London’s community of mindfulness practitioners lost a guiding light this year with the death in March of Cindy Cooper. Cindy was my teacher and sometime supervisor for about ten years. During that time, I frequently reflected on my good fortune to have encountered her. She combined the integrity and wisdom evident among the best practitioners in her field, with a warmth which made people feel they had a deep connection with her. In this, she embodied the value we gain from working with a teacher and learning in groups. She helped generate a depth of understanding that could never arise simply by practising alone.
Cindy was thoroughly committed to the eight-week introduction to mindfulness developed by Jon Kabat-Zinn. Although she wasn’t averse to offering mindfulness tasters, she was clear that there were no shortcuts to developing a mindfulness practice. Through working with her, I gradually learned how to get out of my own head and become open to the simple felt experience of the body. She taught that the sensations we feel tell us more quickly and more reliably what we make of a situation than does the cognitive mind. We should learn to trust that they can guide us.
As an example of what this means in practice, it transformed how I work as a coach. Sometimes when we sit and listen with people, we can find that we’re rehearsing our next intervention more than we are listening to the other person. By trusting that I would be able to respond appropriately to the person in front of me, I found I was able to rehearse my own part less and pay more attention to the listening.
Although mindfulness is often seen as a touch-feely thing, there was a steely side to Cindy’s practice. At the heart of mindfulness is compassion: for oneself and for others. Cindy liked to distinguish between fierce compassion and idiot compassion. The latter is to indulge in giving false comfort, the former is to be courageous in sharing the truth that needs to be spoken. Where idiot compassion is easy to hear it conceals an evasion. Fierce compassion might be difficult to hear but contains a message carried by love.
Such was the depth of Cindy’s practice that I had imagined she had been at it since Zen hit the counter-culture in the 1960s and 70s. In fact, I learned at her memorial, she had come to Buddhism since the turn of the century and turned to mindfulness teaching when her husband died and she had needed to find a living. So she was learning to guide mindfulness almost as quickly as she was learning to practice it. This takes a certain fearlessness. She was conscious with mindfulness that she was teaching a secularised practise and so kept it accessible to irreligious types like me. But she was nonetheless happy to bring in its Buddhist antecedents when appropriate. On the whole, she struck a balance in this that I found helpful.
Above all, Cindy taught and modelled how to deal elegantly with pain and difficulty. As her illness took hold, she evidently dealt with a great deal of pain but was determined to keep working and lead her life to the full. She approached death with courage and curiosity and seemed to hold it off a remarkably long time. She would sometimes express frustration that her physical capability was diminishing but she also noticed that this opened up for her new learning and new connections with people.
During this time, she would quote to us what she called The Three Terrible Incantations:
Whatever is here, let it be.
Wherever it goes, let it flow.
There is no purpose anyway.
There’s more to this reading than appears at first glance. It’s not an expression of nihilism but of acceptance. Cindy understood that the resistance we put up to difficulty can often be more challenging than the difficulty itself. So approaching pain with acceptance and curiosity can make it easier to live with. I learned this for myself when my mother was dying. Cindy understood that there are no joys in life without there also being sorrows and so made room for both. She did not see sadness as a pathology to be avoided but a manifestation of the tenderness we are all capable of feeling but which often gets smothered by our instrumental lifestyles.