Mindfulness as Antidote

Photo by Mohamed Nohassi

We are a busy, distracted, and in many cases, traumatized people. Some of us are just trying to survive – or we are consumed by personal goals we are pursuing. Then there’s the flood of incoming information constantly inundating us from all directions. Much of it feels threatening. We don’t know where to begin – we don’t have time to dig deeply into things – and when something isn’t on our immediate radar screen, we tend to forget quickly. This perfect storm results in failures of understanding and unhealthy emotional processing, culminating in misguided reactions, the consequences of which ripple out into the world and harm us all.

Unfortunately, much of human suffering comes from ignorance – from not knowing – which is usually unintentional. All of us suffer from it on some level. Most of the time we don’t even know that we don’t know – or even when we are aware of our ignorance, the answers aren’t available to us. Sometimes ignorance can be willful – maybe we are just too tired or overwhelmed or distracted to do something about it. Or maybe we don’t like the truth as it presents itself. Whatever the reason, the consequences of sustained ignorance are always eventually painful.

In addition, emotional intelligence isn’t explicitly taught or even highly valued in our mainstream culture. Many of us are emotionally illiterate and our culture encourages us to avoid the painful feelings that naturally occur when we encounter difficulty, rather than facing them. Even if we wanted to face them, most of us haven’t been given the tools to meet them skillfully. So, the strategies we tend to use when we encounter fear or sadness usually involve actions that harm ourselves and others, such as ignoring inconvenient truths, numbing with intoxicants, trampling over the rights and needs of others in our efforts to protect or uplift ourselves, or creating an artificial sense of safety through scapegoating and attacking. 

Some of us have become hardened, losing our empathy, and becoming indifferent (at best). At worst, we may resort to ridiculing, name calling, shaming, and throwing people away. In episode 113 of the Metta Hour Podcast, Psychologist Steven C. Hayes said, “That’s part of what we see in the hardening of hearts in the modern world – people standing in front of school busses with 4 and 5 year old immigrant children [in them] screaming Get out! or Go home! This is not the best of humanity. What you’re seeing is not terrible people screaming those words – you’re seeing people facing psychological challenges [without] the tools they need to step into that moment in a compassionate way.”

In an article entitled, How a Traumatized America Finds Relief in Hate, hate and addiction are characterized as the byproducts of a society that is ill, disconnected, and traumatized. According to Dr. Gabor Maté, physician and best-selling author, both hate and addiction involve compulsive behaviors that offer the promise of immediate, short-term relief, a sense of validation, or feeling of pleasure, but result in longer term harmful consequences to self and others. Mate said people are “angry because of what life has done to them… then they find external targets… a target and an explanation to their rage and an outlet to express their rage… We have to take an honest look at ourselves as a society and as a culture and say what is it about us that foments this kind of stuff… The research is absolutely clear. The more inequality in a society, the more hate, the more dysfunction, the more mental illness, the more physical illness.”

“The research is absolutely clear. The more inequality in a society, the more hate, the more dysfunction, the more mental illness, the more physical illness.” – Gabor Mate

Then there’s the natural phenomenon called habituation – it causes us to get used to things. Consider the analogy of the boiled frog. Supposedly if you throw a frog into boiling water (who would do that?) it will jump out and save itself, but when placed into a pot of cool water and the heat is turned up slowly, it won’t realize it’s in danger and it will cook to death. Getting used to things is adaptive when we’re in uncontrollable situations. Unfortunately, habituation can cause us to wait too long to act when we do have some control – sometimes until it’s too late. The events of the last several years have been heating to a slow boil and there may still be time to jump out of the pot.

Mindfulness can act as an antidote, helping us counteract all of these harmful automatic processes. Being more present and focused, we’re able to gather more accurate information, countering our ignorance. Looking inward, we get to know our own habits and patterns, increasing our emotional intelligence so that we are less reactive and more compassionate. As we learn to pause and begin anew, we see each moment with fresh eyes and a sense of gratitude, counteracting hedonic adaptation. Through practice, we develop the motivation, courage and conviction to act in alignment with our deepest values, rather than being hijacked by our more primitive instincts. Our decisions come from a place of wisdom, making it more likely that our choices will be of benefit to ourselves and others.

What if 2020 is the year we’ve been waiting for?
A year so uncomfortable, so painful, so scary, so raw —
that it finally forces us to grow
A year that screams so loud,
finally awakening us from our ignorant slumber.
A year we finally accept the need for change.⁣
Declare change.
Work for change.
Become the change.
A year we finally band together,
instead of⁣ pushing each other further apart.⁣⁣
2020 isn’t canceled,
but rather ⁣the most important year of them all.

– Leslie Dwight, What if 2020 Isn’t Cancelled

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