This week I lost a tooth, my glasses broke, a piece of furniture succumbed to age, and the undercarriage of our car rusted out. And these are only hassles within a relatively secure life. In Nepal, earthquakes took thousands of lives. In Baltimore, riots tore the city apart. In Philadelphia, a train derailment transported passengers from luxury to tragedy in seconds.
Life can be so daunting—with both its hassles and its larger challenges and injustices—it can be tempting to try to find an escape, and many people imagine meditation to be just such a way out. The word “retreat” (i.e., a meditation intensive) can conjure the notion of running from “the real world” into a haven of private bliss. But nothing could be further from the truth.
When you practice mindfulness, as many of you can attest, the real world comes with you. It’s never far from your mind. After all, what lasting value would mindfulness impart if it were merely a form of in-home entertainment? The point of the retreating, whether for a few minutes or a few months, is the returning: to be in the world and able to take on its difficulties with more equanimity and resilience.
And yet critics repeatedly misapprehend mindfulness as an escape hatch, the easy way out. After making good points about the dangers of commodifying mindfulness, social critic Barbara Ehrenreich, writing on The Baffler, surmises that “maybe meditation does have a calming, ‘centering’ effect, but so does an hour of concentration on a math problem or a glass of wine with friends.” In similar fashion, Virginia Heffernan, writing in The New York Times, muses about meditators using “soothing self-induced thoughts to overcome difficulties.”
If we better regulate our nervous system, we can tolerate more stress and thereby avoid making hasty and damaging decisions.
An hour of concentration on a math problem may indeed be valuable, not only for the solution to the problem, but also for its relaxing effect. So too the convivial glass of wine. But they’re not equivalent activities to mindfulness meditation, where “soothing” and “centering” are not really the point. In meditation, we’re alone with our thoughts and emotions, and our nervous system—that hypervigilant sensor of danger and opportunity. When we retreat for a time with no immediate project to fixate on, we expose ourselves directly to the workings of our mind and body, and can learn to regulate them more effectively. After time and with training, our very desire to seek escape from difficulty lessens. This is why people working in high-stress situations (usually on our behalf), such as firefighters, police, soldiers, doctors, and others, have taken a keen interest in mindfulness, and why its effectiveness for these groups is being actively researched.
Elizabeth Stanley, founder of Mindfulness Based Mental Fitness Training—a program for anyone who “serves their communities in high-stress contexts, including members of the military, law enforcement, and other first-response organizations”—has written that with mindfulness, people serving in high-stress contexts “are more likely to see the environment around them clearly, without being influenced by unconscious ‘survival-brain’ filters that can exaggerate what’s really there. They are more likely to regulate their hardwired stress response and the reactive impulses this stress response can create.”
The better we regulate our nervous system the more stress we can tolerate, and the less likely we are to make bad decisions in the midst of it. In a word, we are more resilient. Mindfulness is not a magic resilience pill. But in putting us in more intimate touch with how the world’s ups and downs are mirrored in our bodies and minds, it enables us to work more effectively with our very difficult world. And that’s not a retreat. It’s an advance.