Senior Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction teacher Florence Meleo-Meyer reveals how the practices of mindfulness and silence can connect us to ourselves and deepen our relationships.
Omega: Your interest in mindfulness stems from dealing with anxiety at an early age. Can you tell us about your experience?
Florence: I was born after a child who had died, and from a very young age, I was especially aware of my mother’s deep grief. My parents honored her by naming me after her. My struggle to comprehend her infant death brought the reality of impermanence into my young life. And sharing the same name gave me a sense that there is more to be known about who I am. These were seeds that led me to study wisdom traditions and to seek teachers who could help me understand life. I wanted to know what they found. The guidance I received led me to practice yoga and meditation.
When I was 16, I went through a difficult period when I had no idea what was going on with me. I kept losing my breath and felt terrible fear. I now know that I was experiencing panic attacks. I wanted to know how to help myself, to develop concrete tools to manage this strain and discomfort. Meditation began to serve as a way to enhance my capacity to meet what was there and strengthen my resources. It offered the potential for making wiser choices around self-care, nourishment, replenishment, rest, social support, and all of that.
The practice itself builds physical and emotional resilience and allows greater strength in responding—and this was hugely empowering. I didn't have to be a victim to my suffering. I had to acknowledge that it was there, but I could meet it, even if it was just a toe in the water.
These practices don't just help with difficulties, challenges, and pain—they are also about embracing the moments of surprised contentment, the moments of beauty that, when we’re actually present, we get as gifts. If we’re obsessing about something, we miss these things.
Omega: People have this strong desire to feel both connected to others and connected to themselves. How can mindfulness play a role in fulfilling this need?
Florence: Knowing oneself is a solo focus, but ultimately we are social animals at the very basic level. We are challenged and nourished in our relationships. I always like that saying, “I would be fine if only you were different.” You know?
We're in an epidemic of loneliness and depression in our world right now, which is ironic as we're also in the midst of a social media explosion. We are together, but not. We can recognize that not only can we wake up in our own lives, to our own lives, with our own lives, but also there’s the potential to wake up together. It calls for the intention to listen, to be present, and to be attuned.
In my teaching, what I've found is that being listened to, being seen, and being heard amounts to being loved.
The absence of that amounts to extreme feelings of hurt, isolation, self-judgment, and loneliness. We have a capacity within ourselves to be in deeper connection and intimacy with our own lives, which can blossom into deeper connection and intimacy with one another, and we have gifts to offer one another and ourselves in mutuality.
Omega: Scientific research has found that silence is much more important to our brains than previously thought. How can we cultivate more silent time in our modern lives?
Florence: For a number of people, silence amounts to punishment or being cut out. We have sayings like, “Children should be seen but not heard.” We have all kinds of early wounding around being shushed, being judged, not being valued, and literally being silenced. So some people approach silence with a lot of fear.
If those feelings are there, start with a little bit of practice. Just see what you can discover if you give yourself a dedicated period of time that’s not filled up with social media, or even with music. There’s nothing wrong with these things, but if we use them to avoid time that allows more connection with ourselves, then they can become a blunting mechanism.
In the 8-week Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, we have a day of silence after week six, and we spend a lot of time preparing people for it, for exactly that reason. People think, “I'll never be able to be silent for a whole seven and a half hours,” or “I need to talk to people. I need engagement with people.”
There’s a flipside too, as some people like to hide out in silence. Ultimately we must look for the balance. How can I allow time to get to know myself in relationship with silence?
In a period of dedicated silence, whether it's 15 minutes or seven days, what might be heard, seen, and felt at subtle levels is immense because there’s greater simplicity, greater clarity, and less distraction. So silence has the potential to amplify one’s investigation of what is happening now.
Many people in our program say, “I loved it.” Not just, “I survived it,” but “I loved it.”
Omega: What’s your favorite daily practice?
Florence: The first thing that came to my mind was sitting in the morning. I feel like it’s a refuge. It’s just lovely when dawn is lighting up and I've had a cup of coffee, which is also very comforting. I love to begin my day that way. It’s a time to be in deep, silent connection with myself. Then, from there, I feel like I’ve chosen a certain nourishment and that supports me in meeting all the other unfolding moments of the day. I come back to that silent connection by pausing throughout the day and choosing to be present, to be awake, and to bring kindness to what is met in the moment. When I look at the actual day itself, I would say that time is a jewel for me, and it becomes essential.
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