“The most common way that people give up their power is by thinking that they don’t have any”
Mindfulness course participants often say at the beginning of the programme that what they’re looking for is more control – more control over their moods, their thoughts, and in their lives. The mindful approach tends to prefer the word choice to control, which expresses more a quality of empowerment, and is at the heart of mindfully taking responsibility. That’s our response-ability, our ability to respond (rather than react). Realising we have response-ability is liberation. It means freedom from expecting others to say and behave in ways that make us happy, and freedom from our automatic knee-jerk reacting which is threat driven and tends to make us contract, attack or flee. As the saying goes realising that happiness is ‘an inside job’ stops giving other people so much power over our state of mind and heart. This increases our sense of control, which flourishes as we learn through meditation to navigate our internal world with a sense of care, wisdom and understanding. In turn this greater intra-personal response-ability increases our capacity of course to take greater inter-personal response-ability, to respond with care and wisdom to others.
It’s wonderful to realise that we have so much more power than we think, whatever the circumstance. Of course it’s easy to say that we have this choice from the comfort of my home in London, my loved ones safe, with food in the fridge and no bombs dropping outside. And yet haven’t we all heard the amazing stories of the human capacity to remain dignified and to practice inner peace even in the most horrific circumstances – Tibetan monks and nuns tortured in Chinese jails, Nelson Mandela, Vickor Frankl who survived the concentration camps. I recently watched Long Walk to Freedom about Nelson Mandela, and was moved afresh by his determination to respond rather than react, practising inner peace as best he could during his imprisonment, thereby protecting the only freedom he had, and the fierce compassion he embodied in eventually urging his followers to choose peace and reconciliation. The power to choose how we respond to ourselves is a choice we always have, in the many less dramatic events of our daily lives. Peace and reconciliation starts at home, when we are willing to respond to ourselves with an open heart and the clarity of mindfulness. To be clear this approach is in no way saying we shouldn’t take action, on the contrary it’s an essential part of caring that we respond, set boundaries, say no and stand up for justice. As Thich Nhat Hanh writes “meditation is not to escape from society, but to come back to ourselves and see what is going on. Once there is seeing, there must be acting. With mindfulness, we know what to do and what not to do to help.”
A core understanding in the mindfulness-based stress reduction approach is that stress is not what happens to us, it’s our response to what happens to us. This means that we have a choice – we can’t control what happens to us but we can choose what we do with it. It’s important to understand our natural human limitations though – we can’t control what thoughts or emotions come into our mind/heart ; we can’t control how the body initially responds, both the acute and chronic symptoms. We can’t wish these away. But we can, we have the ability, to respond to what arises in the psychophysical organism. We have response-ability.
This isn’t another way of taking the blame, although of course it’s important to recognise the consequences of our actions and speech. But blame is kind of a dead-end, whichever way it’s pointed. Response-ability is much more compassionate, and opens us to possibility instead of shutting us down.
Responsibility can sound a bit heavy can’t it, its something we’re told often to do more of by parents, teachers and employers. When somebody tells you to take more responsibility it implies that you’re falling short in some way. It’s wonderful to discover that actually our response-ability is so empowering. Have you ever had a revelatory moment where you realise that instead of blaming someone else and waiting for them to change their behaviour or a situation that you can do something about it yourself? It’s such a relief isn’t it. Focussing on what we can do to make ourselves happier, instead of waiting/expecting others to do it for us lightens the load. It’s a deeply giving gesture. It lifts the burden from other people, and of life itself, to work out the way we want to (which it can’t). When I am response-able and consider how best to take care of myself during difficult moments I am freeing myself from the tyranny of circumstances and what others do or say on my wellbeing. This doesn’t mean that what others do or say is acceptable when it isn’t, or that it becomes irrelevant. In practice I’m actually more likely to remove myself from what harms me, and to express my boundaries. Because I know now that no one, no one, will know what’s best for me in the way that I do for myself. I have the potential to respond to myself like the best of friends, because that’s who I am to myself. This is the most wonderful discovery of my response-ability, that I can choose to meet myself with compassion, love and care – the fruition of mindful self-compassion, one of the 8 week courses I teach (next course here). It takes time, deep listening, patience and the joyful effort of practice. Its not quick and often we get there the hard way round but there are those wonderful moments when I understand better what the Dalai Lama means when he says:
“When you think everything is someone else’s fault, you will suffer a lot. When you realise that everything springs only from yourself, you will learn both peace and joy”
The Dalai Lama
And here’s another Buddhist teacher sharing their wisdom a bit more graphically! :
“Blaming somebody else for your suffering is like having an itch on your head and scratching your bottom. Now you have two itches for the price of one”
Luang Por Chah
Food for thought I hope on your path of self-empowerment and freedom. This is the kind of medicine that only works if you take responsibility. No one can do it for you. For most of us this takes a while to get our heads and hearts around, especially in the context of the medicalised mental health system. Yet when we do the prize of inner freedom is ours. The Buddha said “No one saves us but ourselves. No one can, no one may. We ourselves must walk the path”. It’s also true that we’re all on this path together, this search for inner peace and freedom is what we share, and the struggles we encounter along the way is what connects us. You are response-able for your happiness, but you are not alone – one of the gems of insight that comes from doing a mindfulness or mindful self-compassion course. The support of community and connection is essential for this transformational mind-body work. Check out the wonderful Tara Brach’s talk on this theme. I’m so happy to be sharing this path with you – do share your responses below, thank you.