Monday, March 10, 2014

Mindfulness and the Sex Trade

A friend posted a link to a web page the other day that has carried itself through my thoughts since then. The page tells the story of a woman who was kidnapped and then forced into the sex trade industry.  Eden: a sex slave's story is difficult reading. 

I keep having to repeat the questions in my mind. How can people do this to other people? What happens to a person that makes them capable of forcing women to live like this? What has changed in their souls that makes it OK in their eyes?

Are they still even people? Can real people be like this?

One belief I have clung to is that every person has worth. Every human being is precious in God's eyes. Each of us is capable of great good...and great evil, I guess. If there can be a Gandhi and  Mother Teresa who were great, even though they were also flawed and human, can these traffickers who do such evil also have good in them? Is there humanity at the other end of the good/evil spectrum?

I want to believe there is.

*******

I'm coming to the final stages of the mindfulness practices although I have taken longer than eight weeks to work them out. There is a progression that makes sense. Mindfulness very effectively takes me out of tyranny of the events of my life and my reactions to those events. It allows me a space to breathe, literally as well as figuratively. It offers me a chance to get perspective, to readjust, to reconnect with myself and with what is real.

You begin by practicing being still and aware of your breath, of the sensations of your body. You notice the thoughts that distract you, and then you direct your focus back to your breath.

With practice, the next steps involve becoming aware of the sounds around you, and then tuning in to the thoughts you have. At this stage it is still an awareness of the thoughts and emotions, but not an involvement with them. The idea seems to be to notice them, somewhat objectively, as things that are temporary. Watch them come and grow stronger or weaker against the background of your breath, constant, always there.

After learning this step, the next is to allow yourself to slip more completely into a difficult thought or emotion. While doing so, focus on what that difficult thought or emotion feels like in your body. It sounds a bit weird, I know, but I found it pretty helpful. The focus is not to change anything, but to become more aware.

I'm not sure how it works, but it does help. There is a sense that although this emotion is real, it is also temporary.  It's not bad to have this emotion. It is just an emotion. It comes, and it will go eventually.

And now, I am learning what is called in the book 'befriending'. In other places I have heard it called compassion, or self compassion.

I've tried compassion meditation before and it was helpful. There is an opportunity to offer yourself the same kind of compassion that you offer to those whom you love the most. For those you love it is natural to wish for them happiness, safety, good health, well being, contentment. In this stage of the mindfulness practice, the task becomes to learn to offer those same wishes for yourself.

May I be safe.
May I be content.
May I be healthy.
May I live at ease.

And then to expand those wishes to those people you love.

Then to those who you see in your everyday life.

Then to those with whom you have difficult relationships.

And finally to all human beings.

May we all be safe.
May we all be content.
May we all be healthy.
May we all live at ease.

Until a few days ago, this was the most comforting part of the mindfulness practice for me...this longing for goodwill for every human being on earth, beginning with myself and extending out to the farthest reaches away from myself.

*******

As I've practiced mindfulness I have thought often about how this practice fits in with my faith. I've alluded to this before, I think, on the blog. The thoughts continue.

Why does mindfulness calm me in different ways than the practices of my faith? Is there a faith practice that I am missing that would fill the gap that mindfulness seems to currently fill?

I don't have a complete answer for this. I have some beginning thoughts.

For Lent I am trying to pray the hours, using the prayer books written by Phyllis Tickle, The Divine Hours.  There are daily prayers written mostly from scripture for morning, midday, evening and bedtime. Nearly every day I miss at least one. This Lenten practice has been teaching me how undisciplined I seem to be, even around things I'd really like to do.

However, praying these prayers changes me in similar ways to the changes I experience with mindfulness. It is not exactly the same. Some things are the same.

Each prayer brings me back to foundations of truth. No matter what directions my day has taken or how intensely it has taken me there, for a few minutes I am reminded that there are larger truths, that God loves us deeply, that praise and gratitude are good for the soul, that God is worthy of our praise and gratitude. It grounds me in ways that the mindfulness begins to, but the prayers are more complete.

Each prayer also includes the Lord's prayer, which is very much a foundational prayer for me. When I have no words for prayer, this is my prayer. No matter who you are thinking of, this prayer can be prayed for them and it will cover every possible aspect of their life.

The prayers do not include the intentional method of being able to step back and observe my own thoughts and emotions in ways that mindfulness emphasizes. That is the main helpful thing from mindfulness that I have not yet found a corollary for in my faith practice.

*******

After reading about Eden and the sex slave industry, I was doing my mindfulness practice. I was specifically working on the befriending/compassion affirmations. I mentally repeated them for myself, for my loved ones, for my acquaintances, for people with whom I have difficulties, and all was fine until I got to all the people on earth. Did I wish the sex traffickers to be safe, happy, at ease? Could I wish those things for them?

I could not. 

Even though somehow I believe that an awful thing must have happened in each of their lives that has made it possible for them to do these things, even though I cling to the idea that even they could be healed and could be released from continuing to participate in this horror, I can't wish happiness and safety and easy living for them right now.

I lay there in bed and wondered, what can I wish for them? Is there some way I can want good for them that is true?

Yes.

The Lord's prayer.

May these people someday hallow your name. May your kingdom come and your will be done in them as it is in heaven. Give them this day the things they need (my paraphrase for daily bread) and forgive them and help them likewise to forgive others. Lead them not into temptation, but deliver them from evil.  Please. Deliver them from evil and from the evil they are doing.

There is truthfulness in this as well as power. It is not just a wish. It is a prayer. 

And yet, I don't know how to put words to all I'm thinking and feeling. It is better to pray than to wish, yes. But there is a deep ache inside me that such evil exists in the world, and that this is only one of many forms of abject evil in the world. Every part of me denies it. How can the same world offer me so many forms of goodness, while others are offered lives saturated with pain and suffering? Is there a turning point for people who hurt other people so wantonly? What do they do with the recognition of the pain they have caused? When they finally realized the hurt they have caused, how do they still find a reason to breathe?

The morning prayers for today include this refrain:
" 'Because the needy are oppressed, and the poor cry out in misery, I will rise up,' says the LORD, 'And give them the help they long for.'"
May it be so.

Lord have mercy on us. Christ have mercy on us. Lord have mercy on us.