Mindfulness has become a bit of a buzz word these days, alongside concepts like “self-care.” So what is mindfulness anyways?
Mindfulness is another way of talking about being present. To be present is to drop into current time and the current set of sensations that are making up the moment. Growing our capacity to be present means not being caught up in the way we wish things were, and not collapsing or avoiding the way things are, but being able to meet them as they are. This is far easier said than done.
One of the greatest myths we work to dispel on a weekly basis in our drop-in Mindful Mondays program is the idea that being mindful means being calm. Or happy. Yes, to be calm and happy feels good. Yes, there is good, heartening evidence that mindfulness can increase overall well-being. But too often in mainstream wellness culture, mindfulness is offered as a tool to “fix” things, a secret way to “hack” our lives in order to be happier, more successful, and more productive.
This framework for mindfulness and success that centers the individual is born out of white wellness culture. It says that if we are just “mindful” enough, or “do enough self care,” we will be relieved of the stresses we feel. It turns pain, grief, and rage into issues that need to be healed in private, as if those emotions were the result of personal defects rather than rational responses to interlocking systems of domination that hurt us all. The individualized framework for mindfulness leaves out the systemic nature of our pain and alienation, and the need for healing – and change – on a collective level. You can read more about the limitations of an individualistic mindfulness mindset in this piece by Edwin Ng for Buddhist Peace Fellowship – “‘Mindfulness’ and ‘Happiness’ are a distraction. Shouldn’t we be speaking about Refuge?”
Where is the medicine for this mindset? In her book of essays Medicine Stories, writer, poet, and activist Aurora Levins Morales talks about the medicinal effect that truthtelling can have on undermining the gaslighting we experience daily inside of racial capitalism. To return to our original definition of mindfulness, truthtelling is another way of practicing being with things the way they are. The practice of being present can hone our ability to name and dignify our own experience, and to see the contexts we are inside of with clear eyes. This includes learning to see and feel the undeniable fact of our interconnectedness, which is another facet of our living experience that racial capitalism deludes us into forgetting. Naming the contexts we are inside of, and being present with ourselves and one another, can have a rehumanizing effect. We can’t fix anyone’s pain for them, but we can fiercely stand with another and refuse to look away.
A close community member of mine recently lost her child to the ocean. The loss of this beautiful spirit, this beautiful child, is a deep deep injury that has ripped open the hearts of all who have been touched by this family. It makes no sense and is far bigger than what the mind or one individual can hold or comprehend. I barely have words for the dull ache of grief I feel trapped inside of me, a huge feeling that stays contained for the time being. This mother, who lost her son only a month ago, reminds our community over and over again that she does not care whether we have the right thing to say. Instead, she asks us to feel with her. She says, “Try receiving a grieving person as an opportunity to heal your own heart. Just by feeling. Not feeling their pain but feeling the pain that flows through yourself and all of us human beings… This is a heroic act in a society that requires us to desensitize by any means available.”
As our Smith community faces the heart-sinking loss of Jane Brinkley, there too we can have the courage to continue to turn towards one another in the loss and the not-knowing. There is a huge range of feelings and reactions in the face of grief and we come by them all honestly. A practice of mindfulness that does not seek to escape or transcend, but rather sinks into what is, makes space within ourselves for the range of complexity that we embody. And when we scale this to the collective level, it makes space for the range of experiences and complexities that we embody as a community. Rather than attempting to be a community that is only calm and happy, this practice helps us face things as they are, together, revealing our reality in all of its pains and joys. This type of presence, of being with, is medicinal, because it counters numbness and isolation. Even when things are deeply painful, messy, or uncomfortable, we can practice turning towards one another and refusing to look away.