Mindfulness practice can often seem like a selfish activity because we are choosing to spend time alone, away from others, to cultivate and develop our own mental and emotional wellbeing. But is it only through the dedicated activity of silently observing our own mind, emotions and body at work, that we can begin to understand the minds, emotions and bodies of others.
This is why the practice of Mindfulness generates a natural compassion, empathy and connectedness with those around us. We become more equipped to feel-into the reality of another human being and meet them there.
Through the cultivation of an aware, open mind, we develop an aware, open heart which has room for everything and everyone. Mindfulness offers us a non-reactive and nonjudgemental approach to life which is deeply healing because it is deeply inclusive.
The experience of a deep connectivity with those around us is vital for our mental and emotional health. Feeling isolated and lonely on a daily basis can lead to depression and violence, and is worse for our health than smoking or obesity. On the other hand, feeling intimately connected to those around us leads to happiness and longevity.
Our Western culture does it’s best to promote the myth that we are small, separate fragments, in a big dangerous world. We experience this fundamental sense of isolation as a niggling sense of lack or emptiness, which we try to fill with an endless supply of possessions, people and experiences, always hoping that the next object will truly fulfil us.
Unfortunately this object does not exist. It’s another fairytale just like the stories we read as children. Yet our TV channels, newspapers, soap operas and adverts sell us this story because we habitually buy into it. We listen to it because we genuinely want it. The media is not an evil entity trying to hypnotise us, it’s just a reflection of our own culture, our own minds, playing back to us. We buy into it because we create it.
But we can choose to stop believing the myth of separation. One way to do this is to engage in the practice of Loving Kindness which boosts a sense of interconnectivity and intimacy with all people and all things.
When I first began practicing Mindfulness at the age of 17, I avoided the compassion practices. I wasn’t interested in being more compassionate and thought I could make a bee-line for Enlightenment. As my practice developed I wondered why I would still actively avoid certain people, places and situations. My ability to merely focus on my breath had incredible benefits, but I would often feel tense and self-conscious away from my meditation cushion.
The reason I was experiencing difficulties is that Mindfulness is nothing without compassion. Focus and empathy are two of our most vital skills and yet we rarely develop either of them. With focus I could calm my mind and body, but without cultivating a conscious appreciation for the experience of other people, my practice was crooked.
I have come to see that compassion is not something soft and fluffy. If Mindfulness is attention training then compassion is perspective training. The ability to feel-into multiple perspectives is unique to humans and can be actively developed beyond its current state.
As children we often find it difficult to take on another persons point of view and share their reality. We have a sophisticated Me-Map but a very basic We-Map. As we continue to develop our We-Map grows and becomes more detailed but often stalls at some point, and our sense of connectivity may stay relatively small. We may feel that we cannot extend our map to include those who are different from us in some way, and so our territory remains limited.
An undeveloped We-Map may even continue into adulthood and we might continue to behave in selfish ways which prioritise our own happiness, above the happiness of others. This may seem reasonable until we experience the flip-side of selfishness: loneliness and isolation.
The price of always putting ourselves first is often the feeling of always being alone.
It’s hard work to maintain barriers, borders and walls which simply do not exist. By opening our hearts to include the wider human experience we’re able to enjoy an empire of interconnection, finding inspiration, insight and wisdom in each landscape, all the while understanding our own territory more fully.
The truth is that separation is a myth. It can’t be found. We are not apart from other people, we are made from other people. We are not separate from our environment, we are made from our environment. We are not different from the universe, we are the universe. In fact this very moment is a direct consequence of everything thing the universe has ever done.
Everything is interrelated to every thing.
With this understanding comes a sense of responsibility. We realise that all of our thoughts, actions and behaviours have a direct ripple effect on the world around us. We cannot move without stirring up the sand.
We make this world together, moment after moment. When I am able to see this clearly I am able to welcome, include and accept everyone I interact with. I want you to be the very best human being you can be simply because we share a world and your thoughts, actions and behaviours effect me, in big ways, in small ways, in each moment.
Love thy neighbour as yourself the Gospel teaches, but the Sufi’s put it another way: Who are the strangers? they ask, and it may destroy the high walls of our hearts to suddenly realise, that in spite of what we’ve been told, there are none.