Three keys to mindfulness and compassion
Something that keeps coming up for me in our mindfulness and compassion classes is that there are three qualities that enable the process to be transformational. And since the practice of mindfulness and compassion isn't just a skill we learn but a fundamental re-engagement with our lives, I'm realizing more and more that these three qualities enable us to more fully live with joy, engagement and resilience in this world.
The three qualities I'm thinking of are: willingness, honesty, and curiosity. I'd like to offer a few thoughts from my perspective but more importantly, I invite you to turn these over in your mind and heart and see how they are for you.
Nothing changes if we aren't willing. Willing to try something new. Willing to be wrong. Willing to make a mistake and be a little embarrassed. Willing to deviate from our usual course, or sometimes willing to stay the course. There needs to be plenty of discernment in willingness.
The opposite of willingness is being small, is withdrawing into our usual patterns, is running on autopilot.
This is subtle though. It's not just about pushing, pushing, pushing ourselves to be more willing. Think of the wonderful invitation in our Mindful Self-Compassion classes around opening and closing. Maybe you, like me, absorbed a message that we are always supposed to be opening up. Expanding. Trying new things.
But to be always willing in that way is unsustainable and involves some aggression towards our self (what one author calls the "subtle aggression of self-improvement"). The willingness I'm talking about includes the willingness to close when that's what we need. To take a break. To decide to pass. But this is not so much an unwillingness to learn and grow as a willingness to pace ourselves with kindness. Asking ourselves, "What do I need right now?" is a key ingredient in the practice of willingness.
But nothing happens if we aren't willing.
All systems of ethics include honesty. We know there are negative consequences when we lie to each other, even when lies seem somehow justified or reasonable.
But I'm also thinking about learning to be more honest about how we talk to ourselves and each other about our inner lives. This honesty is shedding the one-sided, habitual myths about who we are and how we're doing.
Perhaps you usually tell yourself, or tell others, that you're fine. "How are you?" we ask each other. "Fine, thanks." we answer. A useful ritual of connection but often we miss the opportunity to go further into real connection and real honesty. Or perhaps you always tell yourself, and even others, that you're stressed and upset. Is that really always true?
Because of course we aren't any one way - fine or upset, or rather we are and we aren't. True honesty about our inner lives also requires us to practice holding opposites. Our lives are wonderful - we have enough food to eat, a roof over our heads, many friends and relations who support us - and our lives are disasters - we're afraid and anxious, we don't know if we can do it, we don't know if the world is going to fall into enormous cataclysmic disasters. It's hard to even know how to speak or what to say if we ponder our lives deeply but we have to try.
The practice of this kind of honesty is one of the most wondrous aspects of our experience with each other in Mindfulness Northwest classes. We find that when we practice real honesty with each other there is an incredible feeling of connection, intimacy, and safety that emerges. Honesty allows us to access to essential feeling of common humanity. Oddly enough the fear that most often keeps us dishonest, the fear that we will be revealed as unworthy and a fraud, that very fear is what is healed when we are more honest. We find out through honesty in a deep and direct way that we are not alone.
Curiosity. We are all deeply trained in a certain kind of knowing: the knowing of skills and facts, procedures and abilities. It's a useful kind of knowing, and we need it to navigate the world, to get our jobs done. And yet this kind of knowing can also shrink around us as a kind of straight-jacket of certainty. This kind of knowing can lead to states of extreme mindlessness in the fashion that Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer describes in her work as a state in which the past over-predicts the present and one is "often in error, but rarely in doubt."
Curiosity is the antidote to this narrowing of perspective. Curiosity engenders openness. It broadens perspective. It reveals to us new and unexpected aspects of any situation. Curiosity helps us to read the subtle signs and signals that this isn't exactly the same as last time. Curiosity supports engagement, and with engagement we can find joy and delight even in the middle of activities we think of as mundane and routine. There is always more to whatever is going on than we notice at first. Curiosity is the second look and the fresh perspective.
"I wonder if there's more going on here?" we might ask ourselves. This kind of questioning, very essentially, creates the purposeful pause that helps make space for curiosity.
It's a practice
It's wonderful to contemplate these three qualities of willingness, honesty, and curiosity. How does it feel to you to read these words and think about how you already employ these qualities in your life - and perhaps the feeling of those times when you don't?
But the practice of them is in the living of them. A wonderful practice is each day to get up in the morning and set your intention to be willing, to be honest. Each day is a new day, unlike any that has come before. Our life invites us to show up for it and more and more it feels like the whole world needs us at our best. Luckily, being at our best in this way is a joy and a privilege. It feels better, even when we encounter the great challenges of life, to be willing, to be honest, and to be curious.
I was discussing these qualities with one of the meditation groups I visit and one of them pointed out the overarching quality that makes these three function: kindness. A good point! And I would suggest also a natural result of practicing these three. If we're willing, honest and curious how else can we be towards ourselves and others but kind? We only have so long, we're all in this together, and life is tough. Let's be kindly willing, kindly honest, and kindly curious. Together.
Rev. Tim Burnett, Executive Director