Each time I listen to the news lately, it seems that some horrific event has occurred in the world. In just one weekend we have heard the details of life-changing tragedies in Nice, Turkey and Baton Rouge.
How can we stay mindful when the worst happens? Can mindfulness help us through the worst experiences we can imagine?
Mindfulness, in essence, is a simple concept. I think of it as being awake and aware in each passing moment. I also like the definition from Jon Kabat Zinn, Professor of Medicine Emeritus and creator of the Stress Reduction Clinic and the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. He says that mindfulness is:
“The awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.”
When we are caught up in a tragedy, it can be all-consuming. The pain we feel is real and can seem endless. Why would we want to be aware and pay attention to the worst pain we have ever experienced?
Mindfulness teaches us that we can only be aware of the present moment and that each moment that passes is unique.
When I first started practicing Mindfulness I thought that the object was to clear my head of thoughts, to have a blank mind. In the midst of a tragedy, this might seem like an attractive proposition. However, experience has taught me that having an empty head is simply impossible. My mind is always thinking and when the worst happens, it goes into overdrive and I can feel out of control, unable to take my mind off thoughts of the event. What I have learned through my experience of regular mindfulness practice is that my thoughts are not fixed, or solid. Like the breath, they change from moment to moment.
When we are overwhelmed by thoughts and feelings, our natural tendency is either to try to block them out or to drown in them, feeling out of control. Mindfulness practice helps us to look at our thoughts, rather than through them. If we can observe thoughts and feelings as they arise, in the moment, we can begin to see the ebb and flow and we notice that no two thoughts are the same. Might it help to recognise that we only have to deal with one moment at a time? We don’t have to hold onto moments that have already passed by and we can’t experience moments that haven’t happened yet. We can only experience the present moment. Painful as it might be, it is just one moment and the next one will be different. Can we be kind to ourselves, to acknowledge the pain that we feel and bring a kindly awareness to our experience in the moment?
As an outside observer of someone else’s tragedy, we feel powerless. What can we say or do to help someone who feels they have lost everything? We can’t know what other people are experiencing and we feel guilty as we hope that we will never go through anything like this ourselves.
Mindfulness, particularly loving-kindness based meditation, helps to increase our sense of social connectedness and to develop our feelings of love and kindness towards others. I will leave the final word to Breathworks founder Vidyamala Burch:
“The only thing that is important is that you simply try, as best you can, to extend your warm thoughts and feelings to others, while contemplating all that you have in common with them. More than this, you cannot do.”
Burch, V and Penman D. (2013) Mindfulness for Health, a practical guide to relieving pain, reducing stress and restoring wellbeing, Piatkus, London
The Meaning of Mindfulness