“We are not enemies, but friends… Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection,” Abraham Lincoln said. “The mystic chords of memory will swell when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
When he spoke these words in his first inaugural, Lincoln was stunningly optimistic. He assumed office with only 40% of the vote after an election that saw him ridiculed as much as admired. Only weeks before, he had to sneak into Washington to skirt an assassination plot. Within weeks, an immensely bloody four-year civil war would begin.
In invoking our “better angels,” Lincoln referred not so much to supernatural beings but to the feelings within our own psyche that predispose us toward kindness and connection. One imagines the angel perched on one shoulder sparring and cajoling with the devil on the other.
America is once again deeply divided, and some of those divides trace to the same divides that existed in that tragic time. And once again it’s tempting to harbor malice and move rapidly from indignation to anger to hate.
In Mindful’s mission to promote mindfulness—both the basic human capability and the practices that cultivate it—we don’t take partisan political positions. We want to open avenues to mindfulness for anyone, regardless of their politics.
We also represent a view of mindfulness as something greater than noting thoughts and returning to our breath or relaxing ourselves by breathing deeply and getting in touch with our body. The point of these practices goes beyond stilling our nerves. Mindfulness practice can reach to the deepest parts of what it means to be human. Nonjudgmental attention and relaxation are gateways to finding the stability to examine, with curiosity, our most challenging emotions, our deepest-held beliefs, and the habits that impel us from one moment and one day to the next.
We see how they arise and dwell and fall away. We see the effect they have on us and on others. And finally, we can see others fully, sometimes for the first time, with fewer of the filters we use to block out things we don’t want to hear or see or feel. We reach beyond the comfort zone of our own newsfeed.
Mindfulness can help us to be resilient in the face of our own pain, but also others’ pain. We can listen to what they’re saying deep inside. If someone is hateful, what lies beneath that hate? If they lash out, what impels them? From that bit of understanding, we might begin to make a connection as a first step to bridging a divide.
Contemporary accounts of Lincoln’s time in office portray a man perpetually heartbroken, and yet within his sadness he found the power to summon forth humor and deep human caring, even in the face of hate.
That’s mindfulness, brought to you by the better angels of our nature.
This article originally appeared in the February 2017 issue of Mindful magazine.
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