Mindfulness is being in the present moment in an open and friendly way. It's both mind-training and heart-training.You can start right where you are.
It’s been a gray, rainy, dark autumn in Appleton. The past few weeks, I allowed external weather to overly impact my internal weather. I’ve felt crabby and frustrated, even angry. I’ve felt constricted inside: my throat tight from wanting to control the uncontrollable, my heart closed to joy and wonder. I saw clearly how this doesn’t feel good.
As many of you know, I volunteer in prison, sitting in a circle with inmates, teaching and practicing mindfulness. My most recent, real writing comes from these prison experiences. It’s deep spiritual practice—both heartbreaking and heartwarming. It connects me to humanity in simple and profound ways.
Grief is visceral, unpredictable, and raw. Part of me resists grief, wishing it were done, completed, and gone. This same resistance holds self-judgment: Get over it, Joy; toughen up. Yet I don’t want to “toughen up.” The wiser, kinder parts of me welcome waves of grief. These waves honor my tenderness and vulnerability. They cultivate deep love and gratitude. They connect me to humanity.
Humanity has been in my heart and on my mind. I sit with the suffering of humanity: natural disasters, acts of violence, discrimination, injustice, and abuse. I also experience the sea of humanity. We live in communities yet sometimes don’t interact. We can get lost in our busy lives, important tasks, or personal dramas.
All meaningful practices require effort. In fact, much of the meaning comes from the effort. After (and while) working hard on projects, relationships, or creative endeavors, we feel satisfaction and contentment. Persistent practice reaps benefits.
We often minimize our own effort and positive impact in this world. The murkiness of comparing-mind clouds our view: it’s always other people who are more effective, innovative, compassionate, and wise.
Monday, in the prison meditation circle, I talked about what it means to be free. I spoke about my early years in academia, where it felt like I had no choices. Driven by unrealistic inner-expectations, I worked long hours, provided many and varied extras to students, said “yes” to every committee, and attended all events. Eventually, I was exhausted and irritated.
A quick glance at the news tells us what’s wrong with the world: political wars, violent acts, and natural disasters. These are not to be ignored. We live in a complicated world and to make a difference we must face hard truths. But if we focus solely on what's wrong, we become scared, frustrated, and hopeless.
In our prison meditation circle, there’s a new member. He’s young and earnest. He keeps showing up, week after week, even though he’s scared. Recently, I had a one-on-one visit with him. Wide-eyed, he spoke about the fear he experiences each time he walks into mindfulness class. I inquired about this fear. He said he’s worried about making mistakes and not getting it right.
I’m reading Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy. His words regularly bring me to tears. He’s a beautiful writer and, more importantly, he’s an honest, compassionate, work-for-justice person. He details varied ways we harm one another; the awful things we abide by and do. And much of this happens within institutions.