I have always been amazed at the power, versatility, and flexibility of water. Its responsiveness, the way it bends to accommodate, and its persistence in the way it shapes and carves even the hardest of substances to make for itself a path.
Over the last few decades, Western psychology has adopted mindfulness meditation and self-compassion practices – both originally enshrined within Buddhism and other contemplative traditions – and incorporated them into mainstream psychological treatments for depression and anxiety.
Accruing scientific evidence is now suggesting that mindfulness and self-compassion can teach our minds the way of water: to be agile, resilient, persistent, and strong. But why should we listen to these teachings?
Suffering is a part of life
Think of every person you’ve ever known: friends, family, co-workers, colleagues, neighbours, acquaintances. Think of every stranger you’ve ever interacted with or seen, every person in all corners of the world, every person that’s ever been born throughout history. We all have something in common: We’ve all experienced or are going to experience some form of pain or suffering. Suffering is the thing that unites us all as humans. It is the common thread consistent with every human being, no matter who they are, where they live, or where they’re from.
The ubiquity of suffering is the first truth of life. The existence of suffering is apparent if we examine our own lives and the lives of others around us. If you’re still unconvinced of this fact, just turn on the news.
Suffering has a cause
Craving and ignorance keep us locked in this cycle of suffering. We crave material goods, health, beauty, and life, yet nothing can ever keep poverty, sickness, decay and death at bay forever. Most of these are inevitable ‘add-ons’ to the package of life.
We perpetuate our cravings and, ultimately, our suffering through ignorance. We wholeheartedly believe the stories our brain tells us about ourselves and the world. We filter the world through our own constructs, yet the idiosyncrasies of our self-created interpretations are lost on us. We cannot see how other cannot see what we see.
There is a way out
There is a way to break free from the cycle of suffering. While suffering may be inevitable, pain is not. According to the third truth of Buddhism, suffering can be overcome and happiness can be attained. True happiness and contentment are both possible. If we let go of our craving and learn to live each day at a time – instead of dwelling in the past or the imagined future – then we can become happy and free. We then have more time and energy to help others.
The way out
Eastern traditions, and corroborating scientific evidence, suggest that the way out of the cycle of suffering is to cultivate the right ethics, right insight, and right meditation. One way out of suffering is through the cultivation of Mindfulness: purposeful, open, accepting awareness of present-moment experiences.
- Purpose – So many of our daily waking thoughts are focused on nonexistent apparitions: the past and the future. We must plant our feet in the present. Mindfulness meditation (observing the breath, body, thoughts, or emotions) helps us regain control of our attention through its deployment on present-moment experiences.
- Openness – In our constant craving, we close the door on painful experiences, hoping that shutting them out will bring about joy and peace. We are quick to judge our own and others’ thoughts, emotions and actions. But in our fervent attempts to close the door on pain we perpetuate it. We must experience as if for the first time. There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ thoughts, there are only thoughts. There are no ‘good’ or ‘bad’ emotions, there are only emotions.
- Acceptance – In the face of pain, we judge and reject. We long for the end of pain in the midst of it (“When will this pain end?” Why won’t it end now?”), but in longing for its end, we prolong the pain. In rejecting it, we hold on to it. We must accept pain by labelling it as such (“What I am feeling is pain”; “This is pain/suffering”). Acceptance is not passive; it is an active stance toward experience. One that grounds you in the understanding that all experiences are valid (but not necessarily justified) just by the very nature of their existence.
The science of mindfulness and self-compassion
Over the last two decades, our work as well as the work of others around the world, has taught us that depression and anxiety are common problems all over the world. Over 300 million people in the world are currently living with depression or anxiety. Unfortunately, depression and anxiety are extremely debilitating; for example, depression is now the leading cause for disability around the world. Even more unfortunate, people who develop one episode of depression often go on to develop several episodes in a lifetime.
Enter mindfulness and its close conceptual relative, self-compassion – being aware of your own suffering, and having the desire to soothe such suffering for yourself. Individuals who are naturally higher on mindfulness and self-compassion tend to also report lower depression and anxiety symptoms. Dispositional mindfulness and self-compassion also appear be associated with emotional flexibility, or the wiliness and ability to ‘go with the emotional flow‘ of life.
People who are higher on these traits also tend to be less reactive, and overall more resilient in the face of adversity Further, interventions designed specifically to increase mindfulness and self-compassion have been shown to help people improve general well-being, prevent future episodes of depression, as well as help them manage stress.
Much like water weaves and bobs but continually marches on, so too does the mindful, self-compassionate mind weave and bob to life’s inevitable blows. As water moulds and shapes to accommodate to constraints, so too does the mindful, self-compassionate mind shape shift to accommodate even the most difficult of life’s circumstances.
Dr Shadi Beshai is Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Regina. His research is focused broadly on personalised psychotherapy for adult depression. Dr Beshai has published several articles on the adaptation and dissemination of cognitive-behavioural therapies at home and abroad. Dr Beshai is the recipient of several prestigious awards, scholarships, and grants from institutions such as the Canadian Psychological Association, Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Canadian Institute of Health Research, and the Saskatchewan Health Research Foundation.