By Cheryl Jones, Director of Mindfulness at Aetna
As if the intensity of dealing with the coronavirus pandemic with its health and economic implications wasn’t enough, we now find ourselves in the midst of rising racial and political tensions. It feels as though our sanity and our humanity are at risk.
I believe mindfulness (awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, to the present moment without judgment) is now essential to creating solutions for the many challenges we face today. Whether on a personal level or as a society, our relationships with other people matter greatly. Bringing mindfulness to our interactions is critical because we impact one another whether we mean to or not.
During my mindfulness teacher development training program, I remember Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn telling us, “We come to our meditation practice as though our lives depended upon it. Because guess what? It does.”
On a personal level, I can attest that my mindfulness practice enabled me to navigate the most turbulent time of my life. In 2001, my husband was indicted for a range of white-collar crimes. It was a shocking, embarrassing, painful, and stressful time for my family and me. We went through multiple losses in a short period of time. He went to prison. We got divorced. I received no divorce settlement, no alimony, and no child support. At the time I was a ‘stay at home’ mom. I had to file for bankruptcy. I sold all my possessions to survive and was a solo parent for 10 years. I’m grateful to share that my story ultimately had a happy ending.
[Editor’s Note: Jones captured her story in her book: Thriving When Your Cosmic Egg Is Cracked: A Mindful Journey.]
Our cosmic egg is cracked
“Cosmic egg” simply means: the world as we know it. I believe our nation’s cosmic egg has been cracked. And that the pathway to healing will be one moment, one breath, one conversation at a time. Mindfulness can help us to lean in, connect, and communicate from a more balanced place.
Mindfulness is a particular way of engaging in life. It’s about being present in the moments of our lives. This involves noticing what is happening within us and around us with curiosity and openness. We strengthen this capacity for awareness through mindfulness meditation.
We must first stop reacting to each other
Mindfulness is a practice, but it is also a skill we can use in difficult conversations. When one person changes the way they engage in a conversation, the conversation changes. In order to create healthy, productive discussions, we must first stop reacting to each other.
When someone is saying something we don’t like or agree with, we often react and make things even worse. Why? Because the body perceives this experience as a threat and we go into what’s known as fight-or-flight mode.
When this happens, we experience all kinds of physical sensations. We may feel the heart racing or the face getting flushed as stress hormones pump through the bloodstream. We may notice critical thoughts running through the mind or we might get carried away by strong emotions like anger, fear, and grief.
How to bring your best self to difficult conversations
Having a mindfulness practice helps us maintain equanimity in emotionally charged moments. We discover it is possible to be aware of what is happening within us and work with our experience skillfully. We can even learn to do this while we listen to the other person with openness and curiosity.
During these uncomfortable moments, we rest our attention on the breath moving in and out of the body. With our breath as an anchor to the present moment, we soften our attachment to our opinions and beliefs. We become able to respond rather than react.
It requires courage and compassion to stay engaged in an unpleasant conversation. When we do speak, we consciously choose our words with the intention to help. With mindful awareness we discover that we can better articulate thoughts and ideas honestly, clearly, and calmly.
The gift of mindfulness
While mindfulness helps us to be awake and aware in the moment, it can also have powerful long terms benefits. With regular meditation, we get to know ourselves better, and over time broaden our perspectives.
We become able to see the bigger picture. Instead of focusing only on what is broken, we see what is wrong and what is right — in our bodies, within our families, and as a nation. We identify what is working well and we build upon that. This ability to view problems in the context of a greater whole helps us to move forward with hope and creates a sense of interconnectedness.
The end game for mindfulness has never been to achieve some blissful state. While there are many benefits at the individual level, the grander gift of mindfulness is to create homes, neighborhoods, systems, and a world where all people can grow and thrive.
Developing a mindfulness practice
If the first step to having difficult conversations is to learn how to stop reacting, I offer that the next step is to develop a mindfulness practice. Why? Because this will inform how we show up in critical conversations around the dinner table or a round table.
If you’d like to learn more about developing a mindfulness practice, I invite you to join me for live virtual mindfulness meditation classes. Together we can strengthen our mindfulness muscles and improve our ability to engage in uncomfortable conversations. Let’s elevate one another and illuminate the pathway to a bright future.