If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.
– Lilla Watson
These are deeply unsettling times. We are witnessing a global pandemic ravage our normalcy, our economy, our human decency. The breakdown of truth, science, and facts is particularly brutal to contend with, as we wonder how we might influence the world towards reason. It is one thing to read a blurb here or there by an extremist who claims that they know better than health care experts. It is quite another to see them out in mass droves protesting the measures that give us the best shot at surviving this thing and getting back to thriving as quickly as possible.
If you are experiencing shortness of breath, rapid heart beat, trouble sleeping, fatigue, depression, or anxiety, my heart is with you. I am on the same journey. I’ve heard it called “pandemic anxiety”, and I like having a label for it. It makes me feel less alone. This is such a sense of helplessness, a loss of control, that many of us have never before experienced. In some ways, going through it together makes it a bit better. In other ways, it feels like we will be crushed under the weight of the world’s pain.
I have witnessed and experienced the very righteous anger aimed at our leaders who would incite protests against stay at home measures. It is unfathomable that our president would say it is up to states to put these quarantine measures in place, and in the same breath encourage his supporters to take to the streets and demand to be set free. My brain can’t comprehend the madness, and it can make you feel a bit like you are losing your mind. That, coupled with the fact that you may have been sitting at home for over a month, or like me have – lost your job, and are traumatized every time you have to leave the house with a mask. Now, anger is an intelligent emotion. It evolved for a purpose. But it is not our most evolved emotion. It is a wonderful access point, but it isn’t the point. We can transform it into something else – action, leadership, inspiration, etc.
Awaken to Your Intention to Care
The divisive politics of the time wound us on a spiritual level, because we know deep down that our most awake, free state lies in our shared connection. Separateness leads to suffering, always. We all desire to be understood, validated, witnessed and acknowledged. It adds an extra layer of pain to our experience when we feel we will never be able to bridge the divide between ourselves and another. Most of the time this fear is so covered up by our egoic response that we don’t even notice it’s there, under the surface.
And yet, when I approach divisive, harmful politics from an attitude of curiosity and interest, I find it is possible to extend understanding. To bridge that painful divide, even if only slightly.
To begin, can you connect with the part of yourself that longs to care – for yourself, for others, for our world, in light of this current crisis? Perhaps you need to access that caring part of yourself through your anger. If you’re angered by the response of others, can you get underneath the anger and see where your true grief lies? Perhaps in the perceived loss of shared connection, of a shared global project of healing. Play around with it and just ask yourself what really matters to you. Through whatever arises, can you in some way connect it to your desire to care?
I’d like to add a bit of a disclaimer here: Do not do this work until you are ready. It is okay to give your anger time, and I am by no means suggesting everyone needs to be empathizing with and cultivating compassion for people who trigger them. But, if you – like many of us – have noticed the separation adds an extra layer of suffering to your experience, I invite you to go on this quest with us. Later, I’ll describe a bridge we can use – taking one step at a time – on one side, there is separation and on the other, there is compassion. You can take as many steps as feel safe and right for you. Perhaps your only step right now is to simply extend compassion inward. Indeed, this is the first step for all of us, as we will explore below.
Why We Can’t Empathize Until We Regulate
Humans have these incredible nervous systems that evolved to literally save our lives. The autonomic system can be broken in two – the sympathetic system, responsible for the fight or flight response, and the parasympathetic system, responsible for rest, digestion, and healing, among other things.
You’ve heard the famous example of the sympathetic system – where the warthog needs increased blood pumping to their leg muscles to flee from the cheetah. The lungs that start working overtime to give it a shot at outrunning the predator. The rapid heartbeat, shortened breathing, and a host of other symptoms. Our ancestors needed such mechanics to get us to where we are today, and sometimes we need them – in moments of mortal danger. The problem is our thinking minds interpret a lot of stuff that isn’t going to kill us though it actually could. Imagined conflict, drama, and catastrophe can all take place in your mind within the span of a millisecond. As Mark Twain said, “Some of the worst things in my life never even happened.”
From the sympathetic state, our energy is completely fixated on survival, and functions like self-control, empathy, and compassion can get tossed to the wayside. If we intend to care for our world and form a compassionate, wise response to crises like COVID-19, we are going to want to activate our parasympathetic nervous system instead.
How to Regulate (AKA Self-Compassion)
Obviously to be in a sympathetic nervous state is natural, normal, and what your ancestors effectively trained your DNA to do. Before diving into the parasympathetic, I often find it helps to take a moment to hold space for the fight or flight response first. Can you place a hand on your heart and witness it? Witness what your ancestors went through, what other creatures in the animal kingdom go through, what humans go through, both as a response to perceived threats and actual threats.
If it feels safe, perhaps whisper, “Thank you.” You are thanking your ancestors for their survival. You are thanking your body for doing what it takes to keep you well and safe. See how it feels to confront the uncomfortable and – instead of pushing it away – thanking it. It’s an acknowledgement and an honoring all bound up in one.
Now it’s time to let your nervous system know you can take it from here. Here we begin the transition from sympathetic to parasympathetic. If we intend to care, and we’ve established that we do, we’re going to want to access the prefrontal cortex, the most recently evolved part of our brain. If you’re into chakras, this is correlated with the third eye, or intuition. It is also related to the parasympathetic nervous system, because we have more access to it when we are not in fight or flight mode. Only then, can we also access critical thinking, creativity, reason and logic, and yes – compassion – each to their full potential. We’re going to need all these tools to extend compassionate care outward to folks who are currently triggering us. Am I right?
If you want to access your prefrontal cortex, practice meditation. Scientists measured the brains of people before and after they began a consistent meditation practice. Grey matter – that’s the good stuff we want more of, it is associated with intelligence and decreases as we age – expanded in the prefrontal cortex, in 4 areas, including the parts associated with emotional regulation, empathy, and compassion. The amygdala, the part of the brain that deals in anxiety and stress, shrank (source).
This is a great time to cultivate a meditation practice. The internet and this site abound with resources and free guided practices. Dive in and find what works for you. You can meditate regardless of your religious affiliation, background, or skill level. Sitting in stillness and quieting your mind are your birth rights as a human being.
Other ways to access the parasympathetic state include breathwork, accupressure, chanting, and creating a cozy environment you find relaxing. Try dimming the lights, lighting a few candles, and playing chill music. Remove 90% of the stimuli that fills your life automatically – put the phone on airplane mode, turn the TV off, get really quiet. Allowing your body to return to a time before technology can be profoundly relaxing. You begin to notice what the stimuli was there to distract you from – your own ability to regulate yourself. We live in a capitalist system, and believe me – that system doesn’t want you to know that you don’t need to buy products to feel safe and relaxed. You do have the power to unplug from the “Matrix” on a regular basis and refill your cup with more of what your nervous system actually needs – usually just quiet, darkness, stillness.
From this parasympathetic state, a state of regulation, can you extend compassion to your experience? Can you witness when you are triggered, perhaps by the news, social media, or even your thoughts? Accept that they are part of your reality, allow them in.
Then, do the work again of uncovering your intention – what really matters to you about this? Can you connect with your own desire to care for yourself? To return to homeostasis, to the parasympathetic state, again and again? Can you connect with your intrinsic worthiness of self-compassion? For a more detailed self-compassion practice, check out this post.
Co-Regulating Our Collective Nervous System (AKA Extending that Compassion Outward)
Sometimes it can be really difficult to access our intention to care, for others and even ourselves. The words and actions of people can so easily trigger disdain, judgment, and what Tara Brach calls an “unreal othering”. We dehumanize each other at the most extreme level of our feelings of separateness. If we can all agree this leads to suffering, and that we desire to achieve some level of understanding, there is a range of inquiries we can use to access that bridge. What follows is a scale I’ve created on which we can challenge ourselves to take our understanding of others a bit deeper. Wherever you fall on this scale of understanding, do not judge yourself. As with every other stage of this process, witness your journey with compassion.
The Understanding Bridge
Once we’ve gotten into the parasympathetic state and done our inner work of self-compassion, the first step is curiosity. Can we become curious about the experience of those who are angering us? In your heart, you can envision yourself asking the person, “What is this like for you? What is your experience? What are the circumstances that have led to you making this decision, taking this action?”
The next step, after we become curious, is to see their underlying intention. You can ask them, “What is it you care about most?”
This can be quite difficult work, and is where I often get stuck. You really have to let your biases and preconceptions take a back seat here, if you truly want to achieve understanding with this person.
Perhaps these protesters and Trump supporters deeply care about the economy, and as a part of that, about the well-being of others, or at the very least, of themselves and their loved ones.
Keep digging until you arrive at an intention you yourself can relate to and understand. Remember, you are not letting them off the hook or condoning their actions. You are simply doing the work of un-separating yourself from them, which is at its heart the work of healing and repairing. So, you’re really un-identifying them from the belief or from the action or from the words, etc. You’re seeing the person underneath all the egoic coverings.
Next, once we’ve arrived at an intention we ourselves can understand, recognize that intention reflected in yourself. I too care about my financial well-being, and the well-being of my loved ones and my community. I also find social distancing difficult, and have a lot of fears around an economic downturn. I lost my beertending job, and have a small business to worry over as we head towards an economic recession. So I can connect with the fear and the care in some of these protesters’ hearts. I can witness the shared values, and bring an understanding to parts of their experience.
4. Offer Space
If you can get to the next level, that’s great. If not, that’s okay too! Keep practicing, keep witnessing, keep challenging yourself along this spectrum. The next step is to offer space to this person. Perhaps this is only in your mind, or maybe you have the opportunity to engage in a dialogue with them. Maybe it’s space in your heart as you long to include the truth of this person without their egoic coverings (i.e. their fear, hate, or dangerous actions). Many of us include in who we call “loved ones” someone who might use or lean towards the rhetoric being touted by Fox News, the White House, and so forth. Rather than kicking them to the proverbial curb of our hearts, can we offer them space for what they are feeling? If you have the opportunity, perhaps say to them, “This is really hard right now. I understand that this is scary. I’m scared too.”
This doesn’t mean we pretend we don’t have political differences or disagreements, but it means we can set them aside for a moment to to look into their eyes, and notice what they care about, what matters to them. Often this simple act of care is the most profound thing that a person needs.
5. Offer Care
Finally, offer care. This is the point where we can fully embody compassion for another. Often, it is through the act of listening that I cross over into caring. I naturally want to show compassion to this being who is suffering. Just as I have no choice but to extend compassion to myself in the midst of my pain, I automatically care for another in pain, because at this stage I recognize that they are me and I am them. The separation has vanished, and the truth of our Oneness is all that remains.
In her book Radical Compassion, Tara Brach draws an important distinction between empathy and compassion:
Empathy is our capacity to feel the emotions of others and/or take the perspective of other people. But therein lies a trap: If we become too distressed by their suffering, we may not have the cognitive or emotional resources to help them.
Compassion begins with empathy, but the crucial element of mindfulness protects us from merging or identifying with the pain. Empathy alone can lead to burnout, but the mindfulness and care inherent in compassion foster resilience, connectedness, and action.
I love this so much, because it doesn’t let us off the hook of extending compassion to others. When we are mindful, we become resilient and able to take action as a result of our compassion. We recognize that their liberation is bound up with ours.
So what happens next? On some levels, you might still want to change their mind, and in rare moments, perhaps you can even have productive policy conversations. But the compassion piece always has to happen first.
It would be all too easy for me to draw similarities between the sympathetic nervous system and right-wing extremists, or between the parasympathetic nervous system and folks whose politics align more with my own. But this would be the definition of confirmation bias, as well as completely bogus. We are all susceptible to fight or flight politics, because we all have limbic systems! There is extremism on both sides, and you can witness this with compassion in yourself when you are tempted to block people on Facebook who have different perspectives to your own. It’s a survival response, rooted in the lesser evolved brain. But we all also have the parasympathetic system, so there’s really no excuse not to use it.
People can tell when you’re trying to change them, and it’s universally hated. On the other hand, what is universally needed is understanding, witnessing, and compassion. We have to learn to stifle the “I told ya so’s” and not attach to the end result of our compassion. Meaning, if you are showing compassion purely for the sake of them coming around to your point of view, then it’s not genuine, is it?
Transforming Your Triggers & Becoming Part of the Solution
When we refuse to accept the reality of this global pandemic, we tighten. When this happens, we cannot access the prefrontal cortex. The ego literally can cut off our access to shared awakening and the truth.
So, I know this is hard, but make it your practice instead to continuously notice the tightening and choosing to soften. Whether it’s tightening against the fear of the pandemic, or the fear and the misunderstanding and the divide between you and people on the other side of the aisle. Then and only then can we witness our nervous systems returning to homeostasis and some semblance of calm.
The key is to let go of control – you never had it anyway, as far as this virus was concerned. Allow that to humble you. And then free you.
When our leaders do this, we get clear, calm responses to crises which help to regulate our collective nervous system. Do this work on an individual level, and notice how your shifts influence others. This takes quite a bit of trust and dedication – stick with it. Intrinsically, the benefits you experience will quickly make it worth it. Over time, we may just see profound shifts in our society – even on a political level.
The point is – we have to do the inner work first. We have to practice holding space for ourselves so we can hold space for others. And we have to hold space for others to find our collective healing. It is at once selfless and very selfish – meaning, our freedom is completely tied to the freedom of us all.
On some level, we already know this. This is why we suffer when we watch the news. It is a lot more liberating to take our suffering to the next step – to turn that uncomfortable emotion in your belly into a question. “How can I care for myself right now?” Then, “How can I be part of the solution?”