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Mindfulness Practice Notes #5

By Jeffrey Brantley, MD

In the wake of the political campaign season and the recent election, many people have asked me if I thought mindfulness could help to heal the intense negative feelings and polarization of views that seems to be the current mind-state of so many in our country and our world.  I have responded with a strong “yes”, and encouraged anyone who asks, to reflect mindfully on the deeper causes of pain in themselves and in each other as a place to begin.  To the extent the roots of discord and intolerance are unacknowledged and poorly understood in ourselves, each of us remains in pain, and is vulnerable to emotional overreaction and exploitation.

In her popular poem, Kindness, Naomi Shihab Nye observes that:  “Before you know kindness as the deepest thing inside, you must know sorrow as the other deepest thing.”  Over the years, I have increasingly come to appreciate the wisdom in this statement, and found that reflecting mindfully upon the many possible expressions–in myself and in others–of kindness, and the experience of sorrow in its varied forms, including sadness, grief, loss, regret, and disappointment, can be profoundly informative, and transformative.  Now, more than ever, I am encouraging others to do the same.

Consider for a moment the possibility that kindness actually is the deepest thing.  Could that explain the many acts of kindness and generosity we see and experience daily, often between perfect strangers, or when no personal gain, or even considerable risk, is involved?  Some biologists and psychologists have also suggested that the tendency toward kindness is deep within us humans–wired in as a survival mechanism for our species.

So, what blocks this deepest thing–this kindness–from its natural expression?  Is sorrow truly the “other deepest thing?”  If so, how might it work against the expression of kindness?

In reflecting on this question I recall an experience from my first year as a psychiatric resident.  My supervisor called me into his office one day, and pointed out that in the last few days before I was due to rotate off the inpatient ward I had been on for several months, I had seemed more angry and irritable than he had ever seen me.  He asked if I was sad to be leaving.  Instantly, I knew he was correct.

In my case, the sadness (sorrow) I felt over leaving a positive experience and friendly community of psychiatric professionals and caregivers became fuel for another emotion–anger.  It is widely known that we humans often use anger as a defensive mechanism against painful emotions like grief and sorrow. It certainly happened to me.  With my supervisor’s help, rather than remain angry, I was able to process my grief over the changing situation more positively.

Perhaps there are other ways sorrow might hijack and divert us (and others) away from the position and benefits of kindness?  Does unrecognized and unattended sorrow within fuel insensitivity to the plight of others, encourage striking out in rage to cause pain in someone else, or, sadly blind us to the impact of our own offensive words and actions?

If you like, pause and reflect upon how might any of these effects of deeply held sorrow–sorrow that is unconscious, and not transformed– impact one’s ability to be an effective leader?

Recalling mindfulness as the awareness that arises when we pay attention on purpose in a non-judging way, let’s take a closer look at attention as a critical element and skill for recognizing, and healing our sorrow.  Attention is critical because when we actually become aware of the enormous depth and impact of pain and sorrow, it becomes immediately clear that great steadiness of attention (along with great compassion and wisdom) is required to remain present, observe, and transform those feelings through awareness.

Here is a simple practice that can help you increase the strength and steadiness of attention as part of your mindfulness practice.  See for yourself if, as attention steadies and becomes less distractible, does your ability to see more deeply and hold intense feelings with compassion leading to understanding, increase?  Resting more easily in your still center, perhaps feeling more unshakable, is there a deeper sense of connection with others and the world around you?

Take a comfortable position for meditation and place your attention on your breath.

     When you are ready, gently add a soft count to your practice of breath awareness.

     You can count up and back to any number, but a good place to begin is to count up to eight (8), and then back again.

     For example, at the end of the first out breath–in the space before the next in breath– whisper silently to yourself “one.”  In the next space between out and in breath, “two”, and so on up to “eight”. 

When you get to “eight”, on the next space between the end of the out and beginning of the in breath, begin counting back by whispering “seven” silently to yourself.  Then “six,” “five,” and so on down to “one.”  Repeat the process of noticing and counting for as long as you like.

    If you get lost, or confused, it is ok. Practice patience with yourself, and simply begin again with “one.”  This method of counting the breath is not about thinking or getting to “eight” and back, but is rather, and only, a simple device to help strengthen and deepen your capacity for focused attention. Resting in awareness, breathing, counting, focusing attention.

     Spend a few minutes, or as long as you wish, with the counting, then, when you are ready, drop the count, and allow attention to focus gently on the breath sensations, and on any other experiences, as all are arising and passing away, in awareness

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