This week we are honoured with a blog written by mindfulness author Mark Leonard of Minfulness4change. Please see his bio at bottom of this article. Thank you Mark for your highly-valued contribution!
Different kinds of elephants
by Mark Leonard
Something grabs the attention. A thought has an emotional charge. Patterns of thoughts and emotions become who we are.
Walking past this little boutique-ey sort of shop in my home town, an indigo-dyed pair of jeans hanging on the end of the rail through the open door caught my eye. I walked past the shop and turned around.
If I say to you: “Don’t think of a pink elephant,” what comes into your mind? Trying to still the mind triggers a desire for things to be different to the way they are. Wanting something is telling the mind that what is happening right now is not the way we want things to be. Wanting becomes a habit and we are never content with what we have.
“Can I help you?” Fortunately they didn’t have my size in stock and I had to accept that this pair of jeans wasn’t for me. The young shop assistant asked me what I was doing in town and we struck up a conversation and a brief human connection filled the empty space left by the pair of jeans that didn’t fit.
Pressure on resources and environmental devastation is fuelling strife across the world. The future is uncertain. This young man came to the conclusion he was powerless in the face of the enormity of these problems and that worrying about them was not going to change anything, it would only cause him distress. The only rational response was then to bury his head in the sand and focus on enjoying his short life.
Perhaps this is why there is so much interest in mindfulness meditation these days? Focusing on sensations of breath, noticing thoughts and emotions come and go in the field of sensations in the body from moment to moment, rather than becoming absorbed in the running commentary of our lives; worrying about what’s happening and planning to get what we need.
So what do we discover? Who I am is a story of memories strung together: some happy, some with regret and the future, a dream. As the story fades, a sense of contentment comes in each present moment as it comes and goes. Is this just another way of burying our heads in the sand?
Since the beginning of time we have survived sharing and caring for each other. The human brain takes many years to develop. The young need to be cared for until they can work together with others to provide for their needs and feed those dependent on them. The wisdom of the elders is like the memory of elephant matriarchs who know where to find new forage and water in times of drought. Relationships are the glue that hold the tribe together.
We feel safe when we feel valued and loved. Our greatest threat to survival is rejection. The story of who we are is a social story. It’s a story of survival in the group. It’s a story designed to give us a sense of value and meaning about our relationships with others with whom we share our lives.
Who we are is a story of collective survival. Each one of us is an individual with changing roles at different stages in our lives that fit into a family; a family in a tribe; one tribe distinct from another; tribal alliances and nations. Each one of us has a personal history set in a cultural story of identity defined by our collective imagination.
Now we are consuming natural resources at a rate that is creating a threat to the future of the whole of humanity and many of the animals with whom we share this planet. Millions are migrating to escape poverty and strife in search of new opportunities. How do we respond to the collective threat we face?
When resources are under pressure it is our nature to see rival tribes as the threat to our survival. If we see rival tribes as the enemy today we will be blind to the real threat we face; the elephant in the room; our collective over-exploitation of the planet’s resources. If we resort to tribalistic identities we will end up fighting over the little that is left. Many millions will die and the rest of us will struggle to survive.
We need to be conscious of the stories we create now more than ever before. We need to create stories of cooperation to work together to tackle the problems we face. We need to foster global identity and we need to face the collective shadow of our history within ourselves but where do we start?
Once we have got the hang of mindfulness meditation, we gain a taste for what it feels like to quieten the mind: letting go of the stories that create a sense of who we are. If we reflect on what is happening, we can begin to see the patterns of thoughts and emotions that drive much of our lives. We may begin to realise that who we think we are is just a story and that so much of what we do is driven by a deep-seated desire to protect this sense of self.
As we are social beings, this story of who we are is a story we have written out of our experiences of how we relate to others. It gives us a sense of value and meaning in our lives as a social being. Letting go of the story is letting go of the fear of not proving we have to be a someone in our social world. We begin to identify with not needing to prove anything to anyone to be accepted for who we are and it is out of this experience that we can write a new story.
Now the deeper work begins. Feelings of ease that come from not buying into a sense of self that needs to prove itself to others gives us freedom to experience a sense of self that is free to develop qualities of kindness and compassion without a need for recognition. With courage, we recognise our true self and when this true self grows in our lives, others feel more at ease around us, friendships and connections grow and the part of us that needs to feel connected to others finds what it was looking for all along.
Values shift. We see that compassion and kindness are what is required whenever a sense of fear and threat arises. We become a peacemaker. We build communities around sharing resources according to need and collectively evolve ways of making a better world for all, including all sorts of elephants.
Mark Leonard's chapter on Making Mindfulness Meaningful and Accessible is included in a new book on Mindfulness in the Workplace: An Evidence-based Approach to Improving Wellbeing and Maximising Performance, edited by Margaret Chapman-Clarke published by Kogan Page. He is a pioneer in adapting mindfulness from clinical context to the workplace, co-founded The Mindfulness Exchange as spin-out company from the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, which he also helped to establish in 2008 and then worked as Development Manager until 2013. He is now working with Mindfulness4change, which applies mindfulness meditation training as a means for social and organisational change.
You can find a free online course, which has full explanations of what you are doing and why, and that stresses the importance of mindfulness meditation as a socially engaged activity, with short guided mindfulness meditations here: mindfulness4change.com