How Mindfulness Supports My Work

The following blog piece is by Amanda Scott, Argyll & Bute HIV Project Worker. Amanda shares her experience of integrating the practice of mindfulness into her work, helping her better support people living with HIV through presence and compassion. 

I know that the person in front of me is only partially here. They have gone numb, shock causing them to retreat into the survival mode of their brain.  I have an acute sense of them and the room we are in. I am not trying to make them snap out of it, or trying to fix or come up with solutions. I am not thinking about my next appointment or what I want for my dinner. I am here, with them. Gently, I ask them to describe the suffering they are experiencing. Does it have a colour or shape? Can they zoom out, creating a space in their mind from it and them? They describe their pain and how all does fall away apart from one thing: the HIV.

I remember being sceptical about ‘mindfulness‘ when it started getting rolled out as a panacea for all ills. This was surely just the commodification of century’s old Buddhist meditation being made lite for an insincere generation? However, somehow I found myself on a Masters Program for Studies in Mindfulness, which necessitates daily personal practice as well as exploring academic studies and research.  My practice has given me the tools with which to ‘hold my seat’ in the face of terrible anguish and despair, and the studying has given me the confidence to know that this stuff works, and how it works.

Days later I talked to the person again. They have come to a much better place and are talking about having a future living with HIV. They tell me that although they might have seemed like they were not listening to me the other day –“it did go in, some of it went in, thank you”.  It is my hope that being present for them has given them a sense of their importance and worth, and through support they will find a way with which to navigate their ship for the seas ahead.

With mindfulness comes compassion, the Yin to it’s Yang. And there is no compassion without self-compassion. How interesting that we who work in caring professions are likely to have experienced suffering ourselves, and that our giving can result in ‘compassion fatigue’, secondary trauma and burn out. Mindfulness weaves a path through this landscape, building resilience and strength through accessing the area of our minds where compassion and self-compassion lives. And don’t think that compassion is always soft. Oh no, the ‘Compassionate Warrior’ cuts through discrimination, stigma and prejudice with powerful tools and skilful means, using fierce compassion to right wrongs and protect the vulnerable and those in need.

The simple exercise of observing one’s mind and how it reacts really does have the potential to increase our self-knowledge and illuminate our interconnectedness and the vastness of our shared experience as humans on one home planet. Sentiments that have never gone amiss through time, but certainly have a place in our work and lives today. I love the words of Hillel The Elder, an important historical Jewish leader. When asked to explain the meaning of the Torah (the Jewish book of wisdom), he said that it is simply “That which is hateful to you do not do to others. All the rest is commentary”. Mindfulness cuts the commentary, internal and external. It is worth a try, and it just starts with breathing.