There are several attitudes of mind that are pivotal to the transformation and liberation of the mind: befriending, compassion, joy, and equanimity. These qualities are the foundations of our mindfulness practice. They are also innate human qualities that everyone can access. Every human mind can be cultivated, trained, and wired for befriending, compassion, joy, and equanimity.
When we practice tuning into these qualities, we give ourselves an advantage in moments of great distress, for these are the qualities of mind that will see us safely through difficulty, and they are also the ones that can disappear just when they are needed most. Today we’re focussing on one of these qualities: befriending.
What Does It Mean to “Befriend”?
The shift from aversion to befriending is the most radical shift any student of mindfulness can make.
Befriending involves being curious, friendly, and kind, and is a capacity that we can all develop toward ourselves and our experiences. It is available to all of us, and is “the home where our hearts and minds dwell.” Although befriending, compassion, joy, and equanimity are interwoven, befriending is the foundation for the other three—they only arise when we can establish a relationship of caring curiosity with all experience.
As a practice, befriending means befriending all of our experience, whether it is pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral; befriending our relationship to ourselves and others; and befriending all events and circumstances. It does not distinguish thinking, feeling, and action — rather, it is a friendly heartfulness that imbues our thinking and actions. Befriending describes a way of being that is all-inclusive, of our minds and hearts as well as all that we encounter in the world, both the challenging and the lovely. Its affective tone is warmth and tenderness. Its underlying intentionality is uprooting ill-will and cultivating generosity, gratitude, and care. The near enemy of befriending is “conditional kindness,” extended only to what we like and denied to what we don’t like. The far enemy is ill-will, resentment, and hatred.
Developing the capacity to befriend does not mean that we have to like the painful or the difficult. When we learn to stand near to it and befriend it without being overwhelmed, we become free to explore the landscape of the difficult. Befriending is the beginning of accepting our vulnerability. It is a fading of the familiar strategies and mechanisms of avoidance that are triggered by our fears of vulnerability and our concerns about worth, lovability, and abilities.
How Befriending Helps Us Embrace Our Vulnerabilities
Learning to befriend the moment with all of its challenges and to develop our capacity to meet vulnerability in a fearless way is an important step. This attitude of caring curiosity is taught through the language and guidance of skilled mindfulness teachers, encouraging a gentle, interested, and tender exploration of physical and psychological pain. Participants in mindfulness training discover that it is increasingly possible to approach their personal story of grief, pain, depression, and hopelessness with care and curiosity. During group dialogue in a mindfulness course, one can discover that what they had thought was only their personal story of distress is actually a universal story of vulnerability.
Instead of turning away from the difficult, students of mindfulness learn that it is possible to establish a dialogue of mindfulness and tenderness with it. This makes affliction approachable and the habits of flight, fear, and avoidance cease to be so automatic. Rather than abandoning or defending against distress, we discover that this, too, can be befriended. It is a powerful lesson to learn that aversion and resistance are not life sentences, and that they only compound pain. We come to understand that aversion makes us a hostage to pain, tied to the difficult events and experiences through an aversive and fearful narrative. Thoughts such as “I just don’t know if I can live with this pain for the rest of my life” and “I am a terrible parent” create and recreate pain and suffering. These are understandable thoughts, but they are wrecking ball thoughts that we can step back from, see with curiosity and care, and allow them to pass through awareness without being knocked down by them. Exploring the possibility of befriending the difficult allows the difficult to be seen as a dynamic, unfolding process that can be approached and understood.
Exploring the possibility of befriending the difficult allows the difficult to be seen as a dynamic, unfolding process that can be approached and understood.
The shift from aversion to befriending is the most radical shift any student of mindfulness can make. Befriending is the primary attitude that students learn to return to again and again in the midst of all of the difficult emotional habits that mindfulness reveals. It is a challenging lesson to learn, yet it is also a practice.
It can be incredibly empowering to realize that we can find kindness—toward ourselves, others, and our experiences—in the midst of bodily pain, challenging thoughts and emotions, and seemingly overwhelming life situations. Friendly curiosity does not necessarily change the contents of our experience. The difficult is not automatically transformed into something pleasant. What is transformed, however, is the climate of our mind. The mind rooted in kindness powerfully impacts our experience. As aversion begins to soften, the difficult becomes approachable.
People entering into mindfulness programs often seek ways to address struggle and distress more skillfully, so that they can develop a capacity to live their lives with a greater wakefulness, joy, and wholeheartedness. Learning to befriend all moments and events places us firmly in the life we are living, rather than the ideal moment we are prone to lean toward where we envisage that all difficulties have ended and all vulnerabilities have been resolved. Like the development of attention, the development of befriending is an intentional cultivation.
Friendly curiosity does not necessarily change the contents of our experience. The difficult is not automatically transformed into something pleasant. What is transformed, however, is the climate of our mind.
It is possible to approach the difficult with a cold glare of attention. However, this can be disguised aversion or skepticism. It is possible to engage with the same difficulty with a genuine willingness to touch it with an attentiveness that is tender, interested, and kind. This befriends the moment and all it holds. Instead of aversion or trying to fix, befriending is a radically different approach, an “orthogonal” rotation of mind, a way of being with that enables a transformation. Our minds impact our actions and in turn, our actions shape our hearts and minds.
There will always be opportunities for us to renew our intention to befriend. It is not as if difficulties or aversion will cease—there will be ample opportunities to practice befriending in life, especially as aging inevitably brings with it illness and physical limitations, and difficult events will continue to present themselves. Befriending is a capacity that deepens with practice—the intrinsic capacity to be friendly with our experience is reawakened and increasingly available to us in times of difficulty and in times of meaning, connection, and love.
Mindfulness Exercise: Befriending The Life You’re Living
- Pause for a moment and sense what is happening in your body and mind, what is happening around you. Quite intentionally adopt a posture that has a sense of openness, care, and dignity.
- Attending to your body, sense how your body feels touching the chair, the touch of the air on your skin, any sensations in the face and shoulders. You might begin to sense what your mood is—perhaps tired, restless, or calm. The background whisper of thoughts or images becomes discernible. You may discover yourself becoming sensitized to the sights and sounds of the moment.
- Take a moment to stand back, be still, turning your attention to the life of the body with curiosity, patience, and care. Sense how the air and your clothing are touching your skin, the sounds you are hearing. Sense the posture of your spine, the expression on your face, the placing of your hands. Be mindful of the places in your body that are well and sense the easefulness of those places.
- Expand your attention to the places in the body that feel contracted or painful. Explore what it is to tend to those places with care, curiosity, and kindness.
- Now, if it is helpful, say a few phrases under your breath—not trying to change anything—just saying the phrases and seeing how things are for you: “Safe and well.” “Contented and peaceful.” “Caring and kind.”
- Continue with this for as long as it feels appropriate, with your body as an anchor. Be mindful of how sensations are moment to moment, ebbing and flowing. Explore what it is to steady the attention within the body—standing or sitting—the body sensing, breathing. When your attention is drawn elsewhere, bring the same simple knowing—a thought as a thought, an image as an image—returning once more to an awareness of the body of the moment, just as it is, without demand or expectation.
- Sense what it is to expand your attention to include the thoughts, images, and mood present in this moment, including the difficult, unpleasant ones that you are prone to become lost in or judge. Explore what it is to be mindful of all of this with the same caring attentiveness. If it is helpful, again bring forward the same simple articulated intentions: “Safe and well.” “Contented and peaceful.” “Caring and kind.”
- Remember, this is not about changing what is present, but about cultivating our capacity to befriend what is present. It is not about having a particular feeling, but about strengthening our capacity to care for what is present.
- As you bring the practice to a close, form an intention to continue to practice in the midst of your day‐to‐day life.
Excerpted from Mindfulness: Ancient Wisdom Meets Modern Psychology by Christina Feldman and Willem Kuyken. Copyright (c) 2019 The Guilford Press. Reprinted with permission of The Guilford Press.