Insight of the heart – part 2

Insight of the heart – part 2

We continue SAKI SANTORELLI’s interview with AMIR IMANI as part of a webinar series about mindfulness, love, compassion and the way of the heart.

Q: As a student, Saki, what I learnt from you is not to be afraid. This is what you taught me in my training – not to be afraid of not knowing and to rest in just being. And what you call heart and love, you get the power through that. You get the courage to “not know” through loving. I am always amazed to see how science is showing that this is healing. And the clients are amazed how they are transformed by just being.

Now, how do the complexities of the mind affect your work as a teacher? Say you have a mild depression, for example. Do you need to reach a stage of full recovery? Or does this mild depression dissolve through your practice and through your teaching practice?

SS: Well, I would say it depends. If the depression or anxiety is very, very strong in the life of the teacher, it could make working with other people more difficult. On the other hand, we all have bouts of depression or sadness or anxiety or uncertainty or insecurity. So it seems to me it’s not a question that you shouldn’t teach if you feel some depression, but how will you work with that anxiety or depression or uncertainty in a way that is real and genuine, and the fact that it’s known to you.

If you develop a relationship with that situation or that condition within yourself, it’s often the way you develop what are called the insights of the heart. In some real way your struggles and your sufferings actually have the potential to open you and open the people with whom you work with to bring new ways. So it can be a great service to you and your teaching, because it makes you so much more sensitive to others, and your work with yourself in those situations and conditions will inform you about how to work with other people.

So you don’t have to be completely cured. If that were the case, we wouldn’t do anything. We’re all lame!

In some real way your struggles and your sufferings
actually have the potential to open you
and open the people with whom you work
to bring new ways.

Q: Would it help to say, “Keep some pain! It may help you in your teaching”?

SS: [Laughing] I wouldn’t say, “Keep it.” I would say, “If you’ve got it, you’d better work with it.”

Q: You give an example in your book, Healing Thyself, of the wounded healer from Greek mythology, Chiron, who is better able to connect with his patients because of his suffering.

SS: Yes, exactly. Those wounds actually help us meet other human beings. It is exactly what I was saying before: your sympathy is aroused, your tenderness is aroused. Your understanding of the other is informed and aroused.

Q: I remember my early days, Saki, in the teacher training, in the Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction (MBSR) course. It is a requirement of the teacher training program to be a patient first. I found myself listening to these 35 so-called patients, talking their hearts out about their pain, their anguish, and I was feeling nothing. I was baffled: Why am I not feeling the pain that they are talking about?

Then I spoke to the teacher of our group about this. She hinted that it would come when I opened up to myself. So, starting with my own wound first, and then opening to the other – it looks like that for me.

SS: Yes, in a very real way we’ve been taught, especially as health care professionals, to separate ourselves from the people we work with, because the view is that then we’ll serve them better. My experience is quite the opposite. If I am able to discover some semblance of what they’re experiencing within myself, I can serve them far better.

I may not have the same content: somebody may have cancer and I may not have cancer, but have I suffered from something else? Yes. I may not be addicted to a substance, but do I experience addiction? Yes. And what is that like? What does it do to my body, my mind, and my psyche? What do I know about that in myself? What does awareness tell me, show me?

And I then can go to that source and maybe at least be in the “not knowing,” as you described it, Amir. I may have some sense of, “Where can I put my first foothold? Where can I put my first handhold?” This is exactly what Hafiz is saying in that poem. I don’t have to know the second or third or fourth step. I simply have to be present and take the risk of taking the first step. The development of our relationship will guide the second step.

Q: When there are stressful sensitivities of life, if mindfulness practices create more sensitivity, should we reduce the length and number of the practice sessions? How do we find balance in terms a healthy dosage of practice?

SS: Well, these are all important questions. I think in some ways it’s true that mindfulness practice can make us more sensitized, and in some way it is parallel to what is happening in the class, in the course for people. For example, sometimes in the early weeks people say, “I’m feeling worse than when I started. I thought this was supposed to make me feel better, but I feel worse.”

They’re speaking about the fact that through the development of their attention and awareness they are becoming more sensitized to their situation, both externally and internally. And that is a lot to comfort in oneself. And they often express frustration because they are more aware of what’s going on, but they don’t yet have the capacity to do anything about it. That seems to me to be a normal part of the learning process. What begins to happen is turbulence. And their awareness is perturbing their system. It is because there’s the way I was, and then there is what I perceive now; and that differential creates a kind of friction or discomfort.

The skill of the teacher becomes really important in that moment, in terms of how do we titrate the right dose? Just to keep that, but not too much. Too much is overwhelming; too little, transformation is not possible. They’re involved in a kind of alchemy, in the sense that there is a phase of dissolution before reintegration.

So as a teacher and a practitioner of mindfulness, as you said, we’re all involved in the same process of how to ascertain the right dose to have some sense of balance. I think that involves getting to know oneself better and better. And also, if it’s possible to work with a teacher, it’s helpful as well because the teacher can help with that dosage.

So as a teacher and a practitioner of mindfulness,
we’re all involved in the same process of how to ascertain
the right dose to have some sense of balance.
I think that involves getting to know oneself better and better.

You have to be careful not to push yourself so hard that you’re doing yourself harm, and at the same time you have to really look deeper into your practice and see if it is being motivated by love and kindness. And if there is any sense that you’re pushing too hard, you have to back off.

Often we instrumentalize practice so much, because we want to gain something. And while it takes effort to practice, there is a kind of skillful effort, which has a degree of resting in the way things are versus pushing too hard against them. And if that’s the case, which is not unusual, then you need to ask yourself some really good questions like: Who is pushing so hard? Who wants to breakthrough and to what? And what is motivating? They are not necessarily comfortable questions, but they are fruitful. They help us to be with life and ourselves as we are and as life is.

So maybe we can make this the last question, Amir.

Q: I think this will be a good one for us. We have been keeping the best for last. What is falling in love?

SS: Okay, the best for last!

Well, that question has been asked by human beings since human beings were on the Earth. And it’s portrayed in a very particular way in our cultures. Usually it is portrayed as romantic and intoxicating, and it’s usually about what we want. It has its beauty and its value and its function, and it’s quite wonderful. It doesn’t last though. At least that particular expression of it doesn’t last. And not unusually we go looking for it somewhere else; it’s a kind of addiction.

I think, for me, love has a lot of pain in it. In some real way, to be able to even come closer to saying “I’m in love” means that we’re actually putting someone else in front of us. Our care for them becomes more powerful than our care for ourselves. And in some very real way it portrays a kind of death. And that death is not just metaphoric, because it always involves a diminishment of the usual idea of the self. The pleasure and the pain of the other become more important than the pain and pleasure of the self.

In some very real way we know we are in love,
because in some way we’re becoming bigger in
what appears to be our diminishment. So it means
that we start to give rather than look to receive.

And that means in some very real way our ego is being slowly dissolved. The kind of separation between the self and the other is being eroded. So in some very real way we know we are in love, because in some way we’re becoming bigger in what appears to be our diminishment. So it means that we start to give rather than look to receive.

It seems a fitting way to end.

Q: And it’s also a beautiful way to begin, Saki. The sheer fact of touching our wounds, ourselves, for the first time – however it may be, not pleasant, it’s painful even – but the touch, the connection, for the first time is like falling in love for us. And that moment we are bigger than before.

SS: Yes, because we begin to discover how big we already are. The world is always squeezing us down, and of course awareness is fathomless and boundless, and touching that boundlessness is … Love simply arises and is known.

Q: How about rephrasing it to “rising in love?”

SS: Yes, I was going to say that!

Q: Thank you so much for raising the awareness of this small group. And all this started 20 years ago with a simple act of kindness from your side, and it’s amazing that we never forget kindness, especially when it’s not asked for, it’s just given to us. Thank you.

SS: Thank you so much. May we continue to travel in this caravan together.

Interview by AMIR IMANI

Saki Santorelli

About Saki Santorelli

Saki F. Santorelli, EdD, MA, is an educator, author and clinician. He retired as Executive Director of the UMass Medical School Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care and Society. A professor of medicine, he was the very first intern at Dr Jon Kabat Zinn's Stress Reduction Clinic, from where Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) originated. His entire career has been dedicated to the integration of mindfulness into public health and well-being, propelled by his recognition of and trust in the innate goodness of human beings.

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