The Holding Power of Mindfulness

Two elders sharing food while sitting on a bench in a town square, their kindness a kind of holding one another, a being present to each other, being mindful

Finding Peace

Once a week, I lead a spirituality group at a residential treatment program. The theme of the group is finding peace. We look at how spiritual practices, stillness, and a connection to something vast and sacred can bring us serenity.

Sometimes I liken the idea of peace to that of being held. Regardless of what is going on around us, of how we feel, something tender and kind can carry us through each moment. Whether we’re angry, lonely, scared, sad, or hopeless, we can tap into a peaceful presence. We might call this equanimity.

Of course, equanimity may be overrated. Not everyone considers inner peace to be a high priority. Some individuals seem to prefer the storm that reactivity brings. In other cultures, people may expect large displays of emotion in the face of loss. In my own life, I’ve noticed that some people assume my calm response to emergencies reveals a lack of caring.

Not that I’m always calm in the face of chaos. Since childhood, I have tended to respond with a receptive stillness when people around me become upset, but I have been known to scream and shout, wail in agony, and slam doors. Over time, as I have aged, and as I have worked on my inner demons through counseling and spiritual practice, my reaction to life, family, and disruption has settled down, and I’m glad. Emoting is exhausting, it hurts others, and requires too much time to undo, if indeed we can undo the harm we cause when we act out in reptilian fury.

So peace might not be for everyone, and maybe it’s not the best response every time, but I prefer it. So I practice mindfulness, gratitude, and prayer, because these spiritual disciplines help me be peaceful in my heart and mind.

Being Held By Eternity

There’s nothing new about the benefits of mindfulness. Websites, counselors, coaches, and public school teachers all tout it. They lead their charges in meditative practices that enhance our capacity to be mindful. This brings us the equanimity many of us crave.

Mindfulness also holds us and comforts us. Within the gentle awareness that is being mindful, we can find a spiritual center that connects us to the whole of existence and to eternity. It’s this connection I’m thinking of when I talk about being held or carried. If we are one with everything, nothing can harm us, for there is nothing that is not us.

In his book about death, Thich Nhat Hanh explains that “all that has existed, exists, or will exist, is interconnected and interdependent.” [1] We humans have descended from ancestors who, though they have died out, still exist in our DNA. We are made up of the sunlight, food, and air that sustain our bodies. Our blood contains the water from ancient streams, and our bones consist of minerals spread throughout the universe when stars exploded. Nothing is produced, and nothing is destroyed. Everything is part of a continuous cycle of manifestation. One thing arises; another passes away. Yet it is all us. It is everything.

Hanh tells us that if we deeply understand this, we will have no fear. We will see that birth and death are experiences within an eternal oneness, within an existence vaster than we can imagine. As individual manifestations, we arise and fade away. When we die, we return to the fabric of the whole. Everything is impermanent, but nothing disappears. This insight can bring us peace. It can help us feel held by that which is.

Being Held by Faith

This understanding, one that can bring us peace and allow us to feel held, is similar to faith, whether we believe in life, love, God, eternity, oneness, or all of those. Such faith carries us through terror and emptiness. As the scientist, Edward Teller, wrote, when we stand at the edge of the world, when we must step into a void too dark for our eyes to penetrate, “faith is knowing one of two things shall happen: either you will be given something solid to stand on, or you will be taught to fly.”

I think of a woman I met years ago who told me about an experience she had flying back to Oregon from New York a few days after 9/11. Afraid that if she got on a plane to go home, the plane would blow up or crash, she stood in the airport feeling frozen. Then she heard a voice in her head say, “Daughter, you don’t need to be afraid. Either way, you will be home.”

Or, as Henri Nouwen writes, “[W]e do not belong to this world with its warheads, missiles, and submarines; we have already died to it so that not even a nuclear holocaust will be able to destroy us.” [2]

Because we are all one, there is no death. If the ground disappears beneath us, we will fly. Even in the face of holocaust and apocalypse, our essence will survive.

All Will Be Well

To know this, to have faith that we will be all right even when tragedy tears us apart, is to be held. Sometimes, when I’m bothered by the aching in my bones, when the chatter of my mind grows loud, and I can’t stop worrying about time or money or children or war, I imagine some divine voice soothing me: “Hush, my dear,” it tells me. “All will be well.”

You might hear in those words the echo of Julian of Norwich’s statement that “all manner of thing will be well.”

Those words came to her in the context of a vision about sin and salvation. For her, sin was the absence of doing or the undoing of what God has done. The nature of undoing causes pain, and because we feel pain, we recognize there is sin. In our sinfulness, we are blind to the truth of God’s love, so we cling to earthly rewards, thinking that is all there is.

Yet neither sin, nor pain, are the end. “It is true,” Norwich wrote, “that sin is the cause of all this pain, but all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” [3]

She was referring not to some mystical process, but to God’s salvation for everyone. Though she believed in the Church’s teachings of that time, that many souls would be punished with eternal damnation, she also believed that all souls would, at the same time, be saved. It was a paradox she felt certain God could resolve, and she was content to leave that resolution to Him.

This contentment, this belief in a higher being who acts in time and space for the good of all, who will save all things and ensure that all is well, is a kind of being held.

Being Held in the Here and Now

Yet this phrase, “shall be well,” refers to the future. What of this moment? Is it possible for us to be well here and now, in spite of fires, torture, war, pollution, greed? Mindfulness tells us it is.

Most of us live day by day with uncertainty, annoyance, and little discomforts, but in the grand scheme of things, we are fine. We have food in our bellies and a warm bed in which to sleep. Even if we don’t, we can still appreciate the sun or the moon or the cloudy sky.

If things are desperate or wrong, if our lives are at risk or we see someone being threatened, mindfulness gives us the presence of mind to act effectively. Mindfulness doesn’t mean we are always smiling or that we sit quietly in every moment. Sometimes we run, at other times we shout, and if necessary, we pull people from burning buildings or take care of them when they have been shot. With mindfulness, we experience our emotions, feel our sensations, are present to the suffering and to the glory, to the destruction and to the beauty.

With mindfulness, we do not flinch from what is difficult. We do what needs to be done to create the greatest amount of peace for everyone. During the moment of action, we are present to our experience, and that is all. We live in the place our actions bring us to. While doing, we lose worry, for action takes away thought. We simply are. On some level, that makes “all manner of thing” well.

All Is Well

When we are not desperate, when the day is going well or at is at least not terrible, we often forget to be mindful. We lose ourselves in the past or the future. This can create anxiety, hopelessness, resentment.

Yet if we return to mindfulness, we can hold ourselves and our feelings. As soon as we notice our racing thoughts, our quick breaths, the tension of our body, we can cradle our suffering with our awareness. When we remember, we can be grateful that our mind is capable of thought, and we can be grateful that we have breath enough to gasp. Spreading our awareness around us, we might become aware of laughter or song or warmth or birds.

Within us lies an essence that observes, and that observant self holds us. That self cradles us with the awareness that is part of the eternal awareness. Here and now, all is well.

Faith in Ourselves

To believe that there is wellness in each moment is a kind of faith. This can be a faith in a divine being who moves and sees and holds us. Nouwen wrote of this, speaking of the “the hidden presence of God” that dwells in our hearts. [4] He pointed out that we all have a “home in God,” and that through prayer we return to that home, to God itself. [5]

We can also have faith in ourselves, trusting that we are resilient, that we will learn to fly when we must, or that we will somehow make our own miracles.

Chaim Potok wrote about a Hanukkah his family celebrated in 1938. It was during the Depression, shortly after Krystal Nacht shattered the lives of Jews throughout Germany. To him, that December seemed filled with a malevolent darkness. As the candles flickered in the menorah, he felt that dark force mock their light. The miracle of Hanukkah was that, though there was only enough fuel for one day, still the candles in the temple burned for eight. To the young Potok, this seemed like a joke.

His parents worried about him. Did he want a miracle?, his father wanted to know.

Resisting Evil with Love

Of course he wanted a miracle. They all wanted one. But if it did not come from God, then they must make their own.

His father said, “We will not let the world burn out our souls.” If necessary, they would “make human miracles,” and his father would do his best to teach his son how. [6]

Would that we all could learn how.

Whether God is far away or God is close, it is we humans who must act in this world. To do so, to “make human miracles,” we need faith. A faith in a deity, perhaps, or a faith in the power of mindfulness. We definitely need a faith in our capacity to mend the tears in our hearts and in our world, to resist evil with love. May we find a faith that cradles us in its awareness and holds us with mindfulness, and may we act with grace and compassion so that all will indeed be well.

In faith and fondness,

Barbara

Credits

  1. Hanh, Thich Nhat, No Death, No Fear: Comforting Wisdom for Life, New York: Macmillan Audio, 2012, Chapter 1.
  2. Jonas, Robert A. ed, The Essential Henri Nouwen, Boston: Shambhala, 2009, 32.
  3. Bauerschmidt, Frederick Christian, Julian of Norwich and the Mystical Body Politic of Christ, Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame, 1999, 99.
  4. Jonas 41.
  5. Ibid 86.
  6. Potok, Chaim, “Miracles for a Broken Planet,” McCall’s Magazine, 100, No. 3, December 1972, 30, reprinted in “The Rabbi’s Hanukkah: Rabbinic Reflections on the Warrior, the Zealot, the Martyr, the Peacemaker, and the Believer in Miracles,” http://www.haggadahsrus.com/PDF/v2%20IV%20Rabbis.pdf, accessed January 11, 2020.

Photo by Constanta Kleo on Unsplash

Copyright © 2020 Barbara E. Stevens All Rights Reserved

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