Mindfulness Matters

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.

The uber bad guys in Star Trek Next Generation, the Borg, were infamous for their saying, “Resistance is Futile.” The alternative to resistance is acceptance.

This can lead to confusion. How do we draw the line between passive acquiescence on the one hand and acceptance on the other? What does it mean to accept rather than resist?

Acceptance starts from the vantage point of contact. First, we must know what is going on; what’s actually happening. Second, we bring interest to this phenomenon, even if it is unpleasant and unwanted. That’s probably enough.


Contact and interest are enough to transform our relationship to any phenomenon. Contact brings awareness into focus and interest hones perception. There’s no room for a grievance narrative; no room for the mind to generate a story wishing things could be otherwise; no room for judgment of like and dislike, want or now want. 

When we resist we give more power to the phenomenon. There is a folk saying, “what we resist persists,” and there is some truth to this because we are giving the event more attention. By resisting we are making the unwanted experience more salient and thus our emotional brain takes over and makes it into a “problem” to be solved.

But most of the situations we resist can’t be resolved with our usual problem solving tactics. The emotional brain evolved to solve problems like finding food and eating food that wouldn’t poison us. It’s well-suited to those sorts of problems but not well suited to “solving” that which we resist.

Take any example. Something happens. The event is in the past. Time only moves in one direction — forward (at least that we can perceive). We are upset by this event. We generate a story about it, wishing it hadn’t happened. This story leads to anguish, misery, or suffering. 

Acceptance doesn’t mean we like the event; that we’re happy it has happened. It means recognizing it has happened (contact) and noticing the implications of this event (interest). 

When I cut my finger open on the 4th of July, I initially resisted the event (see Shambhala Sun guest blog post). But then I made contact and brought interest to bear on the situation. I noticed bleeding and tissue damage. The pattern of tissue damage suggested the need for stitches and a trip to the walk-in clinic. When I resisted, I was in anguish. I castigated myself and swore like a sailor. When I accepted the event, equanimity prevailed. This is what is so in this moment; deal with it. And I did. While the tissue damage remained, the anguish was transformed. 

Mindfulness practice helps us to move more fluidly from resistance to acceptance. It helps us to recognize the resistance story and to replace it with contact and interest. By doing so we transform anguish into equanimity.

(photograph by Arnie Kozak)

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.


It’s Stress Reduction Sunday. Read my weekly post in the Connecticut Watchdog, This week’s entry, Mindfulness :: Human Being Versus Doing

In my last entry, Mindfulness :: Becoming and Dissolving as an Antidote to Stress, I discussed the practical value of focusing on our breathing. In today’s entry, I’ll discuss how to handle distraction and other obstacles that arise when we try to pay attention to our experience in this new way.

Read more …

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