One of the big developments in mental health care is the adoption of mindfulness techniques to help people overcome their past and to evoke feelings of wellbeing. The idea is that we live in the present; not the past, not the future, but the present. We don’t have to worry about most of what happened yesterday, and we don’t have to worry about what might happen tomorrow. Even this morning’s or this evening’s events are unimportant as of this afternoon.
Sufficient for each day
There’s nothing wrong with that concept. I don’t often quote religious literature, but even Jesus pointed out that we need not be anxious about what tomorrow will bring. Sufficient for each day is its own badness.
The fact is that the past has passed. It’s gone. Yesterday’s pain has left us. Sure, we still have pain, today, but it’s today’s pain. It may even have been caused by something that happened yesterday; but it is still today’s pain. And tomorrow, maybe the pain will be gone. We don’t know.
The plans of the diligent one
Having said that, of course, it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t plan for the future. After all, how many people are over their heads in debt because they spent tomorrow’s money on today’s luxuries.
We need to plan, budget, schedule, do whatever it takes to have some level of organisation in our lives. That’s what makes us dependable, valuable members of society. People get to know that they can rely on us.
That, too, is mindfulness.
Letting go of the past
Another aspect of this practise is the need to let go of the past. Ah! Herein lies a small problem.
Rightly, mindfulness embraces the concept of the past being in the past. So, if our parents made mistakes in our upbringing, that’s in the past and it’s up to us to change the future. If someone treated us badly, that’s in the past and it’s up to us to change the future. Even if we were treated exceptionally well, that’s in the past and the future is in our hands.
So far, so good. That’s all mindfulness.
All of this is based on the mindfulness concept of acceptance.
What a great concept. It means that we accept what has happened without judgement, we let it go, and we move on. We dictate the course of our own future.
We also accept, without judgement, the choices that other people make and we let them get on with their own lives while we get on with ours.
We even accept, without judgement, the mistakes that our parents made when raising us. After all, there is no trial run for parenthood. No matter how many children you have, each one is unique. Accept, too, that most parents, even the worst of them, believe that their actions were in the best interests of their children. Maybe the parents got it horribly wrong. But relatively very few parents actually set out to harm their children in any way. How often has a father, accused of physically abusing his child, claimed that he really believed it was reasonable chastisement? That he was only doing what his father has done to him? That he believed it was in the child’s best interests? I’m not excusing or justifying such behaviour. And I don’t believe that we can accept that behaviour without judgement. But that only adds weight to the argument against non-judgemental acceptance. It’s a discussion for another day.
The mindful lie
However, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. There is a major flaw in the way that many people practice mindfulness, today. They learn just enough to be able to cope with their miserable existence. And then the problems start.
The basic concept of acceptance is that we all have the right to self-determination. Nothing wrong with that. We are not robots. Our intelligence is not artificial. We have freedom of choice in everything we do. Our future really does lie in our own hands.
We also have a responsibility to accept the choices that others make. As parents we only want what’s best for our children. However, as they grow up we start allowing them more and more freedom of choice. And there will be times when, because of our experience, we can see the flaws in their choices and we offer warnings and advice. But the choice is still theirs, and we accept their choices. And, when the consequences fulfil our greatest fears, we are there to support them, if we possibly can. But they may have to accept those consequences, despite our best efforts to protect them.
Entitlement – The greatest lie
The problem with the limited knowledge that many people have, or the limited way that they apply it, is that they have come to believe that acceptance equates with entitlement. “I am entitled to make my own choices and you have to accept it,” is the mindful rallying cry. Or, “I have to accept her choice. She’s entitled to choose that way.”
That’s fine, of course. It leads to greater acceptance and tolerance of the diversity of life as humans.
However, entitlement is a bit of a problem. Let’s take a simple example. There is one candy left in the jar. It is too small to cut in half. Both children are entitled to it. But they have to accept that they can’t both have it.
A more subtle example is that a disabled driver is “entitled” to park in a family parking bay, but woe betide a parent who parks in a disabled bay to prevent her children from denting the adjacent car.
Now let’s look at the more serious aspects of it.
One of the side effects of entitlement is the concept of commendation. We have raised a generation of children who rarely receive criticism because, according to the do-gooders, it’s not good for them. “Children need to be praised all the time,” according to some so-called experts. “Never say negative things to your children. It harms their self-esteem.”
How wrong can they be? Correction has its place in our lives, just as commendation does. Additionally, the two go hand in hand. Correction is usually best received after commendation. So we might say, “I like the colours that you’ve chosen for your painting. But did you really need to paint the bedroom wall at the same time?”
Why is this so important? Because, if children do not receive balanced correction and proper critical analysis, we are setting them up for failure and disappointment. As the book, Generation Me, put it, when you hand your boss a bad report he’s not going to say he likes the colour of the paper that you chose to print it. (Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled–And More Miserable Than Ever Before – Paperback – 30 Sep 2014 by PH D Jean M Twenge PH.D.)
So what happens when we turn mindfulness into non-judgemental acceptance and entitlement?
We no longer need prisons. Honestly. We don’t. If we accept all actions without judgement then the mass murderer is just reacting to bad things that happened in his life and we have to accept that. The child abuser is just carrying out his natural instinct and we have to accept it. The wife beater is entitled to be the head of his own house and impose discipline in his way. So we can empty the prisons and turn them into hotels!
And when it comes to commendation, when someone stabs us in the back, we praise them for being able to find a soft spot.
When their drunk driving destroys a life, we praise them for knowing how to steal a car. And, anyway, it wasn’t their fault that the car owner left it unlocked.
When a chief executive steals the company pension pot, we praise him for making it grow so big.
Plus, of course, when a child plays with matches and sets the house on fire, killing half the family, they were only being inquisitive, which is the best way to learn.
Even our own actions come under this self-aggrandizing rule. When we jump off a cliff we are entitled to have the whole universe accept our choice and it has to change the laws of gravity to save us, and then we expect the rest of the world to praise us for our scientific experimentation, instead of rightly ridiculing us for our stupidity.
It’s a lie
Can we really equate a child flooding the bathroom with a mass murderer? Of course not. But there are too many people, today, who demand preferential treatment just because they expect you and me to accept their choices without judgement, and to praise them for making those unwise choices.
It’s a lie we tell ourselves. We lie to ourselves to pamper our egos in the belief that everything we do is acceptable to us and it should be acceptable to everyone else as well, whether they like it or not; whether it hurts them or not.
Are we really to believe that we can go out of our way to assassinate someone’s character, and they have to accept our choices without judgement, and then they have to commend us for our efforts? Are we really meant to accept that we will be maimed for life without judging the actions of the person who maimed us? Are we to commend the parent whose extreme neglect ruined their children’s lives, just because we are supposed to accept the parents’ choices without judgement?
Forgive and forget
The problem is that this acceptance and tolerance without judgement are based on the concept of forgiving and forgetting.
Actually, forgiveness is the easy part. Forgetting is a little more difficult.
“I’m sorry you had such a poor upbringing. And I forgive you for causing me to lose my legs. But I’ll never forget it. I have to live with it for the rest of my life.“
“I’m sorry that you had such a bad experience. And I forgive you for murdering my child. But I’ll have to live without my child for the rest of my life. “
“I’m sorry that you made a poor choice of marriage mate. And I forgive you for neglecting my grandchildren. But I can’t forget it because my life has been permanently changed now that I am raising your children. Oh. And by the way, I have the daily battle with their attachment issues which were caused by your neglect.”
“I’m sorry that the bartender put his profits ahead of your health needs. And I forgive you for dying when you crashed the car. But I now have to deal with the pain and loss for the rest of my life.”
Mindfulness is a wonderful concept. Learning to accept our circumstances without judgement is one way to deal with the issues that we face in life. It helps us to maintain our equanimity in the face of trials.
But may we never impose our entitlement on others. May we remember . . . No . . . May we be mindful of the needs of others. May we remember that although the people we hurt may accept it without judgement, and that they may even forgive us, it does not mean that they can forget. They may have to live with the consequences of our actions for the rest of their lives. And they are not going to commend us for that.
Additionally, just because the people we hurt have forgiven us, it does not mean that they will be willing to accept us back into their company any time soon. They are most definitely entitled to protect the interests of their family. And that may mean keeping their distance from us.
So it’s time to stop lying to ourselves. We cannot excuse our actions on the basis of mindful, non-judgemental acceptance on the part of the people we hurt. We cannot condemn those we have hurt, just because they refuse to be reconciled, preferring to keep their distance. Indeed, if it’s time for non-judgemental acceptance, let us accept, without judgement, that we burned the bridge, and the person we hurt has the right to stop us rebuilding it.