What would our lives be like if we wore a crown of petals instead of a crown of thorns? What would it feel like to believe that we matter, that our contributions to the workforce, our home lives, and our relationships make a difference each day, and that the world is not the same without us?
These contemplations may initially sound egotistical. How can you focus on yourself when ethnic conflict, drought, starvation, and disease plague many parts of the world? We are biologically hardwired with a negativity bias that makes us notice what’s wrong, what’s missing. However, we can balance this see-saw perspective by accentuating the positive, and this process begins within.
My father was recently discharged from the hospital after an episode of congestive heart failure. On his first evening back home, we were trying to check his pre-meal blood sugar. In order to do this, we needed to understand the process of setting up a glucometer with the appropriate test strip, attaching a needle to a lancet, pricking his finger and applying a drop of blood to the test strip without oversaturating it. Though this process sounds simple, it was complicated by Papa’s frustration and my impatience. To make matters worse, I carried both our negative attitudes into the rest of the evening while sorting his medications, and later, while washing my daughter’s hair with resentment.
Before sleeping, though, I typed a few things I was grateful for that day and emailed my list to two friends. After reading their gratitude emails, I mindfully noticed a pang of jealousy in my belly. Their lives appeared carefree, without the burden of caring for a sick parent. Though I was not the only one caring for Papa (I had my mother’s and my husband’s support), I felt like I was bearing the whole load alone. My attention was narrowly focused on everything that felt “wrong.” The negativity bias was compounded by self-judgment about my own performance, as I knew I could have been more kind and patient with Papa. Too tired to bring full mindful and compassionate attention to all that was moving through me, I went to bed with the intention of revisiting the evening’s events the next day.
When we’re caught in the fight/flight/freeze response, our stress hormones, blood pressure and heart rate accelerate. This type of response was useful during our cave-dwelling days when our survival depended on hypervigilance. Today, however, this type of reaction blocks the panoramic perspective that mindfulness offers. According to mindfulness teacher and author Diana Winston, mindfulness is “paying attention in the present moment with kindness and a willingness to be with what is.”
Reflecting on the previous evening, I knew that I was feeling angry, resentful and fearful. I believed that Papa would always be ill, and I would have to sacrifice much of my free time in order to care for him. This free time was precious to me because I depended on it to refuel my compassion tank, so I could care for patients, family, friends, and myself with reverence and tenderness. Once I recognized and invited these troubling thoughts and feelings to be just as they were, though, I could turn towards them with compassionate presence.
If you’ve ever shared a good cry with a friend or loved one, felt your breath soothing tense muscles and heartache during meditation, or experienced deep peace cradled in the arms of Mother Nature, you’ll understand the power and value of compassionate presence. Perhaps you’ve also experienced compassionate presence in other magical and mysterious ways.
Once I was able to recognize what I was thinking and feeling, I brought one hand to my belly and the other to my heart in a gesture of self-compassion. I forgave my troubled mind and tense body for their habitual reaction to all I perceived as unpleasant. I tried to connect with everyone in the world caring for aging parents, breathing in our shared suffering and releasing it into the boundless space of compassionate presence. Tonglen practice reminded me I was not the first to experience this frustration, nor would I be the last.
Accentuating the positive
In addition to mindfulness and compassion, gratitude helps to balance see-saw perspectives weighed down by worry. To invite gratitude into your life, write down three things you are grateful for each day. You may choose to keep a gratitude journal, or even share your thoughts with a gratitude buddy by email or phone. When you notice something beautiful, pause and let the beauty permeate every living cell, every square inch of your being. Engage your five senses as best as you can to see, hear, taste, smell and touch the experience for 10 breaths. Our sense of time and space is often contracted when we’re rushing around in this media-driven world. Sensing and savouring our experiences creates more space in our lives and changes our relationship with time.
Because of our negativity bias, we often criticize ourselves and others for perceived imperfections. We’ll completely overlook a personal quality or trait of ours that brings joy to the world because we’re obsessed with the ten thousand things we’re doing poorly or not doing at all. Knowing that, when I reflected on the positive aspects of my encounter with Papa, I made sure I recounted my acts of generosity—helping him check his blood sugar and arranging his medication for him so he wouldn’t have to do these tasks alone.
In this way, and as described above, let us all use mindfulness, compassionate presence and gratitude to help us be gentler with ourselves throughout each passing day. For each of us, may this gentleness grow a crown of petals to soften our crown of thorns.