Mindfulness, self-compassion help break the mental shackles of lockdowns and isolation

This illustration from an 1867 edition of Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, called “I broke a bar of one of the windows,” may speak to that part of us that feels cooped up. If only it was as simple as breaking a bar and making our escape.

Most of us are not actually locked up, although some I talk to who live in long-term care say they feel like they are in jail. (Residents at Harrowood, a community for seniors in Harrow, call it the “big house.”)

We miss seeing our friends and family members. We grow weary of wearing masks and may wish that when we did venture out of our homes, we could laugh and talk with our friends, even offer an embrace, or a handshake, without worry.

Back when we could travel (can you remember?) I would occasionally fly down to New Orleans to spend time with people involved with the School for Contemplative Living. The School for Contemplative Living Listening in Stillness, Serving in Joy! (thescl.net)

The director of the school, William Thiele, is a counsellor, psychologist and spiritual director. He and others founded the SCL in response to the destruction and disruption of life that overwhelmed New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

When the levees failed, whole sections of that historic, beautiful, complicated city were devastated. Thiele and his colleagues began to offer programs of meditation, centering prayer and other contemplative practices to first responders and others working to restore the Crescent City.

One of the programs I find most inspiring is their work with men recently released from Louisiana’s Angola State Prison. They help them negotiate their re-entry into society after time in one of North America’s toughest places of incarceration.

Thiele teaches former inmates mindfulness and self-compassion, and helps them create circles of trust in which they practise radical honesty and kindness. This is not easy work, but it is necessary and important. These men learn to cultivate their inner lives, to lower the masks they’ve always worn and to show mercy to themselves and others.

In the words of Mary Gauthier, a Louisiana songwriter whom I greatly admire, “Every living thing could use a little mercy now.” In this time when we are all a bit weary, and likely in need of a little mercy, we might look at what practices would help us to cultivate a richer inner life and to recognize the freedom we actually have.

Darrow Woods is the pastor at Harrow United Church. He lives in Kingsville.

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