One of the most powerful ideas I've learned from mindfulness and compassion training over these last years has been really helpful to me lately: it's the idea of "holding opposites."
The idea here is that our minds are strongly conditioned to divide things into two opposite possibilities and decide that one of the two is the correct option. It's good or it's bad. I like it or I don't. It's black or it's white. Conservative or Liberal.
It's hard for us to accept that both options often have validity. That both can be "right."
Hard but not impossible: our minds can actually deeply accept and allow apparent opposites to exist. We can develop a mind that's more inclusive and flexible and this can really help us to be present for the joys and sorrows of life. We can learn to hold opposites. Things can be both good and bad. Black and white. Happy and sad.
This holding opposites is a key support for what I'm now thinking of as the three key qualities for practicing mindfulness and compassion: willingness, honesty and kindness. If we're willing to be truly honest and look within we may be surprised to find that we are full of opposites. And allowing them to all be true is a great act of kindness and acceptance.
Take ourselves for example.
On the one hand: we have it together. We're competent, skilled and whole. We're a good person. Of course we also have an inner critic who's primed to argue with us about our good qualities, but we're basically doing fine. We're smart and strong and kind. People are glad to see us. Many depend on us and we are worthy of their trust.
And on the other hand, we're not. We're confused. We're self-centered. We have trouble getting up in the morning sometimes. Life is baffling and complex. We are full of self-doubt. Maybe we're deeply a fraud after all. We are, all of us, suffering in deep ways. We have our fears and doubts. Life is tough and we're not sure, really, if anything's going to work out.
Could it really be that both are true? We are doing fine AND we're a mess? That both can be the case?
And then there's the world.
I don't know for sure if the world is better or worse than it once was, but lately I and so very many people I meet are worried about the world. It seems to be broiling in chaos (and by the way, there are also studies suggesting that on the whole the world has less poverty and less violence than it ever has... holding opposites).
I'm thinking here of our world in the wake of yet another terrorist-style attack on innocent people just going about their lives. How is it even possible that someone could rent the truck from Home Depot that's for driving your lumber for your home repair project home and instead of doing that, go ram into people riding their bikes on a nice Fall day? Kill people. Maim people. Ruin lives. How is this possible?
Our minds want to avoid thinking about this. This is natural. It's such a horrible thing. I avoided this latest news for a while but then read up on it. I was deeply saddened to learn that five of those killed were a half of a group of guys visiting New York City from Argentina for their 30th High School Reunion. There was a picture of them in the airport back home smiling and vital. They look like such nice people. Kind and warm. Happy to be together. Maybe proud of themselves for pulling off the feat of getting together after all these years to go on a big trip. What fun! Then I was aware of their friendship and commitment to each other and a vast wave of sadness washed over me. A group deeply wracked by tragedy. Half of the group dead. Five families grieving and circle upon circle of friends and colleagues and acquaintances and children and parents and cousins plunged into mourning and loss.
How is this possible in a world that also has the purity of babies in it? Beautiful sunsets? How can that co-exist with meeting the kind stranger I ran into on the trail on Chuckanut Mountain during a lovely hike on Tuesday?
The mind searches hard for an explanation. Perhaps we can wall off the horrible things in a mental box we call "evil" or "mental illness" or "terrorism." But what do any of these designations really mean? And can they really hold the horrific and protect us from it?
Our minds so want things to be only one way. We want to be happy and not suffer. And when there's great suffering we think it impossible that there could be happiness.
But somehow we can learn to mourn deeply and feel the pain of great loss and be moved by the deep suffering and confusion and be curious about it's causes and roots. And still be able to nurture our goodness as people and as a species. To be mindful is to accept what is. Here it is. To be compassionate is to meet it with kindness even when we can't make sense of it all. To still be hopeful.
May those lost in this and the many other attacks and acts of violence - so many lately it seems - somehow find peace and may those who love and care for them have the strength and fortitude they need to not fall into despair. May we all practice opening our minds to the complexity of holding the opposites in a world that is both wonderful and terrible.
And little by little, may we nurture the good.
Tim Burnett, Executive Director