Published May 26th, 2020 at 11:30 AM
Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably come into contact with an article or person extolling the virtues of meditation. There is no shortage of information out there to help guide you to your path of mindfulness. But taking that first step and sticking to it is not always so easy.
Before developing a practice of my own, I fancied myself a “doer.” I thought the best way to fix problems was to confront them head on. Every time someone mentioned meditation I envisioned people in pretzel-legged positions shrouded in clouds of incense declaring an enlightened oneness with everything.
It just didn’t feel like my style. Besides, what good could I be to others, let alone myself, by simply sitting in silence for a set amount of time each day?
Victor J. Dougherty is the director of Temple Buddhist Center of Kansas City. He has been meditating for more than 18 years and conducts regular meditation groups and dharma lessons at Unity Temple on the Plaza.
Dougherty claims one of the biggest obstacles people have to a successful mindfulness practice is that “they are still trapped in doing, trying to make something happen, trying to meditate a certain way. In other words, they are attached to an outcome instead of just being.”
Just being? It’s not the most exciting idea on paper. It doesn’t make you chuckle like the latest cat meme or make you want to get up and cheer like a good political slogan. But it’s something that many of us are in a unique position to do these days.
When the COVID-19 pandemic hit and the calls went out for all nonessential workers to shelter in place and physically distance, I immediately felt a parallel between the development of my meditation practice and this new upside-down world where the best thing most of us can do to help was to “just be.”
“We don’t meditate to control our thoughts,” says Dougherty. “We meditate so our thoughts don’t control us.”
It’s an important distinction that is not always so easy to grasp. It doesn’t mean we don’t “do” anything. We just learn to contemplate our intentions a little more before we do.
Mark McGonigle is a licensed clinical social worker with a Bachelor of Arts in psychology, and master’s degrees in both applied spirituality and social welfare. He’s been a therapist for 26 years.
“Traditionally therapy has focused on how our current symptoms are the outcome of what has happened to us and how our history has shaped how we think about ourselves,” McGonigle says. “Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) does not deal directly with thoughts and memories in the traditional way… MBCT starts with a basic distrust of the thinking mind and asserts a trust in present moment awareness, accessed in commitment to periods of non-doing and heightened noticing, what is called meditation.”
Just do it! Don’t just sit there, do something!
We live in a society that venerates active accomplishments. The difficulties in learning the virtues of sheltering in place are comparable to starting a practice of mindfulness. It’s not unlike learning to play sports or learning a new instrument. It requires a commitment to practice.
As McGonigle puts it: “Meditation usually starts simply with an intentional awareness of the sensations of body and breath. Heightened noticing can also be practiced at any time and creates an experience that is distinct from thought, and is less complicated and stressful. Metaphorically, the observing self can step back from all experience and notice life unfolding, like a spectator watching it all unfold on a stage or like a person watching a river from the bank.”
We are three months into a national emergency caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Mass unemployment and the shutting down of businesses have spurred anxiety and uncertainty. All of us have experienced suffering either directly or indirectly.
“Suffering is what wakes us up,” says Dougherty. “(That’s) when we come to the point of surrender and start asking bigger questions and looking within ourselves instead of out in the world.”
Oddly enough, circumstances such as these can become fertile grounds for starting a meditation practice.
“Suffering is essential to being human and we all cook up a unique batch,” says McGonigle. “Elaborate plans to escape suffering compound the problem. Mindfulness is a conscious turning towards suffering, evoking the natural response of compassion for self and others…
“Our usual relationship with suffering is to drag it cursing, like a ball and chain around our ankle, desperate to do anything to be rid of it. Mindfulness helps us to build the core strength necessary to willingly pick up our suffering and carry it, like a person building a special backpack for carrying the ball and adapting to its weight.”
Unless we are deemed essential workers, most of us are probably experiencing less social contact than we are used to. Even if we are working or sheltering with others the lack of open businesses results in fewer opportunities to decompress. Mindfulness sees such examples of isolation as opportunities for contemplation.
“When there is time to be with yourself and all the insights that can bring, then that is skillful time,” says Dougherty. “Awakening and deep ‘‘seeing’ into the nature of mind is often derailed by business, activity, socializing, etc.
“Meditation allows emotions an opportunity to fully arise, vent, or boil to the point of expression which is what is naturally supposed to happen, we tend to repress emotions because they hurt and we label them bad or wrong.”
Dougherty offers the acronym RAIN as a mindful approach for skillfully working with one’s emotions: “(R) Recognize (the emotion); (A) Allow it to be here; (I) Investigate (wherein the body, its size, shape, etc.); (N) Non-identification (if you are aware of it, it is not who you are).”
There is a saying associated with mindfulness that it is a “practice, not a perfect.” As the new normal of a post-pandemic world slowly reveals itself some of the most useful skills to be gleaned from a meditation practice comes in the form of having the patience to look to each new day with a sense of compassionate curiosity.
Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy “patiently waits for the benefits of non-judgmental self-awareness,” says McGonigle. “Practiced over time we discover that our efforts to untangle the knot of suffering only tighten the knot and add new twists. Increased awareness allows our being to untangle itself through an acceptance that reduces fear and struggle.
“…We discover in practice that the thinking mind is like a servant that brings us thoughts on a platter. If we take the thoughts it presents and put them to use, the thinking mind brings us more of the like. So, we can train our minds to bring us more useful and meaningful thoughts. And we discover the freedom to say ‘no thank you’ to useless or meaningless thoughts.”
Temple Buddhist Center offers a wide variety of mindfulness practice classes and events. You can sign-up to get a TBC email newsletter for updates on things going on. Also feel free to check out their Facebook page.
Matt Roth is a Kansas City writer and musician.