Trying to explain the potential value of mindfulness to a new patient, someone in prolonged and severe chronic pain, I started by talking about resistance. We have a tendency to develop a relationship based on resistance to chronic pain. But it is not just when pain is present. How much of of our entire exisitance is based on resistance — obvious and subtle to what is actually so? If complaints were dimes, we’d all be millionaires! More of this, less of this, the presence of a, b, & c; the absence of x, y. & z.
After exploring compassion from religious perspectives, today we’ll hear about the science of compassion. Robert Wright provides a natural history of compassion and Golden Rule. Feelings, love, and sympathy are not unique to humanity, but all are built into us by evolution. Concepts like kin selection and reciprocal altruism are discussed.
David Balfour, the main character in Robert Louis Stevenon’s Kidnapped gives us a metaphor for the delicacy and power of attention and how self-pity can maroon us, cutting us off from the very things that can save us; the very things that are right in front of us.
At one juncture in the story, David is left on an island, marooned he is to think. He bemoans his fate,
“It seemed impossible that I should be left to die on the shores of my own
country, and within view of a church-tower and the smoke of men’s houses.”
he thought was an impassable body of water was actually a tidal islet. Twice a day the tides
permitted passage off the island. However he was too preoccupied by his fate,
too lost in the story to notice the reality around him, or at least the
implications of that tidal reality.
He realizes how this preoccupation has
colluded to impair his ability to see and solve the problem he is confronted
with. Finally, though, “Even I, who had the tide going out and in before me in
the bay, and even watched for the ebbs, the better to get my shellfish–even I
(I say) if I had sat down to think, instead of raging against my fate, must
have soon guessed the secret, and got free.”
The poet and author David Whyte in his remarkable book, The Three Marriages: Reimagining
Work, Self, and Relationship, amplifies
this insight, “Only those who put more energy into self-pity than into paying
attention are truly marooned.”
Balfour gets caught in a state of emotionally-driven mindlessness. His perceptions become rigid, inflexible, and incomplete.
How often does this happen to us? We are preoccupied with an emotion like self-pity, caught up in its sticky tangled web of story. Our ability to see is truncated, hasty, and impulsive. The story clouds our ability to see the solution that lies write below our noses.
The challenge is to recognize we are mired in self-pity and to pause and recognize this. Then, moving attention into our bodies we can feel the fallout from such preoccupation. After checking in with the body, we can then turn our attention out to the world again with fresh eyes and we’ll have the opportunity to see something we might have missed before. We may find the “solution” to the problem that beset us, or find out that it really wasn’t a problem at all (only our perceptions colored by self-pity made it a problem).
Mindfulness can free us from this trap and help us to navigate through the world more effectively. Mindfulness can help us to “rescue” ourselves from being marooned by self-pity.