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Reflections on Mindfulness

Recently, I was going through some of my old social work books and stumbled across a classic, Zen in the Art of Helping (1976) by David Brandon that was given to me when I entered grad school twenty years ago.  Brandon was a social worker and by faith was a Zen Buddhist.  His book critically examines the helping process (social work) through a Zen perspective, looks at how ego is antithetical to helping and provides a thorough review of compassion. Brandon shares his many thoughts on compassion and the following has always resonated with me:

“Compassion is being in tune with oneself, the other person(s) and the world.  It is goodness at its most intuitive and unreflective.  It is harmony which opens itself and permits the flowing out of love towards others without asking any reward.  It avoids using people as tools.  It sees them as complete and without a need to be changed (Brandon, p 60).

As I dusted off my treasure, I was reminded of the cliché, “what is old is new again.”  It also got me thinking about how `mindfulness’ and `compassion’ seem to be `hot topics’ today.  Take a visit to the local bookstore and you will find academic books, self-help books, magazines and audio material on `mindfulness’ and `compassion.’   It is encouraging that popular culture seems to be embracing mindfulness.  I find it interesting that something so micro-level has given way to a sociological shift.  It is nice to see mindfulness entering into the school system and incorporated into programming with children.  For instance, in my son’s grade 6 class, his teacher engaged the students in a mindful doodling exercise called Zentangle (visit zentangle.com for details).

In my counselling work with men, I find that some of my clients seem to view mindfulness as a little obscure and “new age-like.”  Initially, some of the men that I see seem to find it a bit challenging to access mindfulness in everyday life.   I try to de-mystify mindfulness by emphasizing that it is something we are all capable of, and as it is a natural process, it is something we all have been doing it on some level or another since childhood.   However, it seems in our dominant culture, there is sometimes a tendency to drift away from `mindful’ activities and our natural life rhythms toward more artificial, technological, quick-response actions that tend to be valued in our society.  I share with my clients that mindfulness does not just have to be practiced through formal exercises alone but may also be experienced more informally by participating mindfully in everyday activities such as walking, eating, playing with your children, drawing, washing the car, maybe even playing golf and so forth.    My clients often feel good when they can experience mindfulness on their own in real life and not just within the context of counselling.  In her book, Calming the Emotional Storm (2012), Sheri Van Dijk, MSW, provides a user-friendly introduction to core mindfulness skills which I have used with my clients.  I like using this book because it is very practical and the exercises such as `The Gatekeeper’ seem to resonate with them.

Mindfulness is as natural as our breathing rhythm, and other natural processes including even death.  In his Psychology Today article (February 21, 2011), Confronting Death with an Open and Mindful Attitude, Todd B. Kashdan, Ph.D. looks at how mindfulness can neutralize our fear of death and dying.   I see Todd’s connection between Mindfulness and how it can help us tune in and possibly accept death rather than fear this natural process as a good fit.   Getting back in-tune with our capacity to be mindful not only connects us more with our natural rhythms but life itself.

By Greg Babcock, MSW, RSW

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