As we head towards the lunar New Year next week, I’m taking some time to sit with the various messages that have come in from participants in our course over the last few weeks. Many have been deeply moving, and I wanted to thank you for your trust and courage in sharing them with me. And some have been extremely generous and kind; as for many of you, this is a challenging time for me too, so I’m sincerely grateful to those of you who have reached out.
One theme that has been pervasive in your messages recently has been anxiety about ‘repairing’ the world within and around you in various ways. ...
... Some of you have experienced sickness. Some have struggled to live with the sickness of those around them. Some are trying to deal with unemployment. And some with death. And, especially (but not only) in the USA, so many seem to be feeling confused about where to go from here, as vaccines start to roll out and political change seems afoot. There seems to be a real sense that we’re sitting in the ruins of something, watching the smoke, and wondering how (and perhaps even what) to repair or rebuild.
It’s taken me quite a while to think about how I’d like to respond to you, since I know these are very difficult and sometimes intensely personal issues for everyone involved; there is a lot of pain in these experiences and questions. However, you may recall that one of things we attempt to do in the practice of mindfulness is to turn towards (rather than away from) difficulty and suffering. And it is in that spirit that I write this today.
I think it would be fair to say that I’ve received more messages about the difficulties and frustrations of ‘turning towards the difficult’ than about anything else in the last few weeks. I can feel (and often share) the frustration that some of you express about being told simply to allow the pain to be there, to be with it, or even to befriend it. Sometimes this can actually feel like flagellation or masochism, as though we’re deliberately going hunting for more pain and then taking pride in feeling it. Some of you have even written of your sense of guilt and shame about being unable to ‘turn towards’ painful feelings that risk overwhelming you, as though you are failing at something by trying to protect yourself.
There are many things that could be said about this. I think the first thing might simply be to reassure you that if you’re feeling this way, you are not alone. If you think you were the only person to write to me about this (or to feel too ashamed to write to me about this), you are wrong. You have absolutely nothing of which to be ashamed; this is normal. Mindfulness is not about running into the flames.
Perhaps it might be helpful to consider one of the stories about Siddhartha Gautama that appears in our course? You might remember that Siddhartha left his palace of privilege and complacency after witnessing the suffering of the people outside it: illness, aging, and death. He then went out into the world to find the solution to human suffering. One of the approaches he tried (before sitting under his proverbial tree to become enlightened) involved self-deprivation and self-flagellation – literally pursuing pain as a way to diminish his attachment to his body and his ego.
What we learn from this story, however, is that even though Siddhartha became extraordinarily proficient in these practices, he eventually concluded that they were not the true path to the cessation of suffering. Indeed, they caused new levels of unnecessary and self-inflicted suffering. In the end, as you may recall, Siddhartha becomes the Buddha as he realizes a ‘middle way’ between, on the one hand, living in his palace of privilege and ignoring suffering and, on the other hand, deliberately living in deprivation and pursuing suffering. His middle way, which defines the foundations of mindfulness, resides in not turning away. That is, his teachings advocate neither denying nor embracing suffering, but rather not turning away from it: neither aversion nor attachment, but acceptance.
It can be helpful to realise that we all start in different positions of relationship with this ‘middle way.’ Some of us start as residents of palaces of privilege. Some of us start as trauma survivors or as members of persecuted and disadvantaged communities in various ways. And this is a complex continuum and a site of plurality, not a binary. So, the kinds of work we need to do in order to find that middle way will be different for each of us. Perhaps that work starts with a process of honest self-reflection about where we are on that continuum?
So, if you are one of those people who are experiencing shame for being unable to embrace the pain inside or around you, please know that there is nothing of which to be ashamed. The practice of mindfulness does not call on you to run towards suffering, but simply not to ignore it or turn away from it.
If we are committed to trying to alleviate suffering (of ourselves or others), then we must find ways to understand that suffering. Otherwise we will act without skill or wisdom. So, we must find a standpoint from which to witness or experience it that neither obscures it (because we’re too far away) nor overwhelms us (because we’re too close). In mindfulness, as you know, we call this standpoint ‘spaciousness,’ but we also call it ‘compassionate’ (rather than empathic) – we move to stand with the suffering, not inside it. We show up and offer compassionate presence and attention; sometimes that’s already enough.
Some of you are already aware that there are some important differences in the way that mindfulness is taught in various traditions. The ‘archetypes of mindfulness’ that we created for this course are an attempt to call attention to this. One of the important differences for our purposes today is the way that the ‘scientist’ archetype propagates a version of mindfulness that is largely focussed on alleviating stress and encouraging positive development, while the purpose of mindfulness for the ‘monk’ archetype is much more profound.
When it comes to ‘sitting in the ruins,’ the differences between these archetypes can become rather stark. In general, the ‘scientist’ has intentionally omitted some of the teachings in the Foundations of Mindfulness (Satipatthana) because it’s hard to fit them into a clinical or recreational setting in contemporary Western societies. One of these teachings is the meditation on the charnel grounds (or the so-called ‘cemetery contemplations’), which calls upon practitioners to visualize the decomposition of corpses in very graphic details. In some ways, this is simply a dramatic way to illustrate the idea of our impermanence. But one other function of these contemplations is to support practitioners in cultivating a way to be with extremes of suffering, to be present amidst the pain, the death, and the ruin. By building this kind of contemplation into our practice, and cultivating a place to stand when confronted by the metaphorical cemetery, the idea is that we become better able to ‘not turn away’ from suffering, and to stay with it compassionately.
Knowing that the charnel grounds can be deeply personal and individual – indeed, they can be interior to us – or they might emerge for communities in different ways, Roshi Joan Halifax once asked ‘how can we go into the charnel grounds of our world?’ As I understand her, she was asking where we get our strength and courage to be present in those dark places.
Well, mindfulness offers us a means of practice and support; it helps us to cultivate that site of spaciousness that helps us not to turn away. But, remember, mindfulness is a practice not an instant solution – it doesn’t instantly give us the equipoise needed to go into the charnel grounds of our souls or of the world around us, but it does offer us a way to cultivate that balance. It takes time, patience, and gentleness with ourselves – and it takes persistence and effort. And, as we’ve seen, we don’t all start in the same place – we don’t all have the same obstacles to overcome or distance to travel. Our self-compassion needs to reflect where our journeys begin, and they always begin where we are now. And, sadly, the destination isn’t fixed either – it will never stop being painful to sit in those charnel grounds – that’s simply a consequence of caring – and would any of us really want to become numb to suffering altogether?
Perhaps a final consideration for today is about what we hope to accomplish while sitting in the ruins or the charnel grounds … or just with suffering. It’s worth remembering, I think, that mindfulness isn’t a form of magic spell that can miraculously repair things that have been broken. And so, when we’re sitting mindfully with grief, pain, and suffering, it is not the case that we should hope to be able to eradicate those things, but merely to change our relationship with them.
One of the ways to understand the ‘cemetery contemplations’ is to allow them to help us realise that when we sit in the cemetery, we don’t expect to be able to bring anyone back to life. Rather, we sit there to help ourselves and others come to terms with the pain of death by accepting that it is an inevitable aspect of existence itself. Conversely, wanting to return the dead to life would simply add a new layer of self-imposed frustration and suffering, which we do not need to experience.
We might think in the same way about other forms of ‘ruins.’ For instance, I know that some people are very anxious about how to get our societies back to ‘how they were before’ – before the pandemic, before the social and political violence, before the stark revelation of chronic, systemic injustices etc. It is understandable that these times feel like ruins to many. But this does not mean that we can or should aspire to do the impossible and return to the past.
For some people, this feeling of ruination might also be turned inwards. As someone who has experienced trauma, I can understand how it feels to believe that we have been broken by events around us, and to struggle with the idea that we need to repair ourselves into the person we were before.
The urge to ‘fix’ and ‘repair’ can be powerful, but sometimes the ruins don’t need to be rebuilt. I’m sure that some of you have visited the ruins of medieval castles, churches, or temples, and that you have savoured them in their state of ruination. Or perhaps you’ve been to a derelict warehouse or an abandoned factory building and found a way to appreciate the quality of disrepair? Contrariwise, perhaps you’ve been to glossy, plasticized reconstructions of previously ruined sites, complete with chrome visitor centres that charge you to be present, and perhaps these sites have left you cold or troubled?
My point is not that it’s either unimportant or wrong to restore things, but rather that not everything can be or needs to be restored. Sometimes, sitting mindfully in the ruins can help us see that the ruins are fine just as they are. They create a new environment of their own in the present, opening new possibilities for the future, even as they serve as monuments to our ideas about how things used to be.
To be clear, I’m not advocating that you attempt the cemetery contemplations on your own (and if you’re a mindfulness teacher without trauma training, I’m certainly not suggesting that you incorporate them into your classes), but I am suggesting that mindfulness can support us to accept that some ruins are fine just as they are. Just like a flower or a snowflake or a pristine mountain lake, some ruins might also require no interference from us.
Next time you drop a coffee cup and it smashes, see what it might be like to bring some mindful attention to shapes and patterns of its ruins on the floor. Does it need to be glued back together or not? Next time you throw some garbage away, see what it might be like intentionally to accept the jumbled mess in the bin. Do you need to turn away from it or not? Next time you’re looking for a spot to sit for your practice, see how it might be deliberately to choose a location that you find ugly instead of beautiful. Do you need to feel aversion towards that place?
OK, so this has been a lot to take in. I hope it makes some kind of sense to those of you who have been struggling with some of these important and difficult issues.
Wishing you safety, health, and freedom from enmity in the Year of the Ox,
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.