There has been some interesting chatter in the media discussing the impact of mindfulness on people’s willingness to engage effectively in society. Recently, Suzanne Moore of The Guardian suggested that mindfulness is all about the self and neuters impulses that may be useful for creating positive change in the world. She implied that practicing mindfulness may minimize the distress of the practitioner but does nothing to to directly address the distressing event.
In response, mindfulness practitioner and writer Ed Halliwell suggests in his blog that this criticism of mindfulness is normal given recent increasing attention to this practice in the media, and is actually helpful in furthering a constructive conversation. He notes that practicing mindfulness does not cure society’s many and serious imperfections and that, for those looking at the practice from the outside, it can appear to be something of an “opium for the people.”
For those of us who do practice mindfulness and who bring awareness to our very personal experience of living, we know that this is quite far from the truth. In fact, opening ourselves to the emotions and thoughts and body sensations that may be present in a given moment serves to better acquaint us with distress, sadness and other emotions that usually accompany our appraisal of the difficulties of life. When we open to these emotions, we acknowledge and honor them. Even though these emotions may be painful, we invite them in. Otherwise, the temptation may be to ignore, suppress or deny these emotions because of the automatic or habitual belief that we are helpless to change them or that we will be overwhelmed by their intensity. Yet, with practice and courage, we learn to approach rather than avoid our emotional experience and to just observe what is present in our bodies as we do so.
I would argue that this process of emotional awareness, of connecting to emotion in a given moment, actually prompts more action than the alternative. As a result of recognizing what is present for us in our minds and bodies, we may choose to respond in a way that thoughtfully supports our values and the things that we believe in. The motivation to take action is not out of a desire to rid ourselves of emotion but rather to validate our experience, and to connect to meaningful action.
Here is an example. A client described being deeply affected by the death of Robin Williams. She explained that his suicide prompted her to reflect on the suicide of a close friend and that she was experiencing feelings of sadness, grief, hopelessness and anger. She told me that with mindfulness, she could open to these emotions and ride their rise and fall in response to the thoughts she was having. As a result this process, she decided to reach out to her friend’s mother. She told me that they enjoyed a coffee together and reminisced about her friend, sharing a moment of connection to both one another and to the very natural feelings they have about losing her.
My client found that this action did not minimize her own grief but it did help her to feel like she was “in the driver’s seat” of her experience and that she could do something to recognize the loss. Rather than drown in her own suffering, she created a relationship with the pain that allowed her to respond to it in a thoughtful (rather than a reactive) way. And because she was open to her emotions, she was better able to be empathic when talking with her friend’s mother. Ultimately all of these responses supported her values.
Rather than numb our sense of social responsibility and our motivation to change the injustice of the world, mindfulness highlights the feeling and thinking that make it easier to engage in value-driven action if we want to. And as Ed Halliwell points out, even if our practice does not lead us to reach out and contribute to making the world a better place, simply being able to skillfully manage the distress that naturally accompanies membership in this imperfect world is a radically transformative way of breaking the cycle of unproductive suffering.
(Image courtesy of xedos4 at FreeDigitalPhotos.net)