why mindfulness matters

Do you want to get better at making decisions? Then you need to cultivate how to carve out some space in that short moment when you need a wise response. Simple, eh? 

By ‘space’ I mean a pause: a moment when you’re able to detach yourself from your own needs, or ego, or reactive habits. 

To get a better idea of this consider Viktor Frankl’s famous words: 

Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.

At the risk of mindlessly inserting a spanner in the works, I have to say there is no evidence Frankl ever uttered, wrote, or speechified these words. If you can find where and when he did, please let me know. Mind you, if it is the case that he never did say them, does it really matter? Seems to me the wisdom here is so compelling it may be simply the wisdom of the universe speaking.  A universal wisdom with a universal question: how do we make a wiser choice, in highly charged situations? Or even in not-so-highly-charged situations.

Here’s a story that joins the dots. I heard it told by the Buddhist teacher, Jack Kornfield. I think it gets to the heart of what this mindfulness business may be about.

There was this young army lieutenant who had a problem with anger. He flew off the handle a lot. So his superior officer remanded him to take an 8 week Mindfulness training course which they have in the American military now.

So after about six weeks of his mindfulness training he was on his way home from work and he went in the supermarket. It was the evening crowd of long lines and he was waiting in this long line and the woman in front of him was in the wrong line. She had only one item and she should have been in the Express line. Now he was one of those people – and it was exaggerated by being in the military – who was very clear about how things were supposed to happen: it had to be in a proper systematic way.

She was in the wrong line.

So he was a little irritated.

She got up to the check out clerk with her one item and then he also noticed that this woman was carrying a baby. Then the woman and the check out clerk started to coo over the baby. This made him more irritated and he started to think to himself: doesn’t she know this is a long line? that people are waiting? She should have more sensitivity.

And then the woman handed the baby to the check out clerk to hold. And he went ballistic in his mind: Come on, we’re waiting, I’m on the way home!

And he could feel the anger rise in him.

But because he’d learned mindfulness he could also feel the pain of it, he could notice: oh, this is anger, this is what I’ve been paying attention to: here’s my body contracting, here’s the suffering of it.

So he just began to breathe and become mindful of it. He paid attention to his body and his mind and as he did so it all settled down.

So when it was his turn at the check out, and now having realized that the anger wasn’t going to help anything, he said to the girl on the check-out: hey, that was a cute kid you were holding back there. And the girl on the check out said: Oh did you like him? He’s my boy. And then the girl noticed the soldier’s uniform and said: you see my husband was in the military like you but he was killed in Afghanistan last year and now I have to work full time. My mom, she takes care of my boy and tries to bring him in once a day so I can see him

What's the take-home here? How does it relate to Frankl’s words? How does it connect to your own experience? Has it changed your way of feeling? Is there any sense you get of new possibilities after listening to this story? What does it teach us about where we place our attention? Are you ready to experience what Jack Kornfield calls ‘the suffering of it’?

Here’s Jack Kornfield’s own interpretation:

We are so quick to judge another or to judge ourselves in the same way. This story shows that we can begin to step out of the reactivity of mind and heart and instead rest in the space of awareness. And for this young man it began to change his life, as it can change all of our lives. It can liberate us.

This story tells me, mindfulness matters. In particular, I’m intrigued by this part of Kornfield’s interpretation: we can begin to step out of the reactivity of mind and heart and instead rest in the space of awareness.

I think it means, start where our friend and fellow human, the American soldier, started. With recognition and the willingness to honour the suffering of it. To be with the moments of our lives, with self-compassion and the ability to self-sooth so we can find that space for a wiser response. 

Edited extract from Jack Kornfield in conversation with Rick Hanson as part of the Foundations of Well Being programme. 

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