritual awakening is inextricably involved with others. As Theophane focused on the needs of those he had been given to serve, he would recognize their vulnerability and longing for love—and realize that their needs were no different than his own.
The question the wise man suggested was wonderfully crafted for awakening in Theophane the true spiritual depth that comes from paying close attention to other human beings.
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Like Theophane, whenever we are caught in our own self-centered drama, everyone else becomes “other” to us, different and unreal. The world becomes a backdrop to our own special experience and everyone in it serves as supporting cast, some as adversaries, some as allies, most as simply irrelevant. Because involvement with our personal desires and concerns prevents us from paying close attention to anyone else, those around us—even family and friends—can become unreal, two-dimensional cardboard figures, not humans with wants and fears and throbbing hearts.
The more different someone seems from us, the more unreal they may feel to us. We can too easily ignore or dismiss people when they are of a different race or religion, when they come from a different socio-economic “class.” Assessing them as either superior or inferior, better or worse, important or unimportant, we distance ourselves.
Fixating on appearances—their looks, behavior, ways of speaking—we peg them as certain types. They are HIV positive or an alcoholic, a leftist or fundamentalist, a criminal or power-monger, a feminist or do-gooder. Sometimes our type-casting has more to do with temperament—the person is boring or narcissistic, needy or pushy, anxious or depressed. Whether extreme or subtle, typing others makes the real human invisible to our eyes and closes our heart.
Once someone is an unreal other, we lose sight of how they hurt. Because we don’t experience them as feeling beings, we not only ignore them, we can inflict pain on them without compunction. Not seeing that others are real leads to a father disowning his son for being gay, divorced parents using their children as weapons. All the enormous suffering of violence and war comes from our basic failure to see that others are real.
In teaching the compassion practices, I sometimes ask students to bring to mind someone they see regularly but are not personally involved with. Then I invite them to consider, “What does he or she need?” “What does this person fear?” “What is life like for this person?”
After one of these meditations, a student approached me to report that a wonderful thing had happened since she’d begun doing this practice. When seeing colleagues at work, neighbors walking their dogs, clerks at stores, she’d been saying in her mind, “You are real. You are real.”
Rather than being backdrops for her life, she was finding them come alive to her. She’d notice a gleam of curiosity in the eyes, a generous smile, an anxious grinding of teeth, a disappointed and resigned slope to the shoulders, the sorrow in a downcast look. If she stayed a moment longer, she could also feel their shyness, their awkwardness, or their fear. She told me, “The more real they are to me, the more real and warm and alive I feel. I feel a closeness in just being humans together. It doesn’t matter who they are … I feel like I can accept them as part of my world.”
When we stop to attend and see others as real, we uncover the hidden bond that exists between all beings. In her poem “Kindness,” Naomi Shihab Nye writes:
Before you learn the tender gravity of kindness
you must travel where the Indian in a white poncho
lies dead by the side of the road.
You must see how this could be you,
how he too was someone
who journeyed through the night with plans
and the simple breath that kept him alive.
We are all journeying through the night with plans, breathing in and out this mysterious life. And, as my student discovered through her practice, the more we can learn to pay attention to others, and truly see them as “real,” just like us, the more we can allow the “tender gravity of kindness” to naturally awaken and bloom.
What Is Mindful Presence?
Let’s unpack those two words, mindful presence.
Mindfulness is simply a clear, non-judgmental awareness of your inner and outer worlds. In particular, it’s an awareness of the flow of experience in your inner world – an alert observing of your thoughts, emotions, body sensations, desires, memories, images, personality dynamics, attitudes, etc.
When you are mindful of something, you are observing it, not caught up in it and not identified with it. The psychological term, “the observing ego” – considered to be essential for healthy functioning – refers to this capacity (i.e., mindfulness) to detach from the stream of consciousness and observe it. Other terms for this capacity include bare witnessing and the Fair Witness.
Mindful Presence Series
- What is “Mindful presence”?
- Why develop mindful presence?
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- Mindful presence: Open space mindfulness.
Mindfulness is an everyday psychological capacity, not some kind of lofty mystical state. To quote an unidentified meditation master: “Even children, drunkards, madmen, those who are old, or those who are illiterate, can develop mindfulness.”
Presence refers to the stability of mindfulness, which means the degree to which you are grounded in awareness itself.
With practice, awareness becomes increasingly your home base, your refuge, rather than the contents of awareness. You abide more and more as the field of awareness upon which experiences arise, register, and pass away.
The sense of awareness itself starts taking up more and more space in your daily experience; you certainly still get caught up in and swept along by mental contents many times a day, but you find there is more of a feeling of background awareness even then, plus you return to the awareness position more quickly, and stay there longer.
As mindful presence increases, there is a growing sense of being as the container of your everyday life, which holds the doing and the having of daily activities. You are being being. Doing and having no longer contain little moments of being; instead, being is increasingly the ongoing space through which ripples of doing and having come and go.
This quality of abiding as awareness moves out into your life beyond time spent meditating. Simply stretching your hand for a cup of coffee or tea becomes increasingly infused with a sense of full awareness of that act. So with other physical activities.
With people, you become more settled into being fully there with them, more peacefully relaxed in awareness of them and you and what’s happening, less identified with pleasant or unpleasant reactions that arise, less caught up in the past or future or sense of needing to make something happen. We can feel it immediately when someone else is mindfully present with us; similarly, others can feel it when you are that way yourself.
Elisha Goldstein,Ph.D., PsychCentral: Whether you’re new or old to mindfulness, you’ve likely heard the definition that it is a “intentional non-judgmental awareness of the present moment.” There’s a lot of confusion around the term non-judgment. Years ago, before I began being more intentional with a mindfulness practice I had a friend practicing meditation and he told me that he was practicing being completely detached from everything in a non-judgmental way. That didn’t seem too fun to me. Today, many of us can still be confused by this term, so what does it really mean?
A purer definition of mindfulness might be just “awareness.”
Laurie Tarkan, Fox News: If you find yourself emotionally spent at the end of your work week, you may want to consider practicing an old Buddhist tradition called mindfulness.
A new study shows that being mindful at work can reduce your level of emotional exhaustion, help keep your emotions on an even keel, and increase your job satisfaction. The good news: You can reap the benefits in just a week or two of practice.
What exactly is mindfulness? According to Dr. Ute HÃƒÂ¼lsheger and co-authors of the study from the Netherlands, it is “a state of nonjudgmental attentiveness to and awareness of moment …
A lot of energy is wasted in considering whether our meditations are “good meditations” or “bad meditations,” especially for relative beginners.
For most people, a good meditation is one that is easy. Things go according to plan, or better! The mind isn’t hard to work with. There aren’t too many distractions. We don’t feel any strongly unpleasant mental states such as anxiety or resentment. We may positively enjoy the meditation. A “bad meditation” is the opposite.
And we can end up feeling a bit demoralized when we experience these “bad meditations.” We create stories about how we’re not good at meditating, or the meditation practice isn’t the right one for us, or we need a better place to meditate in, etc.
With a bit more experience (assuming we don’t give up in the face of all those judgments!) we may start to think that it’s the effort we put in that defines what a “good meditation” or “bad meditation” is. The conditions we’re working with change, and sometimes they’re easier to work with and sometimes they’re harder. Imagine you were training in running. Some days you’re running on flat ground with the wind at your back. Sometimes you’re running uphill against a stiff breeze. The first of these runs is going to feel more pleasant (it’s a “good run”). But which of these runs is going to help you develop more fitness and stamina? The second one, right? So maybe it’s the meditations we struggle in that are really the “good meditations.”
But these days? I think any meditation you turn up for is a “good meditation.” Sure, there are some days it’s easier than others and there are some days you put in more effort. But for beginners I’d suggest that you regard the meditation you do as being infinitely better than the meditation you don’t do. So every meditation is a good meditation — as long as you do it. Remind yourself of that before, during, and after a sit, just to drive home the message that meditating is a valuable thing to do.
Stuart Valentine, who’s participating in the 100 Day Challenge, wrote about how fear of other’s judgements can stop us from getting started:
Being a born pessimist, one of the first things that occurred to me about the 100 Day Challenge was that if I did it, I would have to do it PERFECTLY. And this was clearly impossible, so there was no point trying.
‘Scoring’ just 99 out of 100 would be a disaster. I would feel irritated with myself, embarrassed, would have let myself and others down… and many other negative emotions I projected on to this ‘awful’ event.
If I ended on 90 out of 100, or heavens forbid 89 out of 100, then my life as I know it would be over, surely. Dharma ridicule would follow me the rest of my days. I could see it all in glorious detail.
If I missed a sitting early enough into the 100 days, I might even have to give up straight away! Why continue, now that perfection is out of reach?
Clearly, I concluded, the best option was to not start in the first place.
Despite knowing intellectually that this was a very shoddy way of thinking, I couldn’t shake the emotional conviction of it. So I took to the cushion to thrash it out. One order of mindfulness of body please.
Clearly there was a huge amount of negativity in all this, and unskillful thinking, But I also realised this sort of ‘all or nothing’ mentality is something I’ve been guilty of more times than I can count, almost always to negative or even disastrous effect.
Meditating revealed to me the aversion to making a ‘mistake’, the egotistical craving for the ‘glory’ of having done 100 out of 100 sittings, and the fierce aversion to the pictures I painted in my mind’s eye about how other people would look down on me for missing even a single sitting. I could feel it not just in the intensity and unpleasant nature of the thoughts which kept obsessively cycling round and round, but more importantly in the unpleasant bodily sensations that came with those emotions.
Mindfulness of those body sensations gradually took the sting out of them as equanimity slowly won the battle, and the emotions slowly subsided. Sanity was slowly restored.
I could now see the sense in just trying every day, and not being too attached to success or failure to sit that day – just like when doing mindfulness one should keep persistently trying to be mindful, but should try not to be frustrated or demotivated when our mind wanders. The analogy struck me powerfully.
What came through most clearly was that my biggest fear by far was what others would think. I was telling myself all sorts of crazy stories about how ‘everyone’ would think less of me if I missed even one sitting. These stories had a life of their own, and I had so much aversion to them that my constant reactivity kept feeding them, much like a hurricane gets stronger and stronger as it crosses rough warm seas.
I decided to take the plunge, and to face it head on, with as much equanimity as I could manage. Don’t run, don’t suppress, don’t ignore, don’t fight – accept it. Accept the maelstrom, the sensations, the negativity. Accept, let go, equanimity, don’t give up, don’t give up…… deep breath, don’t give up!
It wasn’t fun, but it slowly worked, over the course of several sittings. The calm after the storm is always beautiful. For now at least, I can face the prospect of missing a sitting with something like a genuinely balanced mind.
No doubt the aversion to making a mistake will return. Old habits die hard. But next time it does, I’ll be better prepared.
And I have a quiet confidence that next time it will be that little bit weaker, too. Progress… however small, I’ll take it! Maybe the ratchet away from suffering just got moved another notch.
If nothing else, working through all this has gotten me to 10 sits out of 100! And the reduction in tension and stress from weakening these negative ways of looking at the situation means that I am now less likely to miss a sitting.
But if I do miss one, or WHEN I do, I think i’ll be able to take it my stride, and not let it stop me completing as many of the rest as I can.
Thank you for sharing your wise advice, Stuart!
It astonishes me how much time I spend making judgements about people, but the truly surprising thing is that although it makes me feel bad, I keep doing it. And it leads to unfortunate interactions with people which ends up causing them suffering too.
One thing that protects us against this kind of self-imposed suffering is lovingkindness (metta) practice. Lovingkindness is an important complement to mindfulness practice.
To cultivate metta we can do something as simple as repeat to ourselves, “May you be well; may you be happy” as we see others. We can do this while walking or driving, for example.
We can take a more reflective approach to cultivating lovingkindness. I often consider the truth of the following statements:
- I want to be happy;
- I don’t want to suffer;
- I often find happiness elusive;
- I find suffering hard to avoid.
I drop these thoughts in one at a time, giving myself time to feel their reality on an emotional level. And then I allow the part of me that wants me to be happy to wish myself well — basically allowing a sympathetic attitude toward myself to emerge. Somehow recollecting that it’s a difficult thing to live a human life allows me to be more tender, and to be more caring and appreciative of myself.
Then I can apply the same thoughts to another person: This person wants to be happy; he/she doesn’t want to suffer; he/she often finds happiness elusive; he/she finds suffering hard to avoid. I find that quite naturally I want to “root for” this person as they do this difficult thing of living a human life. I want them to be happy.
This might sound a bit complex, but it isn’t really. The important thing is to give yourself time to let the thoughts have some emotional reality. With a little practice these reflections can be done in a few seconds, and having been thought about in a conscious way, they can then remain in the back of our minds, having a positive effect on our attitudes to others without needing to be consciously articulated.
This is something that I do at the start of each stage of my lovingkindness (metta) meditations. It’s also something I do during my daily activities. It makes lovingkindness practice much more real and effective for me.
Many years ago when I was pregnant with my son, I decided to have a home birth without drugs, assisted by a midwife. My hope was to be as wakeful and present as possible during the birth, and while I knew the pain would be intense, I trusted that my meditation and yoga practices would help me to “go with the flow.”
When labor began I was rested and ready. Knowing that resisting the pain of contractions only made them worse, I relaxed with them, breathing, making sounds without inhibition, letting go as my body’s intelligence took over. Like any animal, I was unthinkingly immersed, instinctively responding to the drama unfolding through me, riding the pain as a natural part of the process.
Then, suddenly, something shifted. When my son’s head started crowning, the pain level shot up. It was no longer something I could breathe into and let surge through me. This much pain has got to mean something is going wrong, I thought. My whole body tightened, and my deep slow breaths turned into the shallow, quick breathing of panic.
Like every aspect of our evolutionary design, the unpleasant sensations we call pain are an intelligent part of our survival equipment: Pain is our body’s call to pay attention, to take care of ourselves. Yet, intense pain, even when it’s part of a seemingly healthy process like birthing, is alarming. When I reacted with fear, I added onto the unpleasant sensations the feeling and belief that something was wrong. Rather than Radical Acceptance, the reaction of my body and mind was to resist and fight the pain.
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- Science shows what meditation knows: pain is not suffering
While fear of pain is a natural human reaction, it is particularly dominant in our culture where we consider pain as bad, or wrong. Mistrusting our bodies, we use “pain killers,” assuming that whatever removes pain is the right thing to do. In our society’s cultural trance, rather than a natural phenomenon, pain is regarded as the enemy. Pain is the messenger we try to kill, not something we allow and embrace.
At that point of intensity in childbirth, I was fully at war, pitted against the pain. My midwife, used to seeing fear and resistance in response to pain, immediately assured me. “Nothing’s wrong, honey… it’s all completely natural, it’s just painful.” She had to say this several times before I could let it begin to sink in and, in the midst of the burning pain, the explosive pressure, the tearing and exhaustion, remember again to breathe deeply and relax. It was just pain, not wrong, and I could open up and accept it.
Whenever we react to pain with fear and view it as “wrong,” we set in motion a waterfall of reactivity. Fear, itself made up of unpleasant sensations, only compounds the pain—now we not only want to get away from the original pain, but also from the pain of fear. In fact, the fear of pain is often the most unpleasant part of a painful experience. When we assess physical sensations as something to be feared, pain is not just pain. It is something wrong and bad that we must get away from.
Often, this fear of pain proliferates into a web of stories. Yet, when we are habitually immersed in our stories about pain, we prevent ourselves from experiencing it as the changing stream of sensations that it is. Instead, as our muscles contract around it and our stories identify it as the enemy, the pain solidifies into a self-perpetuating, immovable mass. Our resistance can end up creating new layers of symptoms and suffering, since when we abandon our body for our fear-driven stories about pain, we actually trap the pain in our body.
When, instead of Radical Acceptance, our initial response to physical pain is fear and resistance, the ensuing chain of reactivity can be consuming. The moment we believe something is wrong, our world shrinks and we lose ourselves in the effort to combat our pain. This same process unfolds when our pain is emotional—we resist the unpleasant sensations of loneliness, sorrow, anger. Whether physical or emotional, when we react to pain with fear, we pull away from an embodied presence and go into the suffering of trance.
Yet, we need to realize that being alive includes feeling pain, sometimes intense pain. And, as the Buddha taught, we suffer only when we cling to or resist experience; when we want life different than it is. As the saying goes: “Pain is inevitable, but suffering is optional.”
When painful sensations arise and we can simply meet them with clarity and presence, we can see that pain is just pain. We can listen to pain’s message and respond appropriately—taking good care. If we are mindful of pain rather than reactive, we do not contract into the experience of a victimized, suffering self. We can meet whatever presents itself with Radical Acceptance, allowing the changing stream of sensations to simply flow through us without making any of it wrong.
From Radical Acceptance (2003)
Here is a list of 12 benchmarks of spiritual practice (Saskia Davis’s Symptoms of Inner Peace) with examples of how I work with them. This list is also a way to know that our spiritual practice is bearing fruit.
1. An increased tendency to allow things happen rather than make them happen
As a mom of two children I spent many years trying to make things happen. I wanted my children to act in certain ways, eat certain foods, choose certain clothing, etc. etc. As they got older and I watched myself trying to be “in control”, I realized I could trust them to be themselves. I realized I could allow them to make choices and guide them when necessary. This realization brought feelings of relief and a sense of freedom. I brought that realization to my work and relationships and have enjoyed watching the process of things rather than trying to control them.
2. Frequent attacks of joy, unexplained smiling and random bursts of laughter
Real joy and comes from delighting in simple pleasures and acts of kindness. Happiness is inherent in being mindful during each and every day. As a result of enjoying simple pleasures and the beauty that surrounds me, I do not chase after excitement through traveling, attending the latest retreat, purchasing the newest technological toys or other material possessions.
3. Feelings of being closely connected with others and nature
When I feel reactive to someone I remind myself that we are all connected. We all want to be happy and in most situations we do the best we can. This does not mean that I accept everything everyone does, but it does help me to soften when I realize someone might be coming from a sense of their own pain when they do something that results in causing pain in others.
4. Frequent overwhelming, almost dizzying, episodes of appreciation
I have kept a gratitude journal for several years and I share my weekly writing with two friends each Sunday. Making the commitment with friends to share the journal reminds me to write in it daily or weekly. There have been some weeks that seem to be marked by difficulty and sorrow. When I write what I am grateful for, I realize even the challenging times have moments of beauty and offer things/people/situations to be grateful for.
5. A tendency to think and act spontaneously rather than from fears based on past experience
When I react habitually, based on past experience, rather than being mindful of the present circumstances, I am acting on automatic pilot. All situations, even if we think they resemble past situations, are really new situations. Coming into situations with an open mind brings new possibilities for creative responses.
6. An unmistakable ability to enjoy each moment
The attitude we bring into situations can determine our responses to them. Being open to each moment, bringing mindfulness to each moment, allows us to experience enjoyment in even mundane tasks.
7. A loss of ability to worry
I have learned that worry is not helpful and often what I worry about does not happen. Recently I was experiencing pain on the right side of my mouth. I thought my bottom right molar was the source of the pain. I called my dentist and made an appointment. I was thinking I might need a crown or a root canal. I worried that it would be expensive and painful, especially since the tooth is in the back of my mouth and difficult to reach. I decided to have the tooth extracted. I worried about the procedure. How is a tooth extracted? Will there be cutting and bleeding? How long will it take for the gums to heal? Will I have to postpone my appointments? I went to see the Dentist. He took an ex-ray and asked me a couple questions questions. Was there throbbing pain? Were my gums swollen? The tooth, it seems, was fine. The pain I experienced was due to an infection which could be cleared up with penicillin. All that worry about crowns, root canals and extractions was for naught. I have not yet lost my ability to worry, but I worry less now, so there’s progress.
8. A loss of desire for conflict
Does anyone actually desire conflict? Perhaps. I don’t! When I see an opportunity for conflict, I remember two things:
a. There is another way of looking at things. When I bring lovingkindness to situations, there is no need for conflict.
b. Do I want to be right or happy? When I let go of needing to be right, I also let go of conflict – and that makes me happy.
9. A loss of interest in taking things personally
Sometimes things people say or do feel so personal. At these times I remind myself that people do what they do as a result of their conditions (upbringing, personalities, life circumstances and perspectives) that do not have anything to do with me.
10. A loss of appetite for drama and judgment
The drama I enjoy is found at movie theaters. Drama in life is tiresome and unnecessary.
When I find myself judging others, I look inward and find my judgment has to do with what I want to change in myself.
11. A loss of interest in judging yourself
As a result of understanding the importance and power of kindness I am much kinder to myself and to others.
12. Prone to giving love without expecting anything in return
I find giving love to be the most satisfying thing I do. When I am loving, my heart feels open and expansive and I am truly happy.