Sunday, January 22, 2017

The Art of Compassionate Detachment

We do not do good work in the world to change the world. That is impossible. We do good work in the world to change ourselves, our hearts. Many suffragettes and civil rights activists died before seeing the change they sowed. Mindfulness helps us find that place of balance between “caring too much” and “caring too little” where we have the life-long commitment and endurance necessary to effect long-term social change.

It is natural to feel urgency in the face of suffering. We want to end pain quickly – both in our own lives and in the lives of others. This sense of urgency can save lives but it can also become an obstacle to long-term, lasting social change. In modern society, daily tasks like finding water (turning on the tap) or entertainment (watching TV) have become so effortless that there is a modern expectation that all of our needs should be met so effortlessly and that if the answers aren’t instant or short-term, they must be wrong or impossible.  This ease and speed of modern life does not prepare us to face social injustice and other obstacles to change.

Stripping our lives of entertainment and bringing ourselves back to discipline rooted in loving kindness and patience while on a meditation retreat, we face difficult emotions in a container that helps us get to know and understand ourselves in the face of controlled hardship. We notice that even boredom can be excruciating. We learn that the mind is a very big place and that our capacity for endurance and compassion – as well as self-change – is far greater than we ever expected. We learn to work with emotional resistance to discipline, to discomfort and change. We also learn that it takes time to improve anything and that trying to speed the process and force change almost always backfires. Patience is the lost art we must reclaim if we want change that endures.

Evolution & time
When facing a long-term crisis, whether it is our own or part of broader social injustice, it is important to remember that beneath the frenetic, instant-results, instant-satisfaction and stress of modern life, there remains within us a very different relationship with time. Time has a longer, evolutionary quality to it as well. The human species has been evolving for 250,000 years. A true foundation of social change and self-change is rooted in this second, evolutionary relationship with time. It is patient and has the emotional endurance to face difficulty for decades from a standpoint of faith in the innate ability within all human beings to evolve. When we fail to acquire faith in our capacity to evolve, our efforts peter out and fall short. When one has deep faith in one’s own capacity for change, this is one avenue to detachment.

Detachment, social justice & special education
Detachment does not mean an absence of caring. On the contrary, it is that place in the mind where we are balanced, emotionally neutral yet engaged and able to discern when to take appropriate action while being patient and accepting the way things are temporarily. It is deep faith in oneself and one’s life.

Deep mindfulness practice is especially critical for parents and educators who are trying to help children with special needs. Being a parent or educator is always challenging even when children perform in a way that is considered normal or above average. A child with special needs often faces endless uphill battles that have emotional consequences for the child and ripple effects for the family and community, including that child’s educators. Facing the pain and frustration these children must endure, parents and educators can experience profound loss of faith, helplessness, desperation and an urgency to fix the situation quickly. This blog addresses how mindfulness can benefit adults facing complex suffering that may last decades within their own lives or in the lives of the people or children they are trying to help. It is intended to be a balm for those brave enough to face social injustice not just for one day, but every day.

Caring too little
One coping strategy when faced with overwhelming problems or social ills is to ignore them. In education, this often manifests as “that child can’t be helped.” This mentality is a great disservice not only to the child but also to the educator simply because it isn’t true. It is far more accurate to say, “As an educator, I haven’t figured out how to help this child, but maybe someone else has developed a technique that works or maybe someone will in the future.” This is an honest, accurate capture of what is happening. Children who hear a person of authority (a teacher or parent) say that their situation is hopeless and cannot be helped can internalize that statement, develop lower self-esteem and give up on themselves. This is a profound tragedy when you consider that you cannot help another person change without their participation.

There is no greater loss than a loss of faith in oneself and one’s potential. Saying to a child, “Today I’m going to have you teach me what you notice about yourself and if we discover something new, we can help other students too” is empowering. Children often have tremendous clarity about their own situation and by identifying for themselves what’s not working and where and how they get lost, they can actually give a teacher or parent the information they need to teach effectively. To share this information, however, a child has to have confidence that the adults around them accept them unconditionally as they are, believe in their capacity for improvement and who support them every step of the way, even when the pace seems excruciatingly slow.

When people care too little or we refer to someone as being “too detached,” it means their emotions are not engaged or are not obvious.  Often someone in this category may feel numb as a result of professional burn-out. This can occur as a result of initially caring too much. The pain of not being able to help a child (especially when internalized as failure) or change social injustice can so overwhelm that a person instead reverts to a less painful idea – that it’s just not possible to help certain types of people or situations. Impossibility becomes permission to avoid the struggle or to take a break from it, which someone may actually need but which doesn’t make their belief in impossibility true.

In contrast, a teacher who starts out detached yet engaged does not feel the emotional need to make absolute statements about anyone or anything. They can work with the breadth of information that is available in the present moment, aware of rules and exceptions while keeping an eye out for completely new solutions that arise. This is a far more interesting way to work. Deep meditation practice helps adults develop a healthier relationship with the present moment and a better sense of what is within our control and what is not. When we acknowledge what we cannot control, we create space for change to arise on its own.

Caring too much arises from a belief that we should be in control when we’re not. We do not have the power to change the world; not by ourselves. We only have the power to change ourselves. Detachment is a type of caring that does not attempt to control or identify with progress or lack of progress as success or failure.  It arises from the direct experience during meditation retreat that control is impossible. It is an illusion. The ability to observe reality and respond to it as it is is far more powerful. The good news is that even failure to change social injustice has benefits. A lifetime of doing good in the world, serving others and refining oneself yields at the very least a peaceful death – something we in the modern world often fail to contemplate.

Endurance and clarity
If we are honest with ourselves, we can notice that when we try to force self-change or eradicate something about ourselves that we don’t like, often that aspect of ourselves gets worse. Once we develop patience with our own issues, we learn how we change. Then we can then help others do their own work of self-change. Even then, we are not changing others. They are changing themselves. It is very important to help someone else from a place of acceptance rather than aversion to where they are.

A common assumption is that Buddhist monks and nuns feel peace all the time when in fact, they often have a luminous glow of peace on their faces because they are completely open to suffering. They are choosing an incredibly difficult life and their resistance to suffering diminishes so that over time, they have an outward appearance of beauty and refinement. They have been carved by their openness and willingness to be present with suffering, to explore it and to understand it. Just as facing the initial boredom, discomfort and pain of physical exercise makes a person physically stronger and more beautiful over time, mindfulness is mental exercise. The longer one has exercised one’s body and mind, the more effortless challenges become. Running a mile might seem daunting to someone who is just beginning to exercise but effortless to someone who has trained for a half-marathon. In the same way, a child with special needs who is exasperated by the emotional pain of facing daily mental challenges over time can develop great patience and ability in the face of difficult circumstances.

The importance of choice and free-will
If children in special education fail to progress, it might be because no one is giving them a choice and they are expected to be passive recipients of instruction rather than directing their own process of self improvement. There is a lesson I teach about success and failure. I write two sentences “I am a success” and “I am a failure.” Which of these two sentences is more dangerous? Take a moment to consider your beliefs about both statements before continuing to read.

My view: both of these statements are dangerous. Over-achieving students can commit suicide because their mantra is “I am a success, my family history is one of success and I must not bring dishonor to my family or myself.” In short, failure is unacceptable. They have over-identified with the concept of success. Conversely there are students who so strongly believe “I am a failure, my family history is one of failure and suffering, I have always been and always will be a failure” that they cannot find the motivation to try to change themselves. Mindfulness is about the middle way. Truth lies between the extremes. My mantra is “failure is part of success.” If you’ve ever learned to ride a bike, you know that every time a person tries and falls off of a bike (often crashing) that fall is a failure but with each failure, the brain is learning. We don’t know everything about the brain. All we know is that after a certain number of tries (and failures), the brain figures it out at an unconscious, automatic level. Suddenly you are riding the bike effortlessly for the first time and even you are surprised by this event! This ability to learn, to adapt and change is miraculous. While waiting for change, we often feel impatient but once change occurs in ourselves or in our society, we realize how miraculous it is that it even occurred at all.

The value of struggle
Self-change has automatic and exponential repercussions. It can inspire countless others so that goals that seemed out of reach for decades suddenly become accessible. For example, participants in the 1960s civil rights movement did not expect to see an African-American president in their lifetimes but it happened. The change they started with so much suffering, horror, blood and tears decades before culminated in a joy celebrated the world over. When Gandhi’s non-violence movement liberated India, it was miraculous. Yet this is why we are all here: to change ourselves over not years, but decades. Change is painful as much as it is miraculous. It requires tremendous courage and faith in ourselves, in our process. Patience at the outset is especially critical. If you think of it in terms of human evolution, a few decades is nothing yet the message of long-term patience is missing from our cultural mythology. We celebrate the accomplishments of people like Einstein, Beethoven, Gandhi, Lincoln and Aung Sang Suu Kyi without giving children an accurate understanding of the profound struggles of their lives. Their struggles are just as important as their accomplishments because those stories give us the patience and endurance we need to face our own struggles. Indeed to struggle is to change, to evolve.

Joy and struggle
Let’s look at the bike riding analogy again, this time from the perspective of a child with special needs. The critical piece of learning how to ride a bike, in my view, is the desire to ride the bike. A child can fall again and again and again without losing their enthusiasm and commitment to their goal of riding a bike. When they look back on their experience of learning to ride a bike, often it’s a happy memory despite the failures (we enjoy looking back and laughing about how and where we crashed). This dynamic would completely change if the child did not want to learn how to ride a bike and was forced to ride and fall every day. The failure and identification with failure would become the child’s reality. This would not be a happy memory. This creates a conundrum for adults who are trying to teach special needs children academic standards. You could argue that a child might never want to learn math in the same way they are motivated to learn how to ride a bike, yet there is always someone who can teach a difficult subject in a way that is inspiring and motivating, who can bring that level of passion and commitment to self-learning into a classroom.

Change is inevitable but seems slow, the path long
While there are no panaceas, breaking obstacles down into bite-size pieces or smaller stepping stones makes success accessible. Start with the tiniest increment of struggle. Stop and get feedback from the child. Build an understanding of struggle into academic curricula. Praise the child for each of these small, seemingly irrelevant increments of struggle and change. They are becoming stronger! They are evolving!

If you are fighting social injustice, take heart that you are just as strong as special education students. Just as they struggle daily to speak, to move, to read, to write, to understand algebra and connect with others, you too can successfully struggle to progress. Identify the smallest piece of social injustice that you are willing to struggle with and take it on with patience, engagement and a lifetime commitment. When it comes to facing social injustice, all of us need to be gentle and patient with ourselves, whether we are activists or a lame duck president. The journey of 1000 miles begins with small, often difficult steps but together over decades our collective steps carve a mighty path forward – despite of or perhaps because of our disabilities.

If you want to know the value of your good work in the world, do not look to the world – where in a single moment, resistance to change can seem far more powerful than the inevitable undercurrent of evolution. Look within yourself with patience. In that stillness, your heart will tell you.

Copyright © January 2017 by Ellen McCarty.  All rights reserved.