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How do you love yourself when you’re acting despicably?

2013 October 23
by Zoe Strimpel
No pressure!

No pressure, then

Hug on, sister. But it doesn't change the fact that you might be being a douche.

Hug on, sister. But it doesn’t change the fact that you might be being a douche.

Mindfulness, a Buddhist idea made popular by Jon Kabat Zin in 1979 as a stress-reducer for the masses, is a very big thing in mental health and wellbeing counselling. Millions of happiness-pursuers around the world practice mindfulness or try to, using, among other things, meditation and breathing exercises.

Mindfulness is about being in the present, not fretting about the past or thinking about the future, and – very importantly – about being kind to yourself, by showing yourself love and understanding.

More precisely: “The first component [of mindfulness] involves the self-regulation of attention so that it is maintained on immediate experience, thereby allowing for increased recognition of mental events in the present moment. The second component involves adopting a particular orientation toward one’s experiences in the present moment, an orientation that is characterized by curiosity, openness, and acceptance” – (Bishop, Lau,  Shapiro, Carlson, et al. 2004)

I am very keen to get better at mindfulness as I think it obviously helps not only the quality of your life, but of those around you – people I know who are good at it are tranquil and nice, and forgiving to others. They, it is no coincidence, seem happy, more supple.

But I am still a beginner at mindfulness and I don’t quite understand. It is axiomatic in mindfulness theory to show yourself love and care – that’s what the words like “open” and “curious” and “acceptance” are about. One of the things that loving yourself entails is forgiving yourself for imperfections and not beating yourself up about mistakes. But what do you do when, for instance, you can feel yourself acting like a brat IN THE PRESENT? Being awful IN THE PRESENT MOMENT? Do you regard yourself with open acceptance then, even when you deserve a good spanking?

My non-mindful questions continue. What does mindfulness say to the simultaneous awareness of not acting or feeling nicely, the desire – sometimes carried out – to throw a tantrum and punch (and punish) someone/ everyone and the awareness of the imperative to show acceptance, openness, curiosity, forgiveness and love to yourself? After all, when I feel my anger levels soaring for no good reason – like feeling left out when I’m not, or feeling attacked or criticised even minutely – I am extremely aware, even sometimes curious, eg: “why the hell have I not grown out of these sorts of feelings”? Acceptance, though, is the rub. Say I said: “In this moment I am being a baby, and I accept it”, I would just go on being a baby, wouldn’t I? What would improve about the situation? In this case, acceptance is just a mantra; just words. It would not derail negative, angry thoughts. Or would it?

Ok, another mindfulness puzzle. Someone you care about, or have high expectations of, says or does something to you that offends your values deeply. For example, imagine if a partner or sibling suddenly disclosed views that you felt to be utterly unjust – say, that women do not have the right to abortion. 

Being intelligent, you know that your rage and disappointment is a reaction, and that if you had mindfulness, you’d be able to handle it without doing damage. That is, to exhibit wisdom, perhaps to cool down and attain perspective.

But being intelligent, and headstrong perhaps, you refuse to label your reaction a reaction ONLY – to you the reaction follows a breach of something that you think, or think you know, is right.

But in mindfulness, I believe you’re asked to relinquish your grasp on what is “right” and let it all float past you.

Instead of anger, even righteous anger, you should breathe.

But what if you breathe, and you’re still upset? What if you breathe, and the wrong belief that angered you is still a wrong belief?

Are you a mindfulness drop-out?

What is missing in the literature on mindfulness is how to resolve a sense of violated justice – where justice is a meaningful concept, even if it is sometimes hobbled by its bond with individual egos – with a “letting go”.

Did the great political pioneers of the world, who used their anger to change things (let’s take the past century of women’s rights campaigners, for an example) take their anger and say: “I am angry, now let me meditate and let it swim past me”. Perhaps they did. Perhaps it’s what happens when the anger leaves you that is the best antidote to injustice of all types.

In fact, I’m fairly sure that anger is best when dissolved, leaving a dew of calm resolution. If that’s what mindfulness can teach, then I accept it, with curiosity and open-ness. For now, my awareness of the present moment tells me I am sceptical… though hopeful.

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