THE BLAME GAME
There are one or two rather prevalent, popular misconceptions about what mindfulness means and they rather bother me. I see them all the time in popular magazines, blogs and newspapers. Firstly, there is a view, probably reinforced by all those images of serene looking young women meditating on sunlit beaches, that mindfulness is pretty much the same thing as relaxation. On the other hand it’s often assumed to be some kind of positive thinking or self-improvement technique. Mindfulness is neither of these things. Meditation can certainly leave you feeling relaxed but the truth is that it can just as often do the opposite, and while there is nothing wrong with positive thinking per se, when we practice mindfulness our intention is not to change our thoughts from “negative” into “positive”. Even if you don’t buy into either of these misconceptions, there is still a perception that, mostly, mindfulness is all about paying attention and bringing awareness only to the pleasant aspects of life: you know, sitting in the garden listening to the birds, taking a long bath, savouring that morsel of chocolate cake - that kind of thing. To some extent this is true; we often let the small details of our experience pass us by and our inbuilt negativity bias means that we often miss a lot of the pleasure and beauty that is around us while we are all too aware of the unpleasant stuff that goes on. However there is another aspect of mindfulness, “non-judging”, which is the great challenge of our practice. The more we investigate exactly what this non-judging means, as it plays out in our day-to-day lives, the more of a challenge it becomes. Why? Because this is how our practice brings awareness to a lot of the unhelpful mental habits that keep us locked in to stress, addiction, avoidance and discontentment – and once we are aware of them we have to question them. This is not always a comfortable thing to do. These very things that we cling to, our judgements, opinions, beliefs, assumptions and so on, even when they wreak havoc with our lives, are the very things that we believe define who we are. Our judgements about ourselves, other people and the world in general, form such a large part of what we consider to be our identities that we don’t relinquish them easily, even when they create so much discontent in our lives. So it’s always helpful to bring a bit of mindful scrutiny to this judging part of ourselves and see what it can teach us.
There is no better place to start than with today’s topic, BLAME. Blaming is a behaviour but it arises out of a whole jumble of emotional states, all of them unpleasant; anger, embarrassment, guilt, shame, confusion and so on. We don’t like feeling like this so we try to do something about it; to get rid of the feelings. One of the strategies we have developed to do this, a so-called “defence mechanism”, is to project our feelings on to someone else. We blame them for the bad stuff that is happening, whatever it is and at a stroke, we find we no longer have to take responsibility for our own shortcomings. The American meditation teacher, Tara Brach, talks about the "trance of the unreal other”. Think about how often we all reduce other people to two dimensions, stripping them of all their complexity, their histories and their human-ness. We all do it and we do it a lot. An equally pernicious tendency is to blame ourselves for the problems of others: this is the root of so much of our guilt and self-loathing. Blame can become an institutional problem and it is just as possible for organisations to get stuck in the blame game. Anyone who has worked for any length of time in any of the public services will know exactly what I mean. The more hard pressed an organisation is, the more stressed it becomes and inevitably a culture of blame flourishes. If ever there was an argument for mindful workplaces, this is it. Bullying, unreasonable demands, suspiciousness, conflict, scapegoating; all of these things are symptoms of a stressed (and stressful) working environment. Through the mechanism of blame, people can shift the focus of their dissatisfaction and pain on to someone else. It’s the ego’s way of protecting itself when it feels vulnerable and under threat. Blame, in a way, is “never having to say you’re sorry.” But blame is seriously toxic; it strips us of the ability to take responsibility for our own lives while building mistrust and separation. The person (or people) who we choose to blame is rendered into a caricature which has about as much relationship to reality as a pantomime villain or a cartoon baddy.
So this week we are going to be on the lookout for blame and find out what we can learn from it. Since it is a reflexive activity we won’t have too much trouble finding examples of it in our daily lives. Without analysing what is going on, just notice those occasions when you find yourself falling into the blame trap. Can you identify the emotion that is driving it? Can you notice the pain or discomfort that preceded it? How do you feel afterwards? It’s very important not to get stuck in examining blame as a problem that needs to be sorted out. That way you just pile more judgement on top of judgement. All that is necessary is to bring curiosity to this aspect of your experience just as you would to any other. Remember this is your ego’s way of trying to protect you from harm; it’s not unnatural or "wrong", it’s just that it’s not very helpful in the long run. What do you learn when you approach your experience in this way?
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