The Examined Life

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Waking up is hard to do—but that's OK

This post was originally written for Mindful.org in 2011. 

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been catching up on streaming videos from Creating A Mindful Society, the Mindful.org-sponsored event which took place in New York last month. Two segments stood out for me. The first was Richie Davidson’s brilliant keynote on the neuroscience of meditation—a clear and cogent outline of what happens in our brains as we train in presence and kindness. The second was a discussion of why, twenty years after publication of Jon Kabat-Zinn’s seminal book, Full Catastrophe Living, and with so much evidence pointing towards the benefits, mindfulness practice hasn’t yet become a part of most people’s lives.

There were several interesting takes on this, including Kabat-Zinn’s own call for patience—he talked in terms of a thousand-year unfolding—and Davidson’s reminder that in spite of all the remarkable data, we are far from convincing the scientific mainstream that meditation is a valuable thing to do.

But even if the science were unquestioned and the political and social atmosphere ripe, perhaps we shouldn’t expect mindfulness to be met with an unqualified, widespread embrace. I say this because meditation can be difficult, unpleasant, and scary. That’s not to put people off, but to acknowledge that it means coming to terms with not just the stuff we like (calm, ease, freedom, flow), but also the stuff we don’t like (pain, anger, death, loss of control). When we practice mindfulness, we’re changing our habitual pattern of relating (hold on to the "good" stuff, and push away the "bad"). Indeed, we’re exploring the possibility of giving up our preconceived judgments about what is good and bad. I’m reminded of a meditation teacher who once told me: “It’s not about trying to sniff the roses, or avoiding the smell of manure, so much as appreciating that we have a nose.”

When we look at the remarkable scientific results, and hear stories of increased well-being from practitioners, it’s easy to forget that these changes usually reflect a letting go of established ways of seeing and doing in the world, a gradual coming to accept that they don’t serve us as we had imagined. Mindfulness practice opens us up to the expanse of who we are, the reality of our lives. This, as Kabat-Zinn says, means being willing to own the Full Catastrophe, the pain as well as the pleasure.

Now that’s not easy. And if you don’t feel like you’re really suffering or struggling, you may not be up for such a shift in perspective. Even those of us who’ve committed to this awakening can find it so uncomfortable that we repeatedly resist the bright light that meditation shines on our lives.

Around the middle weeks of a mindfulness  course, there’s often a dawning among participants that what we’re engaged with is not "nicey, nicey," a band-aid to stick on as protection from discomfort. In fact, we’re  ripping off the band-aid and exposing our wounds to the air. By doing this in the context of meditation, which offers a gentle holding space for this to happen, we sometimes discover that we can tolerate our troubles and work with them in a way that brings a more profound well-being than some kind of Polyanna-ish positive thinking.

But waking up is hard to do. Not everyone wants to take the red pill. It’s fine to acknowledge this—indeed, if we become evangelical about mindfulness, wanting everyone to take to it with unquestioning enthusiasm, then we’ve become trapped in desire. If we fail to acknowledge the difficulties of meditation, then we are burying our heads in the sand of ignorance and aversion, and perhaps offering a picture of the practice to others that may not be genuine. As ever, the best way to see the change we yearn for is to be it, to magnetise others through our embodiment, rather than just through our advocacy. This may mean a slower embrace of mindfulness in our world, but, maybe, a deeper and more transformative one.

posted by Ed Halliwell, 12:29 pm