"Mindful of the Dark"

by Tony Bates

May 14th 2020

While leading a mindfulness practice recently, someone invaded the session with disturbing images. It was as dark as it gets. We all felt gutted.  Sleep didn’t come easy that night, and even when it did, it didn’t last.

Within a day or so, the floodwaters receded, the adrenaline settled down, for me. I was able to experience what had happened without feeling overwhelmed. I wondered about how mindfulness helps us to face the darkness.

When we see the way people exploit, hurt and destroy one another, it’s easy to lose faith in humanity. Experiencing the shadow side of human beings provokes strong reactions in us. We can feel sad, outraged, and frightened. We protest that “Life shouldn’t be this way”. We believe our anger is justified and feel strongly that we want to retaliate.

When we repeatedly experience shock, it’s easy to surrender to creeping despair. It’s tempting to shut our hearts down to protect ourselves from further heartbreak. We regard our innocence as naive, as we finally see the ‘truth’ about life. We can become cynical and depressed. Our cynicism becomes a compelling story we now tell ourselves and anyone who will listen. It gives us a false certainty about the future, which is much easier to live with. Knowing exactly what to expect of our fellow humans reduces the risk of disappointment. Despair becomes our identity and give us a sense of belonging among like-minded cynics.

Mindfulness offers another vision of the world. It tells us a different story. When we practice mindfulness we turn towards what is alive in the present moment and remain open to it.  However dark things appear, we choose to believe that the present moment holds potential and promise. We bring awareness and acceptance to whatever reactions arise in us, believing that a calm steady mind will lead to skilful compassionate action.

When we are hurt, our first task is to recognise it and take time to  steady ourselves before we do or say anything. Recognising our distress may be hard. It’s easy to dismiss our reaction as ‘weak’. But until we see what is happening we cannot take care of ourselves.

“When our mind is carried away by strong pain, it helps to go back to our relaxed in-breath and out-breath. Eventually, when our painful feeling comes back, we accept it as it is instead of letting it carry us away and make us more agitated. We don’t fight the painful feeling because we know it is part of us, and we don’t want to fight ourselves.” (Thich Nhat Hanh, 2010)

Mindfulness is risky, since it is a form of trust, trust in the unknown and the possible. It is an expression of hope that life is constantly changing and that we are changing, in small and important ways. Impermanence gives us grounds for hope. Nothing is fixed and stable. This world is in flux.

But what about shadow side of our world? Indeed, what about the shadow side of ourselves? Do we want to experience this or should we not even go there? Mindfulness invites us to accept and stay with what is difficult, however uncomfortable or painful that may be. In accepting the reality of darkness we do not justify it, but we know it is there.  Indignation can sometimes be a refusal to accept the way things are. The root meaning of indignation is ‘non-acceptance’. Instead of reacting to injustice and exploitation by saying “How can this happen?” mindfulness invites us to ask ourselves “Where do I stand in a world where this is happening, now?”

Meditation and contemplative traditions, both East and West, recognise that there is darkness in all of us.  This darkness can be an expression of deprivation and neglect, the absence of nurturing and compassion at critical points of our lives. When we manifest the darkness in us we strike out against the world from our hurt. When people inflict severe violence on others, they are often acting from a place of having been brutalised themselves. We practice mindfulness to strengthen our compassion and to heal what is broken. We believe that to be human is to hurt, but we also believe that to be alive is to live with the constant possibility of  transformation.

Thich Nhat Hahn has often spoken about the three resources within the Buddhist tradition that help us to cope with what is broken and dark in our lives. He called these the “Three Jewels” of his mindfulness tradition: The Buddha, the Dharma and the Sangha. I found each of these critical to recovery from the shock we all experienced.

The practice (the ‘Buddha’) helped to stabilise me, to step back rather than react impulsively. My mind didn’t become stuck in that moment, but was able to flow into the following days. I was then able to work with others to heal the hurt.

The teaching (the ‘Dharma’) of Thich Nhat Hanh (and others) changed my perspective. It allowed me to gradually put what happened into a much wider context. In many ways our privileged lives have cocooned us from the ugliness of our world. In our meditation session, the curtain was drawn back, and we caught a glimpse of the horror that is visited daily on thousands of children. Many other people are also suffering: refugees, people in direct provision, homeless families, people who have been traumatised by losing their livelihoods and their loved ones. Our eyes were opened in a way that caused us distress. But perhaps we see more clearly now what a fragile world we live in and how we need to up our game as practitioners. Then and only then can we reflect on our vision for how to live in the real world.

Finally, the compassion and tenderness I received from so many of you softened the blow of the trauma. Your reaching out to me and to others was a powerful  experience of ‘Sangha’.  Being part of this community protected me from locking down my heart and adding to the darkness in myself and the world.

Reference:  Thich Nhat Hanh (2010). Reconciliation: healing the inner child. Parallax Press (p. 36)