Part 1 of 2
Like many people I meet, I often find myself awash these days in feelings of anger, despair, and overwhelm as reactions to the news of the day, and the constant drumbeat of media coverage and commentary about the mass of pain and suffering on our planet. I frequently notice arising within me angry urges for arguing with, striking out, or even going to war, with someone or something. And when I have a personal encounter with pain, loss, illness, or death—unavoidable in my life or in others' lives—that encounter adds to the daily news of the larger suffering world, making the increased burden of pain, at least at times, seem unbearable, if it did not already feel that way.
The author and lecturer Helen Keller, who was both blind and deaf and went on to lead an inspiring and courageous life that touched the hearts and changed the lives of many others, once observed that, "Although the world is full of suffering, it is full also of the overcoming of it." I have taken comfort and reassurance in the possibility of overcoming suffering in the great example of Helen Keller's life and words, as have many others.
In my own life, I have found mindfulness and related contemplative practices, plus the love, support, and inspiration of others, to be powerful active ingredients for overcoming suffering. They provide tools and perspectives, based in the direct encounter with wisdom and kindness, for meeting and healing life's pain, which is unavoidable, and for not creating an additional mass of suffering out of that pain. I will offer reflections, and some words of encouragement from my own experiences related to practicing and teaching mindfulness. It is my deep hope that others may find food for thought here, and perhaps some support, as they explore mindfulness practice and inhabit their own "mindful moments." And my sincere wish is that those mindful explorations will help overcome much individual suffering and promote peace and ease in a world that badly needs it.
A Radical Change in View
Practicing mindfulness, one takes the position of awareness by paying attention "on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally" (as Jon Kabat-Zinn once famously said). Establishing mindfulness, even briefly but always in the present moment, we immediately move into a larger dimension of awareness, a dimension always here for us, and one where understanding and peace immediately become possible, regardless of the nature or intensity of our circumstances. Assuming the position of awareness involves a radical change in how we view our unfolding experience, and at the same time, this radically different view can transform our experience of ourselves, and of our lives, and reveal more effective, compassionate, and wise actions available to us in any moment.
In my own mindfulness practice, I have found the immediate change in view that comes from shifting into present moment centered awareness in some ways similar to the dramatic change in perception that happens when I am looking at the familiar picture that contains images of both an old woman and a young woman. In that picture, by shifting my focus and point of attention, I can suddenly see a very different figure. With a newly different focus and view, I suddenly recognize the figure of the young woman where before I saw only the old woman's face. With practice I can observe either image, and go back and forth between them, simply by shifting my focus of attention to different points in the larger picture.
This experience of changing view reveals the truth that both figures were always there, even if one was not noticed. It was only my limited perception, sustained by clinging to a narrowed focus of attention, that kept one figure obscured. When I learned to shift my focus the hidden figure appeared! And, of course, it is also good to recall that there is actually NO woman, old or young, there. The larger, entire figure I am viewing is actually only a collection of different patterns of lines, curves, and darker and lighter spaces from which my mind collects elements which it uses to assemble a pattern it knows, which then becomes the perception viewed as the smaller, embedded figure of an old or young woman.
Like that dramatic change in the experience viewing the young/old woman figure, my perception and experience of myself and my life can be immediately and profoundly altered as I intentionally shift perspective, and take a mindful view of my moment-by-moment experience. For example, instead of being caught up or identified with a feeling of anger at what I am hearing on a news broadcast, in any moment, if I choose instead to drop into awareness, immediately the entire experience of personal reactions, and of sensory input, and felt embodiment in that moment shifts in the light of mindful attention. Instead of being a rigid position, or a personal identity from which "I" react to the news, the elements of personal reaction themselves become objects of mindful attention through the shift in view into mindful awareness. The implications of choosing to make this shift to the position of awareness are significant.
From the position of awareness, I am immediately able to stop fueling the war of reaction and protest I am waging on the level of my personality and felt sense of self. I can make conscious, and better understand, the personal pain, fears, blame, judgments, or beliefs that are feeding my protest, and recognize more compassionate and effective ways to heal. Uncoupling from absorption in the view of "me," I find peace in the larger dimension of awareness, and am more likely to be able to understand others, and to make more constructive choices in my words and actions. By steadying attention in the present moment—paying attention on purpose and non-judgmentally—the personal elements of my reactions against the news no longer hijack me into words or acts that add to the suffering already present in the situation, mine or others. Instead, my personal elements join the contents of the news broadcast as additional worthy objects of mindful awareness.
This larger field of awareness is always here for us. Knowing it is available, knowing how to shift the view, and take the position of awareness, anyone can immediately reconnect with a still and strong center of calm knowing within. It is a center that is not disturbed by disturbing news, or by the upset and stress reactions in one's own mind and body to that news. The field of awareness is much larger than those changing conditions, and is capable of including them with acceptance and kindness. From awareness we can make wiser and more life-enhancing choices, choices made from wisdom, not fear or angry reactions.