An interesting article in Utne magazine about what mindfulness really is caught my eye. The author, Thubten Chodron, is an American-born Tibetan nun and an abbess at a Buddhist monastic community in Washington state. Chodron highlights that there is a difference between practicing mindfulness and the traditional Buddhist understanding of mindfulness as a component of the path to liberation.
She writes that Buddha described four basic ways we misunderstand our experiences in this world, and that mindfulness is a remedy to our misunderstanding. Here’s what we misunderstand:
1. We think things are permanent.
When things are good, we don’t want anything to change. However, we need to learn that people and things are impermanent. We do this by being open to our own aging, to death, and to losing people and things in our lives. Things com, things go, things change.
2. We look for happiness from things that can’t bring happiness to us.
We need to let go of the hope that happiness is just around the corner. That a new job, better partner, or more financial success will make us happy. Otherwise, we stay in the cycle of striving for things to be different from what they are, and we experience disappointment when what we’re hoping will bring us lasting happiness doesn’t do that. We need to accept things as they are.
3. We fight against nature and how things are.
Chodron gives the example of our own bodies and how we fight to make them different than they are. We want to be thinner, less wrinkly, never go gray. We need to accept our changing selves. With acceptance comes being with how things are, instead of distress over the difference between how we want things to be and how they actually are.
4. We see ourselves as separate from others.
Identifying as an “I” brings emotions such as craving, fear, hostility, anxiety, resentment, arrogance, and laziness, which all bring suffering. We fight to keep what is mine. We’re resentful that others have more – more money, more beauty, more knowledge, etc. We need to let go of evaluating and judging, and just accept things as they are.
Chodron believes that by being more aware of our misunderstandings, we’re better able to let go of our habitual, self-centered ways, and become open to others and working for the benefit of all. We become open to genuine love and compassion.
So how does mindfulness relate to pain?
Simple mindfulness exercises such as a focus on breathing or other relaxation exercises can certainly decrease stress and pain. But how about this deeper sense of mindfulness that Chodron writes about? Naturally most of us have these misunderstandings as they apply to our experience of pain, and we can use mindfulness to help ourselves.
1. We can let go of clinging to our desire for a healthy, un-painful body.
Often with pain comes clinging to the past – what our bodies and our lives used to be like – which can cause sadness and depression. (At the other end, we may over-focus on the future, which can bring anxiety – will I feel better? – and fear that we won’t.) Focusing on the present can lessen this sadness on one end and the fear on the other end.
2. We don’t need to wait until we’re pain-free to live.
Of course we’ll continue to work to make ourselves more comfortable. But we can also focus on living our lives despite pain, and avoid an “I-won’t-be-happy-until-I’m-pain-free” attitude. The goal is to be happy despite pain.
3. We can accept, nurture and care for our bodies, even in pain.
Do you practice loving kindness towards the areas of your body that are in pain? Rather than seeing those parts as the enemy, remember that they’re part of you, but that they’re in trouble and need your care.
4. We can move from an inward focus to opening up to others.
We can keep our lives meaningful despite pain – keep our focus on family and friends, and our life’s work – even if that has to change, or how we do that has to change because of pain. Again, the goal is living fully despite pain.
I do think that this is a process, a journey. Actually a journey for a lifetime.