Recently, it seems we are increasingly assaulted with a barrage of atrocious, saddening and maddening news. Natural disasters such as the earthquakes in Mexico and hurricanes in Texas, Florida and the Caribbean. Mass acts of terror like that in Las Vegas that resulted in the death and injury of literally hundreds, not to mention many hundreds more who must live on, moment by moment, moment by moment plagued by images of death, fear and screams. Acts of violent white supremacy such as that in Charleston, VA. And this is just a very short list of large-scale traumatic events that have occurred in the last months. This does not include the parade of atrocities we have witnessed here in the United States, and abroad in the past year, and years. Further, it does not include those daily acts of violence we are witness to as citizens of a violent society. Fighting, harassment and bullying in schools. Passive aggressive communication and exhaustion in our work places that demand constant productivity and find us surrounded by exhausted and overstretched peers.
How do we process these painful images and experiences? The answer that I have come to find for myself is mindfulness (a term that is widely used, though I use different language for myself, as I will share below). As I have described elsewhere, mindfulness is the practice of paying attention in the present moment without judgement to bodily sensation, feelings, and thoughts. It is a practice that has been adopted and validated by health and human services providers under the classification of cognitive-behavioral therapeutic techniques. Mindfulness is an awareness that we (those living in the U.S., and many others) are constantly taught not to cultivate. For example, moments of trauma (mass shootings, natural disasters) are lived and re-lived again and again through short videos on social media and on “news” platforms that capitalize on trauma. Every time we re-watch these horrible videos we breath more and more life into our fear and we create more suffering for ourselves. While it is essential that we stay aware to act for social justice, we must balance that awareness of our current reality with time to turn inward so that we can maintain balance and health in the face of our collective and immense suffering. Turn the T.V. off, and set the phone down.
Mindfulness practices have provided a venue for me to deeply feel the pain and suffering that I have witnessed in my life. These practices have been inherently spiritual and rely heavily on my personal experience as a Jew, a Buddhist, and a yoga practitioner. For me, mindfulness is seated meditation and physical asana practice (asana are physical poses, and pranayama are breathing exercises). Buddhist thought tells that there are four noble truths, the first of which is that all life is suffering. Of course, it is easy to label an atrocity like a mass shooting as suffering, but this truth extends much further. The dharma (reality, natural law) taught by Buddhists is that everything is suffering. The reason, and this is echoed in the eighth-limbed practice of ashtanga yoga one can find in most every yoga studio in the U.S., is that our ego leads us to live in the phenomenal world mired in ignorance. That fundamental ignorance is that we are an autonomous self, somehow beyond the forces of nature, somehow in control. That ego craves pleasure, and pleasure is hard to come by and maintain when all things are suffering. This is all a drab idea for a newcomer to this method of thought. However, mindfulness practice will reveal that there is little else (in my opinion nothing else) more liberating for one’s individual self, and for our communities both small and large.
Inward observation, or mindfulness practice such as Buddhist meditation, physical yoga practice and so many others (gardening, painting, sewing, and hiking to name just a few activities that can be done mindfully) free us, heal us, and open our hearts. Practices of inward observation slow us down, stop our mind from racing in the face of trauma and violence, whether it be hearing from your sibling that they just survived a mass shooting, hurtful words from a boss that we have not performed to their expectation yet again, or that we find another medical therapy does not cure our chronic illness. When mindful, we can experience the soaring joys of our lover embracing us, or the heart shattering sorrow that we encounter, and then move on from them, prepared to move through whatever is in the next moment. We lose the sense of ignorant individual ego when we move through life observing our thoughts and experience as if we are an outside observer, rather than believing that our feelings always were and always will be the one true reality. Pain becomes bearable when we know that it is not the status quo, when we see that it is impermanent.
Mindfulness practice is not easy, nor is it a quick fix to get you out of the hurt and numbness you may be feeling in the light of recent tragedies. An earnest and unrelentingly daily practice of self-observation will liberate you from the cycle of violence and trauma that we are conditioned to endlessly participate in in our society. With some degree of peace achieved, we are able then to move closely and with skill to meet the needs of humanity, to be adequate servants of creating a more just society. What I have written here, is based off my imperfect practice, it is what I have come to find for myself. Setting down social media, turning off your phone, silencing work e-mail for just a moment, and Engaging in mindful activity; what will you find?