I hope this message finds you well. And I hope, too, that you’re finding some support for yourself and others in your mindfulness practice, whatsoever that might look like for you at the moment. These are complicated emotional times for many of us, if not for all, and there is no shame in accepting that we might need a little extra support to help us get through, or to bolster us enough to be able to help others as we would like.
Judging by the messages I’ve been receiving over the last week or so, I’m guessing that quite a few of us are now trying to come to terms with the sensations and feelings that emerge as the ‘lock down’ eases and more people are moving out of isolation into something that resembles society once again. Of course, that emergence, such as it is, is far from being a return to ‘normality,’ whatever that might mean for you. The virus that occasioned this lock down has not vanished, and people are still at risk, especially the more vulnerable segments of the population. Our responsibilities to each other are not eased just because the terms of our lock downs have eased. Indeed, the more freely we move through the streets and stores and pathways of our world, the greater our responsibility to be mindful of our responsibilities to others and ourselves. Ironically, frustrating and disorienting as it may have been, being shut into our homes for the last weeks made our movements much simpler, since we were not endangering people with our actions while sealed behind our doors and windows.
It seems that there are two main themes to your messages this week: ...
Some of you have written to ask about the anxiety that comes with this increased alertness, as you venture out into the world beyond your doors. You talk of being constantly on alert for the proximity of others, for people behaving irresponsibly or selfishly. You talk of renewed anxiety about touching the re-expanding world – handrails, door handles, counter-tops, coins. And so you’ve written about reminding yourselves of hand-washing routines, even of making use of the feeling of wearing a mask as a way into a quick breathing practice on the street.
A few people have been in touch to express concerns that their mindfulness practice was actually making them more anxious at this time. In fact, this is not an unusual concern. It is certainly true that one aspect of mindfulness is the cultivation of something like vigilance, of alertness. When we speak of being mindful of our sensations, for instance, we’re talking about paying attention to any- or every sensation that arises. It is very easy to slip from that type of awareness into a form of hyper-vigilance, causing us to scan our bodies, minds, and environments for signs of danger or threat. And this is indeed a stress response; it is embroiled in our fight/flight response.
And so it is good to remember at these times that, even though it might seem similar, being mindful is not identical with being alert or vigilant. Mindfulness is not only about cultivating our awareness of whatever arises, it is also about cultivating a particular kind of quality or tone in that awareness. Perhaps you will recall that mindfulness is characterized by a form of non-judgemental awareness? Perhaps, for you, mindfulness might bring with it a tone of tranquillity or tenderness? Perhaps, for you, mindfulness is informed by acceptance and gentle compassion?
Whatever the case for you, it’s worth reminding yourself that the exercises in this course (and in any responsible mindfulness programme) should not leave you in an anxious state of hyper arousal, but rather should empower some calm, balanced, and hopefully skilful management of the stimuli and sensations you’re encountering. An excellent (and very brief) practice for this is something like the ‘3-step breathing space,’ which I re-sketched for you in my mail last week. Remember, that short, simple practice begins with opening your Awareness to whatever arises (ie. it begins with vigilance and awareness), but then it invites you to Gather your awareness into your breath at that moment in that place (ie. to find some reassurance and some balance in that place of constancy), and only then does it invite you to re-Expand your awareness out into the wider world once more (ie. to engage with the world in a more balanced, compassionate, and skilful way) – A.G.E.
One of the teachers I met on a retreat once captured this kind of motion in a delightful expression: may I meet this moment fully (ie. with alert awareness), and may I meet this moment as a friend (ie. with acceptance and compassion). May I meet this moment fully; may I meet this moment as a friend.
Perhaps the second theme this week has been guilt. In some cases, this emerged from expressions of gratitude towards those people in our societies who have continued to put themselves at risk in order to ensure the provision of essential services for the rest of us. Such gratitude is entirely appropriate, and I’d certainly want to encourage people both to feel and express it. However, for some people, this feeling of gratitude has gradually edged over into a feeling of guilt – guilt that many of us rely upon others putting themselves in danger, while we withdraw into relative safety.
In a practice session this week, I witnessed the arrival of this feeling of guilt in a small group of practitioners. It landed like a weight and a shock. One of them was speaking about how the pandemic had helped to create solidarity in his local community because ‘we’re all in this together.’ And another added, ‘yes, we’re all in the same boat.’
But of course, we’re not all in the same boat at all. At best, we might say that we’re all in the same ocean. But some people are sailing cruise ships and luxury yachts, some are on barges, others on rafts, and some are clinging to fragments of driftwood. And yes, some heroic few are swimming in the waters between these various vessels to make sure everyone is supplied with medicine, food, and toilet paper.
This pandemic has had (and will continue to have) a great range of impacts on people, on society, and on the environment. One of those impacts has been to reveal and reinforce inequalities in our societies, both material and cultural, as well as deep-seated prejudices and bigotry, especially racism.
Awakening to this reality about our societies can trigger all kinds of emotional responses from people, and one such response might be guilt. For some, as the restrictions of lock down begin to ease, this might take the form of something like ‘survivor’s guilt’ or simply privileged guilt.
A few of you have expressed some frustration, asking how mindfulness is supposed to help solve these huge problems with society: isn’t mindfulness just a way to encourage us accept and live with this ugliness? And, in so thinking, we also feel guilty about spending our time cultivating mindfulness.
Well, my response to this might not be wholly comforting. Indeed, it’s not my purpose to provide artificial comfort to you. I am not one of those people who believe that mindfulness exerts a form of magical influence in the world, and that it can cure all psychological, emotional, physical, and social ills all by itself. And so, my response would be something like this: mindfulness cannot solve these problems of social inequality and injustice, but mindfulness can play a role in helping us to address these issues in compassionate, skilful ways.
For instance, let’s take a moment to consider how mindful awareness might help us to understand and act upon our sense of privilege or guilt. On the one hand, we might spend some time checking in the with body to see where that guilt resides and how it’s acting on us, accepting that those sensations are what guilt feels like to us right now, perhaps allowing that kind of gentle attention to soften those feelings, enabling us not to be disabled by them, so that we can take action in the world. Here the practice is not to deny the guilt and not to push it away, but to see whether we can sit with it, tolerate it, feel its honesty.
From a different angle, once we can feel it, we might make use of our insight into this guilt as a kind of portal for other things. When we look into this kind of guilt, what else do we find in there? Is there love? Compassion? Fear? Hope? Given what these sensations reveal to us about the world in which we live, and about how we feel that want to be in that world, we might invite ourselves to re-evaluate ourselves, our actions, our priorities. We might ask: given what I know now about inequality and prejudice, how can I do something beautiful in this world? If our mindfulness practice enables some answers to this question, then it is playing its role.
I wish you all freedom from enmity, freedom from danger, and ease of being.
Dr. Chris Goto-Jones.
Leiden University - Centre for Innovation; University of Victoria.
During the 2020/21 COVID19 pandemic, Chris Goto-Jones started writing periodic emails to the participants of the MOOC DeMystifying Mindfulness on Coursera and FutureLearn. Following requests to put them all in one place, they are reproduced here.