Mindfulness of Mistakes

It probably goes without saying that in my near half century as a person in relationship, my quarter century as a mental health professional, and in my role as a mindfulness teacher, I’ve made my fair share of mistakes. Of course I didn’t know I was making them while I was making them – my intentions were good. Perhaps the only reason they came to light was because of the courage of those who felt harmed to speak up. Although it’s a painful experience – especially for them – I’m truly grateful they made me aware of the consequences of my words. They didn’t have to and its been a great gift to be given the opportunity to choose a more skillful approach to meeting difficulty.

I’m always reminding participants in one way or another that life is a precious experiment – a fairly recent discovery for me. We’re all figuring it out as we go – maybe if we’re lucky, with some help from wise and caring others. I ask participants to view their mistakes with kindness and self-forgiveness, acknowledging they are an essential component of learning. I remind them that this is part of the human condition. After all, we understand that toddlers can’t learn to be expert walkers without falling down and acquiring a few goose eggs. Can we allow for this necessary part of learning in our adult selves as well?

…negative emotions tend to narrow our focus. It limits what we can see. We only see what we did wrong and how we’re wrong. We can’t actually see possibilities because the negative emotion actually has the function, evolutionarily actually, of narrowing our vision.” – Kristin Neff

As mindfulness teachers it’s important that we’re able to bring this accepting and equanimous attitude to our mistakes so that we can meet the intense emotion of another’s pain with open-heartedness and compassion rather than closed defensiveness. This is a helpful quality in any relationship, but when we are in service to others, it allows us to receive any lessons there might be available. It makes us wiser and it’s the embodiment of our practice – the benefits of which should not be limited to the cushion.

Facing the harm we may have caused others also takes quite a bit of what Kristin Neff and Chris Germer termed, Yang Self-Compassion – a “fierce, empowered clarity”, balancing our own needs with the needs of others, and encouraging needed changes – not just defaulting to what feels most comfortable. If our deepest heart’s desire is to play a role in alleviating suffering in the world, we must be able to meet this suffering and acknowledge when we might contributing to it. Instead of getting defensive or falling into despair, Yang Self-Compassion has us asking ourselves, “What mistakes did I make?” and “How might I do better next time?”

There are a number of mindfulness practices that can help us become more self-forgiving so that we can recover more quickly from our inevitable fumbles, set an intention to, as best we can, not repeat them, and return to our practice of “being the good” in the world. I’ll be offering some of these practices in our classes this week and in my next blog post I’ll address the reactivity that can arise when we feel activated and how we can meet it with greater calm and equanimity.

For everything in this journey of life we are on, there is a right wing and a left wing: for the wing of love there is anger; for the wing of destiny there is fear; for the wing of pain there is healing; for the wing of hurt there is forgiveness; for the wing of pride there is humility; for the wing of giving there is taking; for the wing of tears there is joy; for the wing of rejection there is acceptance; for the wing of judgment there is grace; for the wing of honor there is shame; for the wing of letting go there is the wing of keeping. We can only fly with two wings and two wings can only stay in the air if there is a balance. Two beautiful wings is perfection. There is a generation of people who idealize perfection as the existence of only one of these wings every time. But I see that a bird with one wing is imperfect. An angel with one wing is imperfect. A butterfly with one wing is dead. So this generation of people strive to always cut off the other wing in the hopes of embodying their ideal of perfection, and in doing so, have created a crippled race.” — C. JoyBell C.

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