It began with this sentence from the book “The Nurturing Effect” by Anthony Biglan:
In the first session, the parent consultant befriended the family and began to learn about how parents were ….
And my immediate reaction was: Befriend? Seriously? You could almost see the sneer.
But almost immediately, a different thought came to mind:
What’s wrong with that?
My mental health goal for 2019 was to establish healthiness, to walk a path of recovery that, by the end of the year, would see me being stronger, more capable of pursuing my goals, and able to withstand the difficulties attendant to being a human adult in this world.
Glad to say, the goal is being fulfilled. A friend told me the other day I looked more comfortable in my own skin; it was a cool thing to hear and kind of took me aback. I can look at the things I am doing and not see a lot of improvement, but doing things is not the goal. The Buddha didn’t tell people to follow the dharma so they could do stuff but so they they were free.
And in terms of being, 2019 is the year I had hoped it might be. The best part about it is that the healthiness I’ve recovered and built up is not an endpoint but a foundation: I will be ready for 2020 and the rest of my life. The meditation practice, the personal insights, the limited but meaningful scope of activities: all of this is so much better than the past few years and holds the potential for even better.
What’s that got to do with case workers “befriending” families? Everything – for me. After all, I have nothing to do with those case workers or families; I was making my judgment from way outside their lives, so my initial sneer had but a single point of impact:
I’ve been to that rodeo before. Read or hear something, have an initial negative response, and then boom – I catch myself and know that those thoughts represent something I would not rather have occupying my mind. The lack of kindness, of generosity, of openness to what others are attempting in trying to make the world a better place.
That left me with two choices. One, I could call myself an asshole and kick myself around for having a shitty attitude. I am good at that, having practiced it for much of my life (having originally been taught it by how others treated me). Or, two, I could set aside negative reactions – acknowledge them and then move along without denying them – and start considering why social service workers “befriending” a client is not only a better way of doing that work but a way that I actually endorse!
Yes. My initial reaction was to scorn something I favor. Mental unhealthiness is full of such traps.
So I thought about this for a time. I began Biglan’s book yesterday, and I love the message he is sharing: We need to create nurturing communities, and we can. This aligns so well with my own growing beliefs about compassion, respect, and other ways of treating the people in my life and community based on the path of my mental health recovery. Befriending instead of “intake” or other “neutral” administrative euphemisms tells us that the goal of a program that begins in that mode is not to check off a list of criteria but to provide compassionate care that enables those being served to grow and be able to create their own better lives.
When you seek help from any professional, would you prefer to be an administrative task or a human that is subject to compassionate assistance?
My next step was to do the Befriending meditation, guided by Mark Williams, from his book “Mindfulness – An 8-Week Plan”. It’s a simple exercise: after settling into the breath, you repeat these phrases silently to yourself:
May I be safe and free from suffering.
May I be happy and healthy.
May I have ease of being.
This is a variant of a common Buddhist meditation, and the point is to befriend yourself; the words speak to the “wishes” you convey towards yourself. A person who is safe, healthy, and living at ease in the world is likely to be a happy person, free from most self-destructive actions (including thoughts), and able to care for the people in their life.
I mean, who wouldn’t want to be that person?
After a couple of minutes of addressing yourself, you then address others: a person you know and care about, a stranger (someone you might see on the bus daily), and then a person with whom you have difficulties. These are not prayers; they’re not meant to force you to face up to terrible truths that will break you down. The point is to hold these people in mind and then befriend them in your mind for a few moments in this simple way.
It’s a practice, not a therapy session.
Finally, the meditation looks to all living beings on the planet; a big goal, but why not?
May all of us be safe and free from suffering.
May all of us be happy and healthy.
May all of us have ease of being.
“All of us” – that means me. I want the entire world to be safe, happy, healthy, and at ease in their lives. Of course I do, but the only life I have direct impact on in this way is – me. If I can befriend myself and show myself compassion, then I can do the same to friends and families, and then to acquaintances, and then, who knows?
The act of sneering at “befriending” where I began was one of self-hatred, a symptom of my mental unhealthiness. My ability to catch that immediately and not compound it with recriminations etc but instead to consider how I could take another step forward – proof of my growing mental healthiness.