“We can train to become the self we want to be.”
But mindfulness in and of itself may not be enough.
"Historically, mindfulness has always been based on ethical values and allied to a body of wisdom; it has not stood alone as a skill in its own right."
While there are many benefits to mindfulness practice, there are also some potential problems.
On the one hand,
"[it] can become a subtle way of avoiding difficulties by trying to keep our mind in an ‘observing’ or ‘breath-focusing’ mode and not engaged with painful things.”
“mindfulness meditation can begin to lift the lid on painful and unprocessed emotions… such as feelings of grief, shame, self-criticism, or self-loathing... If we only stay with our experience of suffering, it can become unbearable."
For these reasons, "it is important to frame mindfulness training within a compassionate orientation."
“Compassion is commonly misunderstood as being only about kindness, or even worse 'niceness,' and so it can wrongly be viewed as being weak or self-indulgent... [In fact,] compassion provides the courage to face the things that we may not want to face."
Psychologist Paul Gilbert and former monk Choden have an interesting approach to Mindful Compassion, based on evolutionary psychology and Buddhist meditation practices. (This means some Christians could be put off by their explanations, but if you're willing to keep an open mind, people of any background can benefit from the actual practices.)
There are detailed instructions for a variety of meditations and visualizations, progressing from simple thought experiments to challenging forms of meditation. In addition to its benefits for personal practice, this approach could be a useful model if you teach mindfulness to adults and want to introduce different types of meditation and gradually build on previous practices.
We start by simply trying to imagine what our lives might have been like if we’d grown up in very different circumstances, for example as part of a violent street gang.
Then we work with attention and body-based practices, followed by developing self-compassion and compassion for those in our community. An important part of this is "stress tolerance," so we don’t become overwhelmed by others’ suffering and either disengage from it or rush into action without reflecting on what type of help is actually needed.
Finally, we widen our “circle of compassion” to the point where we’re ready to try tonglen meditation, breathing in the suffering of the world and breathing out healing.
Meanwhile, we consider what actions we may need to take in order to reduce the suffering we see all around us.
“Mindful compassion… is about seeking the truth of how we create suffering within our own minds and how we can create suffering in the social systems we are part of. With this wisdom about suffering we can set out to alleviate and prevent it.”
To do this, we must have the courage to
“allow ourselves to become templates to work through the pain and struggles that mark our age so that we can find a path that others can follow.”
Quite a challenge! But it's the whole point, isn't it? We don't just practice mindfulness so can feel better; we also want to make positive changes in our own lives and those of others.
With permission from New Harbinger Publications, next week I’ll post "Compassionate Image," a sample guided visualization practice.
Deepening Engagement (recommended book)
Good Citizens (recommended book)
I Wish You Peace: A Simple LovingKindness Meditation
Self-Compassion (recommended book)
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