Not causing harm — How self-examination is the foundation of mindfulness and queer wellbeing.
The other day, I was reading, “When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times” (20th Anniversary Edition) by Pema Chödrön. There were several lines of profound words of wisdom that leapt off the page, particularly in chapter six, “Not Causing Harm.” I appreciate the simple, truthful, and almost matter-of-fact way she communicates her message. Nothing she says is ideological, in any way religious, or overly Buddhist in feel.
In the chapter, “Not Causing Harm,” Chödrön expresses the idea of not causing harm to yourself or others. Of course, she means not causing physical harm, but just as important, not causing harm to ourselves by the ways in which we think about who we are. For example, not being self-deprecating when we don’t believe in ourselves and not being overly self-critical.
If we don’t love ourselves, it may be that we haven’t questioned the beliefs we hold about certain things in our lives.
We may go about our lives based on uncritically held beliefs — also not knowing what we value. When something happens that’s perceived as negative, we blame ourselves. For example, a gay man dealing with gay shame or anyone who identifies as queer dealing with the shame of being othered — having felt like they never fit in growing up as a child and adolescent. Not having seen yourself properly represented in a meaningful, thoughtful, loving, and self-accepting way while growing up during your formative years can play havoc with your self-love and personal sovereignty.
“Not harming ourselves or others… is the basis of enlightened society. This is how there could be a sane world. It starts with sane citizens, and that is us. The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.”
Personal Responsibility as Self-Love.
For some time, I have been utilizing the term personal responsibility regarding how I think about myself and how that practice connects me to the rest of the world. This is not to confuse personal responsibility with the cult of individualism. Personal responsibility helps us relate to others for a common humanity. And when I say common humanity, I mean, the common good in the largest sense of the word. For example, my thoughts lead to actions. My thoughts expressed in words, as in dialogue with others, are either going to uplift others or bring them down. If I judge others, I’m essentially being critical of myself — whatever judgement we place on others is something we haven’t taken the time to own and understand about ourselves.
When you judge others, what are judging about yourself?
If you judge someone, you have not done the self-work to look inside and determine what it is you’re afraid of that would resolve your pain and discomfort. To me, this speaks strongly to the experience of many LGBTQ+ people. We have grown up in a heteronormative society that privileges the status quo, the gender binary of male and female, and so on. If we grow up feeling marginalized, it is because we experience marginalization as a result of not seeing fully accepting and empowering representations of who we are — of not seeing ourselves celebrated as part of the fabric of humanity. That is harm inflicted by social norms and beliefs that individuals and groups use against us as children and adolescents.
If we are not taught how to feel worthy — be it from loving and accepting parents, schooling or groups, we will believe what we see, hear, and intuit from social norms. This is especially wrong and harmful when, at a very young age, we don’t yet have the critical thinking skills to rationalize that othering and marginalization are wrong. As a result, many queer people grow up angry, upset, sad, depressed, and in need of love because they were not taught how to grow up with complete self-acceptance and self-love.
“The ground of not causing harm is mindfulness, a sense of clear seeing with respect and compassion for what it is we see.”
This is such a simple, insightful statement. I realize ‘mindfulness’ is a kind of buzzword, but when properly used, it means being aware, being mind-fully aware of what’s going on inside our heads. We can practice being mindful of our thoughts and how our thoughts work. Specifically, how our thoughts affect what we think about, what we choose to do based on our thinking, how our thoughts are affected by our feelings, and how we’re capable of using our thinking to manage our feelings.
Not causing harm starts with a mindful awareness of all the things I’ve mentioned thus far. This is the meaning of clear seeing. Another word for that is insight — seeing inside yourself to those deeply rooted, ethical values like respect and compassion for how we respond to what we perceive in the world. What we see includes what we see externally, e.g., how we see ourselves reflected in a mirror — and how we perceive ourselves in whatever environment we find ourselves, e.g., in a group of other people.
Chödrön calls mindfulness a basic practice. She writes about the value of meditation, a helpful practice for increasing mindfulness. When we judge ourselves, we are causing harm to ourselves. And if we judge ourselves, we may do the same to others because that energy, emotion, or way of feeling is alive within us. We are being unskillful and demonstrably lacking in personal responsibility when we judge others as a way to deflect our gaze inwards. This is how we can avoid a clear seeing of ourselves with respect and compassion.
The best way to resolve being judgemental is to forgive yourself with humility.
When you catch yourself judging, simply recognize that you did so. Be aware of that fact, that action. The most appropriate question to ask yourself at that moment of awareness is, “What is it that I’m judging about myself?” Take the time to do that investigation without rushing.
I’ve spoken elsewhere about the value of forgiveness for gay men to overcome gay shame which certainly applies to anyone who has experienced marginalization, which is a form of judgement. With forgiveness, we do not condone homophobia, prejudice, or racism. Instead, we must confront prejudice with compassion and dialogue. When we can come from a place of respect, it demonstrates to others the level of self-worth we have ourselves.
Chödrön shares how the act of harming others infiltrates society. As we become more mindful and gentle with ourselves and others, we may be shocked to realize how hurtful or harmful we’ve been to others. This may be in the way we speak, our tone of voice, the words we choose, or the things we’ve done.
“Our style is so ingrained that we can’t hear when people try to tell us, either kindly or rudely, that maybe we’re causing some harm by the way we are or the way we relate with others.”
It is a profound moment of mindful awakening when we accept what we’ve done in the past without judging or blaming ourselves. We simply take ownership of what we’ve done and how we’ve acted — as challenging as it may be. It’s a moment of true vulnerability and humility which connects us at the core of our humanity with other people.
Humility, in one sense of the word, is being of service and supporting others. We experience humility in the moment of self-awareness that we’ve caused harm to others. When you support someone else, which could be as simple as listening to what they have to say, you come to understand them. Humility has an etymological meaning of being under something in the sense of serving and supporting, which gives a broader definition to the meaning of understanding with compassion and respect for another person.
This is a journey that’s going to take time. You’re not going to experience a single moment when somebody says, “You’ve been hurtful to me in the way that you’ve spoken to me in the past,” and viola, you’re done. That is never the case. Life has a way of showing us up. Life reminds us that there’s still something more we have to learn and practice if we consciously choose to be open and willing to evolve as better human beings for our common humanity.
Practice Refraining — (It’s Not What You Think.)
“The next step is refraining. Mindfulness is the ground; refraining is the path.”
Chödrön explains that refraining in the context of mindfulness is not about limiting yourself. This isn’t about what you can’t do or restrict your freedoms. Refraining to cultivate mindfulness is not about taking something away or creating limitations. Rather, refraining is understood in the sense of recognizing the things we do in life to fill in the gaps — those moments when we have nothing to do. The gap is that moment in the mediation of no-mind when you experience the awareness of no-thing — a respite for your ongoing mental chatter. If you’ve ever experienced this in mediation, you know what the gap is and what it feels like.
How often are you on your phone, scrolling mindlessly? Have you ever wondered why you’re doing that? It’s not even a conscious awareness anymore (for many of us) when you pull out your phone to check Instagram, or to see if you have an email. As soon as you get home, you pour a glass of wine to relax with dinner. You pour a second glass to Netflix and chill. Meanwhile, you’re still browsing Instagram, TikTok, or Facebook completely and utterly filling in the gap.
As a culture, we are wholly distracted by some form of entertainment medium. Any perceived gap in a moment of consciousness must be immediately filled to suppress insight — that place of mindfulness, of respectful, and compassionate awareness.
This is not to imply that there’s anything wrong with social media, entertainment, or having a couple of glasses of wine to relax. What I’m emphasizing is that we are leaning too far into the default of distraction — of mindlessness. When we’re not in tune with who we are, we’re not able to be mindful and respect and compassion get thrown to the curb.
How to be mindful within the gap by checking in with yourself.
Here’s a simple practice you can try. Decide that you are going to practice noticing what happens when you immediately react to something that upsets you. Just know that at first, you won’t realize this until it’s too late, and that’s okay.
Here’s why this is important. If you’re not paying attention to what’s happening inside you, when someone says something offensive, polarizing, or hurtful, you will probably have a knee-jerk emotional reaction. You will be triggered and will react by doing harm. We cause harm by thinking badly about ourselves (I deserved it; it was my fault). We do harm by blowing up and yelling at the other person. Furthermore, we do harm by shutting down and refusing to talk to the person who said that awful thing to us — “How dare they!”
Mindfulness is especially important for LGBTQ+ people.
As I mentioned earlier, being on the margins is what allows queer people to have greater sensitivity to understand with greater respect and compassion for others who have suffered harm. That could be someone of colour, a different physical or intellectual ability, an economic situation, or someone who’s suffering from PTSD or emotional trauma.
It’s no surprise that many queer people go into work like coaching, therapy, massage, spiritual practice, or personal training to help others get in tune with who they are. Many LGBTQ+ people have had to do the work to look inside, to understand how they relate to the rest of society. If we are to thrive and flourish, we need,
“a sense of clear seeing with respect and compassion for what it is we see.”
This sense of clear seeing — mindfulness — is the practice of not immediately filling up space because there’s a gap. This is an important aspect of cultivating our self-awareness. We don’t need to fill in the gaps with entertainment or distraction to avoid witnessing and processing the harm we have experienced.
How to Practice Mindfulness.
“Refraining is the method for getting to know the nature of this restlessness and fear. It’s a method for settling into groundlessness.”
This is not a difficult practice, but it does require daily attention, the intention to become more aware, and the repetition of said practice for it to become a habit. You could practice any form of meditation for as little as five minutes a day. Start small and practice regularly to build a habit. Go for a walk in nature without a phone, without any music or headphones, and allow yourself to experience the gap.
Pay attention to your thoughts without judging them. Practice self-compassion when you witness the thoughts, memories, or stories you tell yourself that you don’t want to have. If you seek to understand your thoughts and how they come about, you can better decide what to do with them in a way that doesn’t harm you or others. That is what I call the personal responsibility of self-love.
Cultivating a healthy relationship with yourself.
“A thoroughly good relationship with ourselves results in being still, which doesn’t mean we don’t run and jump and dance about. It means there’s no compulsiveness. We don’t overwork, overeat oversmoke, overseduce. In short, we begin to stop causing harm.”
In various LGBTQ+ communities, we may witness a lot of compulsiveness. People outside (and inside) our communities will often label us as sex addicts, drug addicts, or only interested in partying and not getting our lives together. But think about this for a moment. Why is this sometimes true? If you’ve lived on the margins, if you’ve grown up feeling othered and you don’t know any other path, you fill in the gaps with entertainment and distraction. The gap is a scary place. The gap is where you have to discover who you are and accept yourself with respect and compassion. How do you accept yourself when the entire world had brainwashed you into believing that you’re not worthy of human dignity?
The end goal of this conscious practice of mindful awareness, as Chödrön describes, is like the perfectly still surface of the water on a mountain lake. Imagine a small lake, high up in the mountains, completely calm. The surface of the water is so still and flat that you can clearly see what’s below; the rocks, sediment and whatever else is at the bottom of the lake. And what’s at the bottom of the lake is our grounding — our metaphorical self-awareness.
When we are constantly seeking distraction, it’s like the surface of the water is rough and waving so much that you can’t see through. The lake is like a distracted mind. With unease, there is no stillness; no compassion or respect.
“The still lake without ripples is an image of our minds at ease, so full of unlimited friendliness for all the junk at the bottom of the lake that we don’t feel the need to turn up the waters just to avoid looking at what’s there. The more we witness our emotional chain reactions and understand how they work, the easier it is to reframe.”
Unlimited friendliness is another way of expressing loving-kindness for yourself. When you identify the situations that trigger you and can cause you to lose control of your emotions, you are demonstrating personal responsibility. Likewise, when you know the emotions you most want to experience, and how to cultivate them, you are better equipped to exist comfortably in the gap of awareness of non-judgement, compassion, and respect.
If any of the ideas in this article are new to you, that’s okay. That’s nothing but ignorance, which is not an insult. Ignorance only means that you don’t know what you don’t know. Incompetence, on the other hand, would be knowing what to do, but choosing not to do anything about it!
Mindfulness is the first step towards the clear seeing of not causing harm.
How might you practice respect and compassion for yourself today that impacts your or someone else’s well-being, reduces judgement and division, or cultivates more queer self-empowerment?
If you would like to have a more in-depth discussion about how you can become more mindful — and how that can have an impact on your skillfulness as a queer creative or thought leader — let’s meet for a conversation.