Today’s post is an essay I recently wrote for class. My instructor asked me to write about something I believe in. I’m not big on believing in things, so instead I wrote about a scientific practice: mindfulness.
I got an A on the assignment, and thought it was worth sharing here.
“This, I Believe”
This, I believe: Practicing mindfulness is central to improving my life and the lives of those around me. Mindfulness is a fluid concept with as many definitions as there are people who practice it, but to me, it means living with intentional awareness of my thoughts, feelings, behaviors, and surroundings, including other people. This means that many times throughout my day, I check in with what I am experiencing in that moment. I ask myself questions such as, “What are my five senses detecting right now?”, “What decisions am I making based on that sensory information?”, and most importantly, “Who are my decisions helping?” By answering these questions as objectively as possible, I am able to improve my mindfulness of the things around me.
This is important to me for two major reasons. One, I cannot improve my moods and behaviors unless I can describe the areas in which they are lacking. In the absence of mindfulness, I would not realize my flaws, which means I would not be able to work on them. Two, I believe that being mindful of others’ experiences lies at the core of developing empathy. I often remind myself to foster intentional awareness of what other people think and feel. Once I recognize why a person behaves a certain way – even if I do not agree with their choices – I am much more likely to identify with (and sometimes forgive) their decisions. This makes me much less likely to lash out at them or see them as inherently different from myself.
Using mindfulness to have empathy for others can be a challenge when I am faced with people who do not reciprocate my efforts to be understanding. I recently worked as a grocery cashier where customers threw harsh words at me daily. During one memorable transaction, an elderly couple sporting “Make America Holy Again” hats complained to me about wearing face masks in the store. They explained that in their eyes, masks are a form of social control imposed by liberal communists in our federal government.
I immediately sensed that these were intentionally oblivious people. Rather than show my anger, however, I practiced mindfulness by naming the sensations I felt at that moment (hot chest, shallow breathing, and quick pulse) as well as reminding myself of my values (kindness, professionalism, and non confrontationalism).
My awareness helped me calm down significantly. When the couple elicited my opinion on the topic of masks, I was able to keep an even temper while gently disagreeing with their claims. I continued to ring their groceries in silence as they spat insults at me.
My commitment to empathy is not invincible, however; mindfulness is called a “practice” for a reason. As the couple muttered that “all Democrats are baby-murderers”, I forgot my values momentarily and reminded them that they were in liberal downtown Minneapolis, where they should not be surprised to find themselves in the moral minority. Though I stand by my political opinions, a more mindful choice might have been to take the silent high road instead of sinking to their level of impoliteness.
Mindfulness is a simple skill, but not an easy one. Though it may sound like a basic task to objectively observe the present moment, in reality it is difficult to let go of preexisting judgements and beliefs. This is another reason why mindfulness is called a “practice”: no one, including myself, masters it on the first try.
I began training in it as a young teenager, when my self-obsessed thoughts made me compassionless and unhappy. I have practiced the skill one-on-one with therapists and in groups. I have a manual, “Dialectical Behavior Therapy Skills Training” by Dr. Marsha Linehan, which outlines dozens of smaller skills that exist under the figurative mindfulness umbrella. The aim of all my practice has been – and continues to be – to create a well-grounded person of whom I am proud and to improve my connections with others.
I put such an emphasis on living an intentionally aware life because I deeply believe that if everyone spent more time evaluating themselves and others without judgement, the resulting empathy would save the world. War, famine, Americans refusing to wear masks during a pandemic, and all the other problems plaguing humanity have deep roots in mindless xenophobia. I take the time to understand people as best I can so that I do not contribute to that xenophobia. In addition, my relationship with myself is healthiest when I can observe my own intentional empathy. That is how I know I am living my values of showing compassion, facilitating love in my community, and peacefully understanding and accepting the present moment.