Sometimes all it takes is a few well chosen words to lift our mood and give us perspective. Sister Stan's new book, 'Day By Day', is a collection of meditations that soothe the soul, along with contributions from figures such as poet Brendan Kennelly, producer/director Lelia Doolan and psychologist and founder of Headstrong, Dr Tony Bates, whose essay on kindness and its part in the practice of mindfulness, features below.
Mindfulness always sounds a lot easier than it is. At first glance, the invitation to pause, to breathe and to enjoy the present moment sounds positively blissful.
But when we decide to give it a chance, we are seldom prepared for the resistance we encounter.
There is something about choosing to bring our awareness to our experience that can unsettle our psychological equilibrium. It's as if our minds have made a deal to leave us alone once we don't look too deeply.
Bringing a here-and-now awareness to our inner life can mean facing feelings, memories and wounds that we would rather deny and disown. So we may find ourselves rehearsing any number of reasons why today is often not quite the right time to meditate. While we may revel in talking about its psychological benefits, our actual practice may fall short of what we preach.
When we do 'take our seat' to meditate, anxiety can surface. In turn, our natural tendency towards distraction becomes even more pronounced. We may sit there fantasising about anything and everything to avoid what is right before our eyes.
Thankfully we are not the first generation to discover mindfulness and we are not the first to struggle with resistance. Many different traditions have identified kindness as the key quality of meditation that enables us to keep our seat. Many teachers of mindfulness have emphasised the need to infuse meditation with kindness, or as it is called in the Buddhist Theravada tradition, loving-kindness. They came to appreciate that kindness opens our practice and gives our inner lives room to breathe.
Without kindness, they knew that awareness could be a blunt instrument with which we could beat ourselves. So what is kindness? Intuitively we all recognise it when we see it. It's a fundamental part of our make-up that defines what is best about us. It is an energy that emanates straight from the heart. It is love, dressed in simple clothing. When we look at another with kindness, we see that person in a particular light.
It may be true that they are behaving foolishly, but kindness sees through the self-centredness of human behaviour to the potential in all of us to grow and mature.
All of us are transformed when we're touched by kindness. Our hearts open and we sense we're in the presence of a person who doesn't judge, who accepts us for who we are and sees the good in us. In their company we are more likely to acknowledge the games we play, and to let go of inflated notions of ourselves.
To learn the true value of kindness, the poet Naomi Nye says that we first of all have to know sorrow in our lives. Her poem 'Kindness' says very clearly that having a full awareness of our own loneliness, our fragility and our mortality is what enables kindness to grow in us. It's what allows us to befriend someone when they feel most exposed and vulnerable; including ourselves.
Directing kindness towards oneself may feel odd. We are used to relying on our superego to remind us of our inadequacies and to keep us in check. To open ourselves to whatever we may be experiencing and hold it in awareness with kindness may feel counter-intuitive, even wrong.
In my own life, I know too well my own self-attacking mind. It never seems to sleep. I am familiar with its dreary motifs.
Despite reasoning with its wild generalisations, my negative thoughts return and sap my energy. As I take my seat for daily practice, I often find they have got there before me. When I allow these thoughts free rein, my body tightens up and old wounds are reopened. Their intention may be to help me grow but they do precisely the opposite. If they are allowed to take charge, they drive me down dark alleys of my past, where cruel thoughts, far from helping me to grow, immobilised me and kept me stuck in despair.
Kindness infuses our awareness with a positive energy that can counter our self-attacking criticisms. Kindness is the energy that makes practice possible, particularly when we feel low.
I had read about loving-kindness and while I found it interesting, I tended to see it as peripheral, a kind of optional extra to break up the monotonous routine of daily sitting. I find it fascinating how some things that come to matter so much in our lives can appear to have little or no relevance to us at all when we first encounter them.
I now begin each practice with some version of loving-kindness. I acknowledge that sitting takes courage and I nudge myself affectionately on to my cushion rather than gritting my teeth and forcing myself to do it. I express gratitude to my deeper self for getting me to practise every morning.
Kindness has made my practice more playful. I note with a smile the ways my negative thoughts come tumbling into my mind and I see them now for what they are: ancient demons that have passed their sell-by date; different versions of my ego trying to reject who I am; neurotic attempts to make me more acceptable to myself and to others. A painful waste of time.
This is not to say that I don't feel inadequate and broken sometimes when I now meditate. Of course I do, because at some level this is true, not just for me but for all of us. At some level we are all struggling. It can be difficult to sit with what opens into our awareness when we meditate.
At times when we feel low, we may find ourselves yearning for the time to pass so that we can make breakfast, drink a good cup of coffee and listen to the radio. What I have personally learned from sitting while under the weather is that it is precisely in those moments that I need to show up and be there for myself. To hold whatever is happening in awareness with kindness.
Kindness shines a light into dark corners of the mind and brings to the surface what needs to be healed in our lives. It sees all and it accepts all. Nothing is unacceptable, nothing is that surprising. And when we hold our pain in this way, we discover that it is fluid and that it is only our thoughts that turn pain into something solid and fixed.
Holding emotions and memories in kindness allows them to become unfrozen; their energy begins to flow. We see them for what they are, simply evidence of the ways in which life has touched us.
With kindness, we eventually grasp why we behave in the way we do. Kindness to ourselves and kindness to others softens our resistance to meditation. It helps us to drop beneath the noise level of our critical mind and touch the beauty of our lives, just the way they are.