I want more than the experience of mindfulness these days. I want heartfulness: loving-kindness and compassion as the focus of my life and contemplative service.
I have been in several mindfulness retreats in 2018, and many over the years. So don’t get me wrong. I do not mean I do not value the practice of being in the present moment. That has been a very important foundational practice in my life and teaching for 20 years, ever since I first trained in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction. But I do mean I have become more clear that mindfulness is not enough for me personally. I want more.
For instance, I have listened to guidance at the mindfulness retreats about working with thoughts and emotions. The usual instruction goes something like this: “Notice the thoughts and feelings which arise as soon as you can, label them, and let them go. Each time they return do the same.”
I understand the basic concept beneath this teaching: we suffer less if we notice thoughts or feelings as such before they become a story which the mind believes, like “I feel terrible because of what he said to me.” Or when we notice the mind has already created a story, we suffer less if we recognize that it is only a story in the mind, not reality. That can give us the strength to let the story go. I do find those ways helpful and share them with people regularly in counseling and spiritual direction.
But I realized in the middle of a recent mindfulness retreat, as the usual instruction was being repeated for working with thoughts and feelings, that I find another step from heartfulness work even more helpful. I personally use this step and share it more frequently in counseling and spiritual direction. The question is simple: “Can I/you/we hold this in loving awareness?” And to emphasize the point, I usually cup my hands together to make space for the compassionate holding.
Once I see that I am suffering with something, including thoughts, feelings, and stories about them, can I, will I, be aware of the suffering with compassion? When I notice the suffering in me, will I care about the me who is going through this? Will I hold myself in love? Will I even decide to radiate the one who is suffering–me–with compassion? It is the same thing I would offer someone else who is suffering: I would radiate compassion and loving-kindness into them. (Some people call this prayer). So why not treat myself in the same way?
Can you see what I mean in wanting more then just noticing what is happening when there is suffering, and just labeling the suffering as that? I no longer believe that is enough.
I have miles and miles to go before I sleep, but on the journey ahead I want to practice a deeper level of self-compassion. And I want to share that practice with others. I want more than mindfulness alone for myself, and I want to share more than mindfulness. I want to live and share the work of heartfulness.
In the Spring of 1992, at a retreat with the faculty of the Shalem Institute for Spiritual Formation, I learned the biblical Hebrew phrase for a whole heart: leb shalem. Heartfulness work to me is the cultivating of a whole heart, a fullness of heart, and living with a heart full of compassion and loving-kindness is the more I have longed for. That is my intention.
Heartfulness is the way I want to live in my better moments. But the more I study compassion cultivation in my current teacher training program, the more I see how often I am not compassionate. Focusing on the heartfulness work is like shining a light on my current experience of compassion and loving-kindness for myself and others. And in the light, there are so many times when I see my failing, my fading compassion.
To be clear, this is not a bad thing. It is a needed seeing. It is bringing the myth of, “I am a pretty caring guy,” out from the shadows of my unconscious assumptions so that I can work with it. How else can a gradually convert the myth toward a reality?
During the training I have learned about “empathy distress,” and the way it can lead to “compassion fade” if left unchecked. So rather than turning my struggles with the intention of heartfulness into another reason to judge myself unworthy, the training is showing me how natural it is for us humans to slip out of compassion mode and into a kind of heartless reaction to suffering in ourselves and others. Something in us tries to protect us from becoming overwhelmed with great needs in ourselves or others. This is part of being human.
No wonder people sometimes like to “blame the victim.” It is painful to see below the surface to the suffering of the young man in prison who never had an education, or real love in his impoverished family. It is easier to say “he is just lazy” or “he deserves what he got.” It hurts to see the deep pain of the rape victim, how helpless she felt, how ashamed that it happened to her. So we want to blame the rape on what she wore, or how much she drank, or how late she was out. It brings empathy distress into us to really see her need, pain, suffering. And we want to relieve our own distress with a short-cut, a story that separates us from the inherent suffering in others.
I want to offer that young man in prison more than mindfulness, more than the ability to see and label his thoughts and feelings over and over. I want to help the rape victim with more than a way to notice what is happening within her in the present moment. I want to help them find leb shalem, a whole heart, heartfulness again. I want to show them how to hold their suffering in loving awareness. And I want to find the radical courage to not turn away from their raw need, letting my own compassion fade. I want to learn to cultivate compassion that lasts.
I want more…. This is not a criticism of mindfulness training. This is a call to the next step: compassion cultivation. Now I see them as part A and part B. Both are part of the journey into living an abundant life.
This summer I have the opportunity to begin teaching Compassion Cultivation Training (CCT) for the first time. And then we will begin to make it part of our core curriculum in the School for Contemplative Living. I am super grateful for the training I am receiving from the Compassion Institute faculty. And I have loved learning more about the teaching process by watching Lara Naughton teach CCT at Angola State Prison. Soon I will begin being a beginner at teaching CCT myself.
My free CCT Intro Workshop will be held on Sunday, May 20, 12:45-3 pm at Rayne United Methodist Church’s Epiphany House, 3924 St. Charles Ave. New Orleans, LA 70115. You can email me for more information or register at William.firstname.lastname@example.org.
You can also learn more about CCT at the Compassion Institute website:
If you want to experience a taste of why “I want more,” come join me in May.