By MJ Ryan
How do we cultivate wise action to take advantage of the moment we are in, especially in this time of stress and anxiety for ourselves, our families and for the larger world? Recently I came across an excerpt from Buddhist teacher Joan Halifax’s book STANDING AT THE EDGE: FINDING FREEDOM WHERE FEAR AND COURAGE MEET that describes an active contemplative practice she calls GRACE. It includes everything I know about listening deeply to oneself and others and creating wise action in one simple acronym:
“GRACE is a mnemonic that stands for: Gather attention. Recall our intention. Attune to self and then other. Consider what will serve. Engage and end. How do we practice GRACE?
“Gather Attention: The G in GRACE is a reminder for us to pause and give ourselves time to get grounded. On the inhale, we gather our attention. On the exhale, we drop our attention into the body, sensing into a place of stability in the body. We might focus our attention on the breath or on an area of the body that feels neutral, such as the soles of the feet on the floor or the hands as they rest on each other…. We use this moment of gathering our attention to interrupt our self-talk about our assumptions and expectations and to get grounded and truly present.
“Recall Intention: The R of GRACE is recalling intention. We recall our commitment to act with integrity and respect the integrity of those whom we encounter. We remember that our intention is to serve others and to open our heart to the world. This touch-in can happen in a moment. Our motivation keeps us on track, morally grounded, and connected to our highest values.
“Attune to Self and Other: The A of GRACE refers to the process of attunement—attunement first to our own physical, emotional, and cognitive experience and then to the experience of others. In the self-attunement process, we bring attention to our physical sensations, emotions, and thoughts—all of which can shape our attitudes and behavior toward others. If we are feeling emotionally triggered by the person we are interacting with, our reactivity might affect our ability to perceive another with clear eyes and to care. But if we are aware of our reactivity and reflect on the nature and sources of the person’s suffering, we might be able to reframe the situation in a nonjudgmental and insightful way. This process of attunement and reappraisal primes the neural networks associated with empathy and supports a compassionate response.
“From this base of self-attunement, we attune to others, sensing without judgment into their experience. This is an active form of Bearing Witness. It is also the moment when we engage our capacity for empathy, as we attune physically (somatic empathy), emotionally (affective empathy), and cognitively (perspective taking) to the other person. Through this attunement process, we open a space for the encounter to unfold, a space where we can be present for whatever may arise. The richer we can make this mutual exchange, the deeper the unfolding will be.
“Consider What Will Serve is the C of GRACE. This is a process of discernment that is based on conventional understanding and also is supported with our own intuition and insight. We ask ourselves, What is the wise and compassionate path here? What is an appropriate response? We are present for the other as we sense into what might serve them, and we let insights arise, noticing what the other might be offering in this moment. We consider the systemic factors that are influencing the situation, including institutional requirements and social expectations.
“As we draw on our own expertise, knowledge, and experience, and at the same time remain open to seeing things in a fresh way, we may find that our insights fall outside a predictable category. The discernment process can take time, and so we try not to jump to conclusions too quickly. Considering what will serve certainly requires attentional and affective balance, a deep sense of moral grounding, recognition of our own biases, and attunement into the experience and needs of the person who is suffering. Humility is another important guiding element.
“Engage and End: The first phase of the E in GRACE is to ethically engage and act, if appropriate. Compassionate Action emerges from the field we have created of openness, connection, and discernment. Our action might be a recommendation, a question, a proposal, or even not doing anything. We endeavor to cocreate with the other person a moment that is characterized by mutuality and trust. Drawing on our expertise, intuition, and insight, we look for common ground that is consistent with our values and supportive of mutual integrity. What emerges is compassion that is respectful of all persons involved, practical, and actionable.
“When the time is right, we mark the end of our time in this compassionate interaction, so that we can move cleanly to the next moment, person, or task. This is the second part of the E of GRACE. Whether the outcome is more than we expected or disappointingly small, we should notice and acknowledge what has transpired. Sometimes we have to forgive ourselves or the other person. Or this can be a moment for deep appreciation. Without acknowledgment of what has taken place, it can be difficult to let go of this encounter and move on.”