Published: Mar. 28, 2006
Updated: Mar. 25, 2010
By Jeffrey Brantley, MD
As we practice mindfulness or present moment awareness, we can expect to experience certain difficulties.
For example, with growing awareness in each moment, in each situation of our lives, we begin to be aware of the unpleasant and painful as well as the pleasant. We may become more aware of even "neutral" experiences as well, seeing in these some unpleasant or pleasant aspect previously unnoticed.
This growing awareness of the unpleasant can be upsetting to the beginning meditator. He or she can mistakenly believe they are not "doing it right" or are "not cut out to meditate!" At this stage it is vital that the meditator realizes the growing awareness of all aspects of life is actually progress.
But if they are in a Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program they might ask, "How does growing awareness of pain and the unpleasant help reduce my stress?"
The answer is that to have a chance to reduce our stress and to heal ourselves from the toll stress takes in our lives, we must find a way to see clearly all that is here and to remain aware and present in order to give ourselves the best chance to make the most skillful response to whatever situation life offers us.
So if, through the practice of present moment awareness, we grow in awareness and begin to experience the unpleasant (as well as the pleasant) more deeply, more intensely, this is actually waking up to the reality of our lives. Yet it can be difficult to remain present, to "keep our seat," to continue meditating and continue our practice of present moment awareness.
To support us in remaining present in these difficult moments, it is useful to call upon some other qualities we have within us. These qualities are kindness, compassion, and equanimity.
It is important to realize that we are not imagining these or making them up. Rather, they are already within, important elements of our deepest nature as human beings. Unfortunately, many people do not realize the depth and power of these qualities within themselves, nor do they know how (or that it is even possible) to bring them forward and to cultivate these qualities in their own lives.
As we gain some increasing awareness of our own pain, it is important to notice our reaction. Too often people meet pain in themselves with criticism, meanness, or a sense of failure. They fall into patterns of stressful and destructive self-blame which just adds to the misery they already feel. By practicing mindfulness, we can be aware of our own pain whatever its nature (physical, emotional, etc.).
We can also recognize our patterns and habits of judging and blaming ourselves for our own pain. Recognizing these patterns, we can respond with kindness and compassion instead of reacting with blame and meanness. Our challenge thus becomes: Can we meet and hold our own pain with the same compassion and kindness as we would meet and hold the pain of a loved one?
This holding of ourselves in kindness and compassion is not easy! Most of our lives we have taken a very different attitude towards ourselves and our own pain.
For that reason, we have to practice kindness and compassion openly and often towards ourselves. Our growing mindfulness can be a great ally in changing our habits of meanness towards ourselves to habits of kindness and compassion. As we learn to be aware of our own pain and our habitual critical and judgmental reactions about the pain, we have a choice in each moment of taking a different path -- the path of compassion and kindness.
Even though we can understand the importance of not beating up on ourselves and of practicing habits of kindness and compassion, it can still be quite difficult at times to remain present in the face of pain and unpleasant experience. This is true whether the pain and unpleasant experience arises in our meditation practice or in our everyday life.
To cultivate the ability to remain present in these intense situations, it can be especially helpful to remember that we carry in our deepest nature as human beings the quality of equanimity. Equanimity is often defined as even-mindedness or composure in the face of stress. It is associated with the quality of balance. It suggests a habit of mind (and heart) that is rarely disturbed, even under great strain.
The meditation teacher, Jack Kornfield, says that equanimity develops in us as we learn to keep our heart open through the changing circumstances of our life. So a kind of courage and a willingness to stay present is also required.
This is not just willpower, not gritting one's teeth and enduring. Rather, it is the act of bringing careful and open-hearted attention to what is here. It is not turning away. It is softening into what is present in our awareness in this moment, accepting things as they are in this moment even if that means we must open to a painful or unpleasant experience and see it exactly as it is. Then as we actually sit with increasingly difficult experiences, we discover that what is already in us is an ability to be composed. We can be unshakable.
As we sit with these experiences more and more, we can feel the depth of our own equanimity more and more. The realization and manifestation in our own life of this innate quality of equanimity is based on our growing awareness of the impermanence of things and on our ability to accept things as they are in this moment. This equanimity is not to be confused with indifference. Quite the opposite. Equanimity enables us to remain deeply present and open to what is here.
Cultivating equanimity can be a meditation practice in itself. It is commonly recommended one "borrow" the elemental qualities in nature that embody equanimity. For example, one can picture oneself as a mountain -- unshakable amidst all the changes and storms which happen on and around it. Or one can identify with a deep and still lake, which rests serene and undisturbed despite the swirl and splash of activity on its surface.
Or, one can use helpful reminder phrases such as, "May I be undisturbed by the changing circumstances of my life," "May I be aware and at peace with the changes that happen in every life and to everyone," or "May I offer my efforts and help, knowing it may be of great, some, or even no benefit."
Another beautiful example of a support to cultivate equanimity in our lives is the famous Serenity Prayer, which asks for the serenity to accept the things we cannot change, to change the things we can, and the wisdom to know the difference.
Thus, using kindness, compassion, and equanimity, deep and authentic qualities within each human being, we can support ourselves to remain present, to be mindful, and then to act in the most healthy and skillful way in even the most stressful situations of our lives.