Mindfulness and Listening

The Chattri, near Brighton

Christians get upset about the commercialisation of religious festivals like Christmas and Easter. Increasingly I appreciate why.

It is probably just as annoying for Buddhists that meditation, fundamental to a generous approach to the world, also appears to have been hijacked. This Washington Post article suggests that the me-generation has taken a practice essentially about becoming self-less, and turned it on its head to be about self absorption via the mindfulness movement.

The argument is plausible, but I disagree, perhaps because my first experience of mindfulness was not at a self-indulgent spa. It was gained through hearing from mental health colleagues and patients engaged in mindfulness as an evidence-based method for helping to live with disturbing voices in the head, one of the most unpleasant symptoms of schizophrenia and other psychotic illnesses.

I wanted to learn more. I went on a few courses, Buddhist and secular, and began to practise myself. I was also lucky enough to play a tiny part in supporting The Sussex Mindfulness Centre which today goes from strength to strength in helping patients and practitioners to practise mindfulness in their daily lives.

There will be some reading this who detest mindfulness. I accept that it isn’t for everyone. I know that it doesn’t actually solve anything. And I am aware that when it is suggested casually to those in distress, it can belittle the depth of trauma and anguish they are experiencing. Mindfulness can be seen as a panacea, even a mumbo-jumbo cult. And in the workplace it can be misused as a low-cost alternative to comprehensive employee support.

I really do appreciate these views. And yet having experienced anxiety and depression myself and been helped by those who practise mindfulness, I know it doesn’t have to be that way.

Because there is something wonderful about people who are truly mindful. I’m learning this while I develop as a Samaritan. Listening really carefully without judgement to someone in distress seems to me to be the very essence of mindfulness. Samaritans don’t just learn how to do this once. We spend our first year in training. And then however experienced we are, we listen very carefully to one another, in order continually to improve. Because we don’t just care about our callers, we care about our fellow Samaritans.

A Samaritan shift can be the ultimate mindful practice. The room is peaceful and quiet. You listen, moment by moment, to your caller. You are listening in order to understand. You respond only when the caller seems ready, and use their words to reflect what you have heard. You give them space and time. You do not make suggestions and you do not judge. Your whole purpose is to be there with them while they explore their feelings and make their own decisions, if indeed they feel that any need to be made. The time simply disappears. At the end of your shift you debrief to another experienced Samaritan, not really about the calls, but how you handled them, what you might do differently another time and how you are feeling yourself. You are reminded of the valuable service you have given. And you go away feeling calmer and lighter because of the mental discipline and compassion you have been practising. That is my sort of mindfulness.

If you want to know more about how Samaritans listen, here are some wonderful tips.

And for those who like meditation, this is one of my favourite practices. It is about loving kindness. The point being that only if you are kind and forgiving to yourself can you be truly kind to others. It may be a huge effort. But it is really worth it.

This blog is dedicated to a good Samaritan who helped me to listen. May they rest in peace.

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