Photo by Gary Butterfield

I’ve been reflecting recently on how mainstream US culture influences the teaching and practice of secular or nonsectarian mindfulness. One of the phrases I’ve heard a lot lately (including from my own mouth), maybe in connection with our efforts toward more trauma informed teaching and practice, is the guidance, “if that works for you” (or some variation). For example:

  • Noticing the breath, if that works for you today
  • Moving the body, if it feels good
  • Shifting your attention, if it serves you in this moment

The intention behind these phrases is beneficent and they can be useful in the right doses. When we say them, we mean to be invitational, permission giving, and shame attenuating. Many of us need to be reminded to listen in to our own needs and desires from time to time – and some of us were never taught this or were discouraged from doing so. If our own needs have been chronically and grossly under-met, it’s unlikely we’ll be able to contribute in a skillful way toward alleviating our own suffering, much less face the wider suffering in the world. However, when used indiscriminately, these phrases can reinforce a self-serving, consumer-focused message that nothing is worthwhile unless it feels good in the moment. I call this message, “me first, right now” – and we’ve been hearing a lot of it lately.

This dilemma is exemplified in the debate about mask wearing that we’re seeing on social media. The preponderance of reputable data indicates that mask wearing offers some protection from COVID-19 infection in public spaces, when it’s observed by everyone (exempting a few with certain health conditions), and that this can be especially important to the most vulnerable among us. One person, defending their choice to not wear a mask, replied to a quotation of the research with, “I disagree. I don’t think they work. My facts are different than yours. If you knew me at all you would know I am the least political person you could ever meet – no right or left. I do however believe everyone should get a choice.”

How can we blame ourselves for falling into this habit? Some of this is inherited from our ancestors whose survival in a harsh environment with an uncertain future depended on it. Plus, mainstream US culture strongly instills in us from a very young age certain beliefs that we may never think to question. For example, we strongly value competition, a behavior that relies on extrinsic motivation and leads us to believe that life is a zero sum game with only winners and losers. We are taught that success is the result of strength, our own hard work or unique talents and failure is a consequence of weakness, poor character or personal flaws. We are also influenced by consumerism from the moment we are born. We are led to believe that material possessions will make us happy, more is always better, convenience trumps care, everything is disposable (including ourselves when we become obsolete), and we are customers to be served and instantly gratified.

A me first, right now attitude demands immediate “results”, dismissing as ineffective endeavors that take time to bear fruit or that benefit us indirectly. It dehumanizes us by creating the illusion of separation from others, the Earth, the past, and the future. This way of living rigidly prioritizes “freedom of choice” over concern for others. It feeds the tendency to cherry pick information that supports our immediate preferences and the belief that our desires are paramount, regardless of the consequences to others. Me first, right now enables us to think:

  • my feeling good in the moment is the ultimate goal
  • as long as I get mine now, I can be truly and lastingly happy
  • the past has no bearing on the present, so I can disown or disregard it
  • my actions are my own business and shouldn’t be of any concern to my contemporaries or future generations

Me first, right now dismisses the need to consider contextual complexities and long-term consequences, so long as something immediately satisfies. Over time, we can lose our willingness to tolerate the frustration of suspending impulses in order to consider broader implications. We may begin to displace our subsequent irritation and anger onto those who most need our compassion. Knowing how to take care of ourselves builds resilience, and so does meeting challenges. We must be willing to experiment with both in order to discover the boundaries of our zone for learning.

As guides, we can tend to over-focus on our participants’ potential vulnerabilities in an effort to avoid harm. But, trauma informed care has been making a gradual shift to a more holistic and communal healing centered engagement (HCE), viewing participants as “agents in the creation of their own well-being rather than victims of traumatic events” (Sean Ginwright, 2019). As we exercise wise caution, do we also see our participants’ assets and trust their capabilities?

In experiments with growing human tissues in order to replace missing or damaged organs, we’ve discovered that simply maintaining cells in a protective environment is often insufficient. For certain types of cells, the application of “stress” is required, such as changes in oxygen tension, shear force, or application of pressure. In uncomplicated circumstances, the stress of vaginal birth seems to benefit the baby. The pressures involved squeeze fluid from the newborn’s lungs and introduce bacteria that protects the gut and boosts the immune system. The incredible trauma of birth on a baby somehow helps create the necessary conditions for thriving.

So, how do we embrace trauma sensitivity and welcome the diverse spectrum of human needs, without over-protecting our participants or inadvertently reinforcing a me first, right now attitude?

In order to strike a balance, we can respectfully adapt for our secular classes the wise Buddhist practices of setting intentions before we begin and dedicating the merit before we close. Reminding ourselves of our intentions helps to connect our actions with our highest values, while dedicating the benefits of our practice connects us with the broader community and the Earth upon which we’re all interdependent. In combination with teaching basic anchoring and orienting strategies, we can offer supportive phrases that encourage both safety and resilience and allow participants to gain insight into their habits and conditioning:

  • Resourcing ourselves to meet each moment as it arises
  • Experimenting with what is supportive of your practice
  • Noticing what is here now
  • Investigating with gentle curiosity
  • This too, belongs
  • Right now, its like this
  • It’s already here, let me see if I can be with this

As with everything when viewed mindfully, it all boils down to finding a balance. We can view comfort and discomfort as two sides of the same coin, reminding ourselves and our participants that both can serve, individually and collectively. We can create brave spaces rather than safe spaces, knowing the limits of our control and that there are no guarantees. We can en-courage; cultivating a sense of curiosity about both difficulty and ease – seeing them as valuable opportunities for developing insight and wisdom, and for developing resilience for our good work in the world. We can re-humanize ourselves and our participants by pointing to the inseparability of compassion for self and others – understanding both the necessity and the insufficiency in covering the soles of our own feet.

In this choiceless, never ending flow of life
There is an infinite array of choices
One alone brings happiness
To love what is.

~ Dorothy Hunt

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