A famous Indian yoga master, Swami Satyananda was once asked by an ardent follower how he might give up smoking. The yogi master’s reply came as something of a shock: “Don’t stop smoking – very bad for your health – creates tension in the mind. You must not stop smoking!”
He smiled as he saw the startled expressions of his listeners, and continued, “But, if you are going to smoke, then smoke! Be aware of the sulphur smell of the match, aware of the tobacco lighting. Draw a deep full breath to ﬁll your lungs to capacity with smoke, feel the rush of the nicotine as it hits your bloodstream deep in your lungs and when you blow out, smell the contents of your previous meal mixed with burned tobacco.”
He smiled noticing the looks of disgust, “You see, if you truly smoked – smoked with full awareness – it would be difficult to get through even one cigarette ever again.”
The point is when we slow down, when we are truly and fully aware, we are much more likely to act in ways that beneﬁt ourselves and others and to refrain from actions that hurt ourselves or others.
Mindfulness is not a difficult idea to grasp. It’s not anything exotic or weird. However, because we live in an age of distraction and alienation from ourselves, our bodies, others and from our environment, the daily practice of mindfulness can be quite a challenge.
So, what exactly do we mean by mindfulness? It’s not a term I personally like, since it focuses on the mind and on fullness. Yet, in my experience the practice is about freeing the mind and centering ourselves instead in the heart, body and breath. “Lose your mind and come to your senses,” said the founder Gestalt therapy, Fritz Perls. When we get deeply in touch with our being in this way, when we open our heart in compassion to ourselves in all our light and shade, we get to see the ingrained ‘stinking thinking’ of the mind, which can then abate leaving us free to live a more authentic life of heartfullness.
Mindfulness has particular relevance too to LGBT+ people, given the many studies that point to higher levels of depression, addiction, suicide and mental illness in our community. Here is a profound spiritual and therapeutic practice, free from the prejudices of traditional religions, which we can embrace as equals. As the great Vipassana meditation teacher SN Goenka was fond of saying: “Suffering is suffering. There is no Christian suffering or Hindu suffering or atheist suffering. Suffering is suffering, so the remedy has to be universal.” And we might also add there is not straight or gay suffering.
There are, of course, particular issues for LGBT+ people that mindfulness can help address. In my practice as a psychotherapist, and as a gay man myself, I have learned that the root of many LGBT+ people’s issues is an internalised homophobia, absorbed consciously or unconsciously from the wider society. If you think that gay shame is no longer an issue, take a moment to imagine holding hands or kissing your partner in your local town or street, on the train or in the pub. Certainly there are more opportunities and less bigotry around now, but, to coin a phrase, “It hasn’t gone away you know!” Indeed, it could go further underground – shame for feeling shame in this new age of tolerance.
In my clinical work I am always struck how most of my clients – gay and straight – have an extremely harsh inner dialogue running the show, one which is constantly judging and criticising and which is too rarely loving and understanding. I often tell my clients that in my ﬁve years of training and personal therapy, the greatest learning for me, and the one that most transformed my life, was the slow dawning of profound self-acceptance and compassion.
That journey began with the mindful awareness of just how vicious and cruel my inner voice was towards myself. (I remember in one exercise thinking if I heard someone speaking to their dog in such a way, I would report them to the ISPCC!) Maybe it is for this reason that we ﬁnd the practice of sitting quietly with ourselves so difficult. It forces us to sit with all our neuroses and discomfort, with all the visceral, emotional turmoil and associated thinking patterns. Carl Jung puts it succinctly: “To accept myself in all my wretchedness (and beauty) is the hardest of tasks. The very thought can make us livid with fear.”
“If you think that gay shame is no longer an issue, take a moment to imagine holding hands or kissing your partner in your local town or street, on the train or in the pub.
The urge for distraction can be quite powerful. Who would want to sit with our shame or hurt, to feel the pain of the never quite forgotten bullying or rejection or trauma? Give me my phone or my cigarette, my drink or my work status, or Grindr or, or… anything but facing myself honestly. As the French philosopher Blaise Pascal says: “All men’s ills derive from not being able to sit quietly in a room alone.”
This is not to say that one shouldn’t enjoy food, drink, intimacy etc. – quite the opposite. It means really being present. It means opening our hearts and minds and senses to all aspects of our lives and to the lives and hearts of others.
How often have we had truly mindful, body-full and heart-full sex? How would it be to engage more fully, consciously, and compassionately with our lives rather than engaging in a halfconscious attempt to pass the time or avoid ourselves with endless distraction? Mindfulness and heartfulness at its best is about waking up and lightening up.
Seán Ó Tarpaigh Msc. MIAHIP is a Gestalt psychotherapist with a private practice in Monkstown, Co Dublin,