“Seek not that the things which happen should happen as you wish; but wish the things which happen to be as they are, and you will have a tranquil flow of life”. Epictetus (Enchiridion)
Over the years, through my mindfulness training and practice, I become more aware of the gap. This gap is the space between reality and how I would like life to be. I have also learned how to take in the good and make the most of pleasant experiences. I recognise how important it is to create balance, and even if the gap seems as vast as the Grand Canyon, I realise it isn’t about everything. There are good things too, it’s just that my mind chooses, quite naughtily, to focus on the chasm and sometimes drown in it, rather than recognise that it doesn’t define me, it isn’t all there is and that good things are happening too. It has taken me a lot of training, reading and practice to train my mind to respond differently. I’m not saying it’s easy though. In fact, I find it quite challenging.
I used to think of it all as being one gap. But it isn’t at all. There are lots of gaps running at the same time, and there I am like a juggler in the middle of them all. No wonder I feel like such a complex, messy human being most of the time.
Recently I experienced what seems like a massive gap. So I sat with it a while to see what was going on, knowing my tendency is for my whole life to be affected by the gap, rather than looking at the particular gap in isolation and inquiring into it. In the gap there is a lot of pain as I am watching someone suffer. When I was completing the MSc Studies in Mindfulness, I learned a lot about empathy and how watching another suffer can trigger the pain centre in our own brain.
Research conducted by a neuroscientist, Tania Singer, with a French Buddhist monk, Matthieu Ricard, revealed that we have a tendency to respond to empathy by taking on the pain of others. However, if we recognise that it is their pain and not our pain and send them heartfelt kind wishes the soothing system of the brain is activated. This demonstrated to me the power and importance of compassion practice.
Feeling the pain of others can have devastating consequences on our wellbeing. Furthermore, people who are suffering aren’t often behaving how we expect them too, so we might take their reactions personally. And for this we need to learn to be compassionate towards ourselves. The flow of compassion is twofold – compassion for the person who is suffering, but equally for ourselves and how we are responding to this person’s pain, be it through seeing their suffering, or experiencing their reactions through their suffering.
This coming weekend I am tutoring on the Compassion course with Choden and so have revisited the practices and teachings. I see how easy it is to forget. Even though I read and teach around compassion, sometimes I forget to actually do it myself.
In this particular situation I recognised that I had fallen into the pain of a gap, I paused for a while and paid attention to my breathing. I asked myself, how can I look after myself and also care for others in the most compassionate way. I have learned from sharing mindfulness with family carers the importance of tending to your own needs in a difficult situation. It’s a bit like putting your own oxygen mask on first on an aeroplane, otherwise we are less able to help others if we are incapacitated ourselves. Once we have done this we are more able to get ourselves out of the way and respond appropriately to the needs of others. The most important thing that I learned from this particular gap is that it doesn’t define me or devalue all the good things in life where there are no gaps. It was just a part of me, and like everything, it eventually changed and passed through. Another lesson in impermanence – but that’s another story.
Mindfulness plays an important part in this by allowing us to notice what is happening while it is happening. Then Compassion steps in and can help us transform the situation and how we feel if we allow it to.
In your daily life I invite you to watch out for the gaps and notice how you can navigate them using your practice.
I invite you to reflect on something in your life where you are experiencing a gap between reality and how you would prefer life to be. Notice how this feels. Place a soothing hand on your heart in acknowledgment of any difficulty and suffering in this. Gently lengthen and deepen the in breath and the out breath and make them the same length for a few minutes. Then I invite you to inquire into yourself as to whether this gap is consuming your whole being, or whether it is just one part of many feelings going on for you right now. Are you able to soften around the feelings this gap is creating and gently allow yourself to breathe in and out of it allowing it to be just as it is. I invite you to close this short practice with noticing if you are able to bring to mind something that recently made you smile, noticing how that makes you feel, and see if it can sit side by side with any gaps you are feeling. I’d love to hear how you get on so please do let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org
Take good care of yourself
Jacky will be teaching this coming weekend on the Level 2 Responding with Compassion with Choden 1-2 May 2021 and a new Stillness Through Movement Course on 5th October, 2021.
Jacky has contributed a chapter to the Mindful Heroes Book entitled “Turning Empathic Distress into Compassion – A Hero’s Journey for Family Carers”. You can hear an extract from the chapter where she talks about the results of her MSc Studies in Mindfulness on Compassion & Family Carers. You can download a free sample of Jacky’s chapter here.