Mindfulness in a Scary World

Are you as overwhelmed as I am with the fact that every time we turn on the TV or look at our phones or computers, there is ANOTHER major issue of catastrophic proportion?  We can’t seem to escape the bombardment of news anymore.  Those of us who want to help in some way feel overwhelmed often. It used to feel like after a major catastrophe, the first responders would show up, the rest of us would come together and do what we could, and things would eventually get worked out – not completely “fixed,” but on the path to recovery.

Now, it feels like so many huge things arise every day that there’s not time for things that happened a week ago to even begin to regain balance (or for us to begin to process them), so there’s more and more crap (that’s a clinical term) piled on top. And each situation is enough to bury us on it’s own – colossal hurricanes, one after another, forest fires devastating hundreds of homes, the biggest mass shootings in our history, changes in our government – even the real possibility of nuclear war or some other international catastrophic event.

And on top of all that, we each have the daily stress we’ve always had – just making ends meet and managing our own responsibilities. It’s just too much at times.  The reality is that our world has always been a little chaotic.  It just feels like it’s coming faster and harder now. We’re on overload.

The general purpose of my weekly blog is to help people manage their mental/emotional/physical health.  So why do I focus on social issues more these days? For one thing, I tend to think sociologically, as well as in terms of the individual’s emotional and mental balance. But also, it’s because my clients keep bringing these things into their sessions! And because of my holistic view, it’s clear to me that it’s ALL interconnected.  We are spiritual beings having human experiences, and some days it’s really hard to keep that balance!

Whatever your stance is on what is going on within national and international news is up to you.  But we do have to recognize that what is going on right now IS affecting each of us, whether we are actively responding to it or trying to pass it off as just more fake news. I’ve never believed that sticking our heads in the sand and avoiding something that feels bad is a good idea.  I have lived by the rule that WHAT WE RESIST, PERSISTS. So I do believe in meeting things head-on, facing them, acknowledging they exist, and then determining how to address them.  Anything we ignore, just gains more and more power over us.

But we do have to slow down occasionally – shut off the TV, put down the phone, work out to shake it off, take a breath, walk in nature, and/or pray or meditate for a while to get ourselves back to some semblance of balance.

There are several ways to manage the stress (some of which I just mentioned), but I believe the first step is to change our relationship to the stress itself.  I’m a long-time meditator, and I’ve learned that what we focus on dictates how we feel, and often what we do about it.

What that means is if we only focus on what upsets us, or what we don’t have, we’ll become more anxious and fearful, our bodies will tense, our minds will fog over, and the stress will be exacerbated because we’ll be more reactive. In other words, we probably won’t consciously choose our response, we’ll just act impulsively, often making things worse.

Another option is to stay in the moment with it; acknowledging the stress, but not owning it.  For instance, when I see it as “my stress,” it becomes part of “my story.”  Instead, if I gently put my awareness where I feel it (as if I’m holding something very fragile), I can witness it as just a sensation without trying to make anything happen.  This detaches me from the stress and it’s easier not to identify with it; hence easier to let it go.

So coming back to this moment and putting our awareness on something more tangible (our bodies/ the texture of the couch we’re sitting on/noticing how our legs feel as we walk up a flight of stairs), instead of letting our thoughts run away with us, is called mindfulness. If meditation sounds like something you just couldn’t manage (although I believe that’s probably because you have some misconceptions about what meditation is); at least give some thought to being more mindful.

Mindfulness activates our minds and sharpens our focus.   We are more able to observe with non-attachment (as Buddhists would say). This gives us more conscious control over our feelings and choices.

Robert Wright, author and professor of science and religion suggests that mindfulness is not just helpful for us as a coping mechanism.  He also believes that mindfulness can be used as a way to process those incidents that seemingly cause the stress and even as a way to respond.  (The reality is that an event/person does not CAUSE stress, but how we look at the event/person triggers how we feel about it).

He speaks of responding mindfully to things we see or hear on the news or on our social media feeds that might otherwise fuel anger. For example, there’s a certain person who’s on the news a lot that is a natural at pushing people’s emotional buttons. He’s able to instantly generate excitement – or outrage, contempt, disgust . . .  you get the picture. When we cooperate by expressing that outrage, we are just playing into his hands.  And more importantly, it distracts us from being able to assess some of the issues being brought up; and makes it more unlikely that we can focus enough to help make the changes needed.

Wright points out that the outrage some of us feel gets in the way of empathy for his supporters.  We’re not talking about the emotional empathy most of us are able to express.  Here we’re talking about cognitive empathy – or the ability to understand how the world looks to other people.  We need some cognitive distance in order to do that.  Otherwise, we’re just going to lump them all together, and assume the worst. I’ve talked about this skill before when I’ve shared how I try to view the world through my clients’ eyes in order to understand what they are feeling; yet maintain enough objectivity to back up and be able to help them look for alternative ways to manage their lives.

The above-mentioned person is advocating for populism. Populism can only survive when there is polarization. Just like all religions, it needs a demon. Therefore, if we react from rage, we’re more likely to say or do something that immediately sparks flames in others – placing us in that demonic role. Consequently, they see us as the enemy and we see them as the enemy – polarization.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with feeling anger about what is going on.  In fact, it’s probably healthy to acknowledge that anger exists. But as Martin Luther King, Jr said,  Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. Fighting hate with hate is never productive.

So if we can respond mindfully, it gives us that space to consciously think about the issue being discussed (or the natural disaster of the day) and choose how we want to respond to it, rather than focus on the negative aspects of the situation.

Wright also makes it clear that “responding mindfully” doesn’t mean just passively accepting things. We can’t normalize a corrosive violation of norms, extreme weather events or terrorism. So he suggests we reserve our outrage or our righteousness for the issues we find most important.

For instance, rather than spending our energy making fun of someone who wears 5″ heels to a hurricane, or a jacket with a weird quote that leaves us to wonder what the underlying message really is –   focus on calling or writing your representatives to ask them to appropriate more resources to the affected area, or donate time or money to that cause.

Remember, every time you retweet or post something on social media, you’re casting a vote. Be sure you’re doing so consciously and with intention. So allow yourself to feel the anger and recognize the stress for what it is. But don’t let it immobilize you.  Acknowledge it and let it empower you. Channel it into energy that is spent towards the improvement of a situation. (But do so with balance. Limit your activism to only the issues most important to you. Take a break occasionally, and distract yourself with fun or otherwise interesting activities, rest, or some of the other coping skills I mentioned earlier).

It’s not always fun, but we are all on this earth together, so we each have the responsibility to find ways to make this life work.  Many of us believe the best way to do that is through kindness, education and love. When we are challenged by those who don’t believe the same way, we may have to do some fighting.  But please don’t fight against them, fight FOR that healthcare, to save the earth, or the unity, democracy and peace we all dream of.