The Flowing Heart of Mindfulness

We just passed the one-year anniversary of the hate-fueled riots of Charlottesville. The daily news and twittersphere are filled with negativity. Public discourse seems hell-bent on steeply lowering the standard for civil discussion about very real and difficult issues facing all of us.

There seems to be no end in sight to the daily public displays of anger-baiting, fear-mongering, racial-slurring, sexual-assaulting, violence-inducing, other-bashing behaviors. Not to mention the just plain rude and crude rhetoric that fills the airwaves and social media conversations.

How do we, as conscious caregivers, raise our children in this toxic environment? How do we not become cynical or hateful or checked-out or stressed-out ourselves, in ways that will only contribute to more dystopian futures for our children?

One of the most powerful antidotes to the ills of our times, I believe, is mindfulness. While it’s been practiced across many cultures for many centuries, it seems especially vital to our personal and collective well-being at this point in time.

What is mindfulness? And why does it matter?

Mindfulness is simply the ability to pay attention in a certain way. Mindfulness is learning how to pay attention on purpose, to the present moment, nonjudgmentally. It’s the mental skill of intentional attention.

With mindful awareness, we notice what is happening right here, right now, and we do so with kindness and curiosity, rather than unexamined criticism or harsh judgment.

It’s a way of being in the world that allows us to see what is going on with more clarity, and to make peace with it more compassionately. It’s creating the mental habit of repeatedly returning to present-moment awareness and acceptance, with both an open mind and open heart.

Why is this so important right now?

Neuroscience research over the past several decades has shown numerous beneficial effects of regular mindfulness practice. Improved cardiovascular functioning (heart rate, blood pressure). Reduced GI, sleep, pain, and autoimmune diseases. Reductions in stress, anxiety, depression, PTSD and ADHD symptoms. Improved attention, emotion regulation, and decision-making. On and on.

Beyond its contributions to personal health and well-being, however, mindfulness practices also help us be more attentive to our own and others’ needs, be more kind and generous, and be inclined to higher ratings of happiness, gratitude, and joy. It also serves as a foundation for non-violent communication, conflict resolution, and restorative justice practices.

That’s because mindfulness includes something we call heartfulness as well.

That is, mindfulness isn’t just paying attention in a more focused way. A trained assassin is able to be highly focused in the moment, but we wouldn’t call that being mindful. Mindfulness is also about attending to the moments of our lives with care and concern for ourselves and others.

Mindfulness is sometimes described as a two-winged bird, with the wings of wisdom and compassion, both necessary to take flight.

I prefer to picture mindfulness as the two orbs of a classic heart shape – with the wisdom side and the compassion side continuously flowing into and feeding one another. They are inseparable and equal partners, contributing to the greater good of both personal well-being and social justice. I call this “the flowing heart of mindfulness.”

With the habits of mindfulness, we continuously incline the mind to be kind.

Rather than living in a world filled with rage-inducing anger, paralyzing anxiety, or energy-draining despair, we can choose to live more peacefully and productively.

Rather than reacting emotionally and impulsively to all the demands coming at us, we can respond thoughtfully and compassionately.

Rather than angrily blaming and shaming, we can commit to habits of constructive confrontation and collaborative problem-solving.

Under acute stress, our brains default to “Fight or Flight” reactivity. But we also have a “Tend and Befriend” part to our nervous system that seeks to both comfort others and find solace from others under times of duress. This part of our brain can be strengthened with regular mindfulness practice.

Remember, what you focus on, grows. And we always have choice.

Mindfulness practices help us make those choices with more wisdom and compassion. Any reason why we wouldn’t want that for our children? For ourselves? For our planet?

Peter Montminy, Ph.D. is a child psychologist, mindfulness teacher, and father of four. Learn more about his educational programs at www.AMindfulVillage.com.