In college, a man scaled the outside of my three-story brownstone and broke in to my apartment. He held me captive and threatened me before I was able to escape. I wasn’t physically harmed, and soon after they caught the guy and put him in jail.
I received my first lesson in mindfulness in the days that followed this event…lessons that I have never forgotten and that have made me into the person I am today.
My parents flew out to be with me, gave me incredible amounts of tender-loving-support, and during the trial they were by my side in ways that transcend expression. And through it all, they both did something extraordinary.
They refused to dwell in anger at the perpetrator.
While my friends and their parents called the guy names and said powerful things like: “He should be strung up,” and “What an animal,” my parents said things like…
My 18 year-old self was like:
WHAT???!!!!! POOR HIM???!!! BUT WHAT ABOUT ME????!!!!!
Their response was: “You will be OK. You have resources and mental health and a family that loves you. He, on the other hand….has the desire and ability to do this to another human being. He just might never be OK.”
When the guy first went to jail, we got word that his grandmother and the congregation of her church had bailed him out. And I can remember at the trial seeing her in the crowd in her finest Sunday hat, her jaw set in gritted support of the grandson she had raised by herself.
When I took the stand I remember telling the court that I felt sorry for him. A softening pause sifted through the room like a hot-day breeze. A victim expressing sympathy for the perpetrator wasn’t something normally heard here.
And I can remember that suddenly, instead of being afraid of him, of being afraid to even look at him sitting there – in his ill-fitting Sunday suit that had Grandma written all over it – I suddenly had no fear.
Led by my parents’ example, I was giving, rather than taking.
Giving a compassionate movement of heart to the whole horrible situation, rather than taking on the horror.
And it was one of the most powerful moments of my life.
Mindfulness practices are sometimes referred to as ‘mind protection,’ and throughout the trajectory of my own practice in the moments and years to follow, I have come to realize what this means.
With mindfulness we practice becoming aware of what our mind is full of at any given moment, and with that awareness, we can then make a choice. Do we actually want to hold on to the anger, or practice letting it go?
What does it feel like to hold on to anger, and what does it feel like to let it go?
With this as a practice, we are taking steps toward taking charge of the state of our mind. And when we take charge of our mind, no one else – not the guy in the Sunday suit, not the lady who complains about your services at work, not the co-worker who thinks you’re not doing your part, and not the parent or child who doesn’t think you quite add up – can gain power over you…because you already have it.
If someone tries giving you something and you don’t take it, it remains with them. It is still theirs – their ideas about you, their judgments and negativities and fears and angers – stay with them, just as they stay with you when the roles are reversed.
Being in charge of my own mind means no one else can.
Some years later my father told me something. He said that one night during the trial, he had fantasized, deeply, about buying a gun and killing the guy. He had gone into the bathroom, and while my mother and grandmother and I slept in the other room, he had locked himself in there and cried and cried and cried the burning tears of anger.
And some years later after the guy was released from jail, the very man who had scaled my building and held me captive happened to come into the college restaurant where I was working. My heart pounded as anger and indignation welled to my surface. I went and stood at his table, told his table of friends who I was, and then remained there glaring righteous daggers until they all left the building.
So please take note. I’m not talking about mindful-perfection here. The practice of mindfulness does not make you into a perfectly anger-free person who the world and its soup of wild experience doesn’t sometimes absorb.
But it does put you on the path.
Mindfulness is a practice, not an end result. You are not suddenly mindful, once and for all, and then on to the next task of the day. One of my teachers explains it like this: “The practice can be likened to eating breakfast. You don’t just do it once. You need to do it again and again and again.”
When I look back on it all, I realize that the healing process was made so much easier with a little less of the anger. Anger hurts the mind. And as anyone who has been through an experience like this can tell you, it creates another sore you eventually have to heal from if you want to be free.
Can you remember the first time you caught the whiff of mindfulness? The tender scent of awareness of the mind and the choice that this awareness opens up within us? If so, we’d love to hear your story too.