Mindfulness and the recovery of compassion, empathy and joy

Nearly always I come upon new reads, not through lists but, unexpectedly, in the marketplace of life.  I like it this way–the surprise of it, the joy of discovery, the smack of fate rather than coincidence, like the chance finding of a new friend or bumping into wise counsel, unanticipated, in a corner; its aftermath of empowering, the mystery and the beauty of it.

It happened for me this way yesterday when I came upon Mark Williams and Danny Penman’s Mindfulness:  An Eight Week Plan for Finding Peace in a Frantic World.  Intuiting a must read, I immediately downloaded the kindle version, which also features several sound tracks for the exercises.

I’ve been suffering lately from a good deal of anxiety, largely because of health issues.  I’m not used to things being this way and my need to control makes matters worse.  The trick in life is learning how to cope with issues you can’t always resolve.  While I know the script in my head, it’s quite another thing to carry out.

I like this new way of finding yourself and the freedom it brings, not in resolving, but in coping.  Mindfulness actually isn’t new, but a bedrock of Buddhism.  What changes the scorecard for me, however, is the empirical yield of sophisticated brain-scanning methodologies affirming its effectiveness.  What’s more, it can alter brain patterns long term for the better.  Studies show it substantially reduces depression and its frequent return,  improves blood pressure, lessens chronic pain, and boosts the immune system.  In daily life, it promotes empathy, compassion and joy.

I’ve always had great respect for the potential of meditation to promote both physical and emotional wellness.  My mind, however, works like a metropolitan airport, the runways always full.  Mindfulness meditation may thus work better for me, as instead of eliminating your thoughts, you passively observe them in conjunction with focusing on breathing.  You learn that you are not your thoughts and that thoughts can come and go like black clouds in the sky.  This gives you power to catch wrong thinking or patterns before they impact, and it lends space to help you heal.

Mindfulness is all about bringing us to our senses, and by this, I mean the sensory repertoire of touch, taste, sight, smell and sound.  We take ourselves too seriously and in doing so lose direct contact with the cornucopia of life’s potential blessedness all around us when we subjugate the sensory to the taunt reins of the cerebral.

As Williams and Penman point out, we spend our lives “on automatic pilot,” creatures of habit, oblivious to the priorities that really matter.  Mindfulness takes us out of ourselves, giving us power to discern and thus choose.

I began the eight week course yesterday with the “raisin” exercise, a simple endeavor lasting several minutes that helps rekindle the sensory, noting things like weight, texture, taste, smell and tongue movement.  Once again, I rediscovered Flaubert’s maxim that  “anything looked at long enough becomes interesting.”

I hope this exercise is a harbinger of future benefits as it delivered me from my self-concern, channeling my focus on the here and now.  I thought of other raisins to be savored:  a hooting owl in dawn’s pink-fingered rays, a mountain brook bubbling its way, a child’s innocent giggle, the sweet smell of morning cinnamon toast, the spring rose’s first blush.

I thought of Helen Keller’s eloquent wisdom:

“I who am blind can give one hint to those who see: Use your eyes as if tomorrow you would be stricken blind.  Hear the music of voices, the song of a bird, the mighty strains of an orchestra, as if you would be stricken deaf tomorrow. Touch each object as if tomorrow your tactile sense would fail. Smell the perfume of flowers, taste with relish each morsel, as if tomorrow you could never smell and taste again. make the most of every sense.”

Selah!  I am at peace.

–rj

About RJ

Retired English prof (Ph. D., UNC), who likes to garden, blog, pursue languages (especially Spanish) and to share in serious discussion on vital issues such as global warming, the role of government, energy alternatives, etc. Am a vegan and, yes, a tree hugger enthusiastically. If you write me, I'll answer.
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One Response to Mindfulness and the recovery of compassion, empathy and joy

  1. kscotsparks says:

    Thanks so much, Ralph. Please forgive mi two cents: The commended ‘mindfulness’ sometimes – well – ‘re-minds’ of things like the “be still and know” and the “taste and see” (and of the Shepherd-Lamb’s ‘Come unto me’ with its peculiarly ‘light’ burden, perhaps uniquely known in the mystical presence). If eventually or sometimes running aground on certain senses of the commended ‘detachment’ – the psalmic relationality alluded to in your ‘Selah’ retains quasi-therapeutic aspects practicably lost as they are crucial; the best of our ‘monist-cosmologist friends’ often seem to bring us back to them – very healthily.  …you re-mind, also, of a Buddhist meditation briefly visited in Louisville; and of the richness known when the ‘session master’ said ” Some of you may want to use the JESUS PRAYER as your mantra (…Greek and Russian [eastern] Trinitarianism seeming to form an important bridge, there, between better therapeutic implications of ‘faith’ and ‘neo-Hindu’ philosophy.)  THANKS again, Ralph!  love, ks

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