Racially charged riots, nuclear missile tests, international refugee and socioeconomic crises, terror attacks, hurricanes, floods, raging wildfires, unprecedented heatwaves, the repeal of DACA…not to mention the energy of a total eclipse and whatever personal challenges you might be struggling with in your own sphere.
It’s a lot to take in.
So how do we stay open to what’s happening in the world without absorbing collective pain in ways that exhaust us personally?
How do we keep our hearts open even when it feels like too much?
How do we stay when our fight or flight response is telling us to get out of dodge?
How do we lean into uncomfortable realities in a way that’s both useful to the world and feels manageable to us?
How do we let our hearts be touched by life without our bodies and minds getting overwhelmed and shutting down?
I don’t ask you to take a look at universal suffering like this to add to the overwhelm so many of us are experiencing these days.
I ask us to pause and consciously turn toward rather than away from the suffering going on in the world because sometimes among “spiritual seekers” and consciousness growers there can be a tendency to try to bypass pain in the name of “keeping things positive.”
But mindfulness is a practice of learning to work with life as it truly is — which means being willing to take an honest look at the “good,” the “bad,” and the ugly within and around us.
It requires a certain fierceness to really look at how our individual beliefs and habits are affecting the collective, and to adjust course when appropriate.
Burying our heads in the sand is not the path of genuine mindfulness — or, more importantly, of genuine kindfulness.
But we can tap into supports that help us lean toward alleviating collective suffering without sacrificing our individual wellbeing.
Below are some tips to help you step toward that compassionate sweet spot.
1. Take some kind of action.
Compassion means not merely noticing that another is suffering, but reaching out with the intention of alleviating that pain in some way.
And when we absorb the suffering of the world, we really can’t handle it all. It’s just too big. We need to move the energy through us, and taking compassionate action is a way to do that.
That action doesn’t have to be grandiose; whatever feels authentic to you. If your actions come from a place of genuine care, it will be felt, whether it’s a hand on the shoulder of a grieving person, a few kind words to someone having a tough day, time or money you contribute to a cause, or calls you make to your local congressperson. (Some resources below.)
2. Just dip a toe in.
Don’t expose yourself to more collective suffering than you feel capable of reasonably holding space for. If you read every article on every way in which the world is hurting today, it’s probably going to be too much. Apply self-compassion as a balance to compassion for others.
3. Make some space.
If you pour a tablespoon of salt into an 8 oz. cup of water, it’ll be undrinkable. But if you pour that same tablespoon of salt into a pond, you wouldn’t even notice it.
When we single-handedly try to take on the suffering of the world, our system shuts down. But when we remind ourselves that we’re actually the ocean rather than a drop in the ocean, we connect to a sense of expansiveness. That sense of ahhhh lets us relax and settle back into the truth that all energy is, and all human beings are, connected. You’re not alone and neither is anyone else on the planet.
Try on one of these mantras as a gateway to spaciousness:
“I’m spacious enough to handle this.”
“There’s room for it all.”
4. Expand your container.
The next time you’re listening to the news and feeling overwhelmed, take a deep breath as you feel into a sense of your heart being touched by that suffering. As you exhale, breathe out a wish for peace or comfort or healing. Dial the intensity down anytime it feels like too much.
The way we build our compassion muscle, just like our mindfulness muscle or any muscle in the body, is by starting small. Nothing to force or rush.
5. Dial self-care up.
While it may feel counterintuitive to put more time and energy into taking care of yourself when you’re feeling hyper aware of others’ needs, if your own well isn’t full, you’ll have nothing to overflow.
6. Get grounded.
Feel your feet on the ground. Feel gravity connecting you and the Earth supporting you.
7. Make time for stillness.
Create a little sanctuary, whatever that wants to look like for you, and go there to soak in the quiet for a few minutes a day.
8. Focus on the good, too.
While yes, suffering occurs, there’s also an infinite bounty of goodness flowing through the universe. In order to shore up our compassion resources, we need to fill our reserves by tuning into all the good that exists too.
9. Cry when you need to.
Tears show that your heart is touched by others’ pain. What a lovely sign of human connection, and a potent emotional and energetic cleanser, too.
10. Remember that we’re all in it together.
Reminding yourself of the ways in which you, too, are suffering is a powerful gateway to compassion.
11. Move your body.
Energy literally needs to move through us. If you’re feeling heavy, shake it out.
12. Get clear on your intention.
Heart-centered intention serves as an anchor. In the practice of dialing up compassion, this might sound like:
“May we all be free from suffering.”
13. Get out in nature.
Look up at the spacious blue sky, out at the expanse of the ocean, or up at the vastness of a redwood tree. This will help broaden your perspective and remind you that there really is space for it all.
14. Connect to moments of joy.
While suffering is a natural part of life, we also have the capacity to access joy in any moment. Pay attention to where little sparks of joy show up in your days even – or especially – when you’re struggling.
15. Ditch self-judgment.
Guilt about not doing enough for the world or shame for never knowing quite the “right” thing to do to help is just not useful. Take some kind of kind action that feels right to you, however small, and trust that it matters.
16. Slow down.
It’s impossible to connect to compassion for ourselves or anyone else when we’re rushing forward.
17. Bite-size it.
Overwhelm sets in when we start to “stack” all the suffering we see and feel. Press pause. Take a breath. And focus on just this one next useful kind thought or action.
18. Take note of beauty.
Just like suffering exists, so does beauty. Acknowledging both ends of the spectrum helps the pendulum swing through the sweet spot in the center more easily.
Dropping awareness into the body gives you direct access to the present moment. And the present moment is the only space from which we can connect to compassion for ourselves or anyone else.
Meditation is the most powerful practice for strengthening your mindfulness muscle. And the more nonjudgmentally aware we become, the more the heart naturally opens. If you want to get serious about dialing up your compassion capacity, decide to set aside 10 minutes a day and try out some of the wonderful apps out there including Headspace, Calm, Insight Timer, and Omvana.
Here are some more concrete compassion-in-action resources for this moment:
To support Houston:
* Animal Lovers: The SPCA or Houston Humane Society
* To support children affected by the floods or donate diapers
* Hurricane Harvey Relief Fund, Houston Food Bank, Red Cross
* A nice comprehensive list of options
To take loving action in the form of increasing understanding around racial dynamics and privilege (for white Americans in particular):
* This piece by Lori Lakin Hutcherson
* Maisha Z. Johnson’s article about white privilege
* A splash of cold water to the face for us “spiritual white women”
* Brené Brown’s post-Charlottesville video
* Buddhist teacher Jack Kornfield’s piece Time for Truth and Reconciliation
For empaths feeling bombarded by the world these days:
* Dr. Judith Orloff’s latest book The Empath’s Survival Guide
Of course these are just ideas for compassionate action possibilities. Feel into what feels authentic to you, and start there.
Lots of Love,