Quite often we promote mindfulness as a way of feeling less stressed, less depressed, less anxious, less self-punishing.
We gather ourselves around the breath, pause and let our parasympathetic nervous system activate, returning to being the self that we like being, the one that can be more grounded, calmer, kinder. I can breathe into that gnarly little knot I have become in that moment of aggravation and open to a bigger space – and feel better.
But actually, I also appreciate the practice for opening up a space that lets me feel worse. In my haze of avoidance and reactivity, it is easy to find that comfortable ground of feeling I am right, that they wronged me, that if someone else behaved more decently or competently, the world would be a better place. And in the moment when I occasionally catch myself seduced by this kind of self-righteous self-justification, and sit with it, and feel into it, I don’t feel better, I feel worse. I see more clearly what a schmuck I am in that moment, how impatient and intolerant I can be, and how after all this practice, it doesn’t seem to get much better. As Ryokan says: “Last year a foolish monk. This year, no change.”
This is not to berate myself for being a bad person. I do not think I am not a bad person, or a good person, for that matter. I am a flawed human who now and then catches my breath on the wind of reactivity and blame and sees it. Seeing how I create the conditions for my own unhappiness, for my own sense of separateness from the world, my own longing and irritability. And in that seeing, without for a moment blaming someone else, or myself, I can sit in the full catastrophe, and not make it worse. Perhaps I can even use it to connect with my fellow humans in the shared but tragic predicament in which we find ourselves of managing our unbearable feelings by protecting, constricting, fixing, projecting, attacking.
In that moment, there is a glimpse of a more open vulnerability in which I can slow down and let in the world.