Thank you for starting this column. I need someone to talk to.
How do I navigate in the craziness that is going on around the world since the U.S. election? I watch the social media and have friends on both “sides,” I have friends who are being hurt—or perceive the smallest possibility of being hurt—and no matter what I say (I refuse to take sides) I am attacked. I watch how they treat their friends, and if anyone tries to show the slightest bit of understanding for the opposite view, there is a mini-war declared. It is ridiculous. If I remain neutral, I am told I am clueless and attacked for that. If I try to show understanding to both sides, I am called a traitor to one or the other. I tell them to be calm and try to put themselves in each other’s shoes; I am told I don’t know what I am talking about.
There is so much fear going on right now, I can see absolutely no solution. I find myself withdrawing more and more. I am struggling to come to terms with the energy that the constant fear and loathing—yes, loathing—and intolerance is causing around the world. It feels to me as if it is in the air I breathe. I suppose it is. I do meditate, I am a naturally positive person. Nothing usually gets me down, but what is going on in the world now is making me withdraw more and more from contact with others. It feels as if anything that even looks like happiness or joy is not acceptable anymore. And I wonder if it ever will be? What do I do?
FROM: Delphine, 45, NZ
Thank you for your question, I believe it is an extremely important issue. As you do, I have friends on both political sides whom I deeply respect. I must agree with you, this has been one of the most divisive elections in U.S. history. I also believe you made a keen assessment of our current situation as well—fear. Many people throughout the U.S. are indeed terrified for their safety and security in the future.
Unfortunately, we are currently living within a system that feeds and encourages fear and hate. Instead of focusing on and debating policies and issues that concern most Americans, we have seen little more than character assassination. Honestly, this election was very concerning to me. I observed character assassination time and time again by politicians and the media. It seems that we have lost the wisdom found within Evelyn Beatrice Hall’s famous quote, “I do not agree with what you have to say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it.”
Americans have been bombarded with gross media distortions, outright lies and deception, manipulation, and at times, calls to violence. Unfortunately, many people have answered the call of violence. Assaults and attacks for political association are becoming more and more common. We are indeed experiencing an intense culture war that has many good people responding in very harmful ways. When it feels like there is “absolutely no solution,” what are we to do? The desire and choice to withdraw more and more from contact with others is a very understandable one. How can mindfulness and meditation in general help the types of situations you are encountering?
What is meditation and mindfulness about?
As a therapist, I will of course answer a question with a question. What is meditation and mindfulness about? What is the essence of mindfulness? Is it feelings of peace? Feeling calm? What we use to better handle stress? While these are some of the “side effects” of mindfulness and meditation, I do not believe that is their intent. In mindfulness meditation, my intent is to calmly face whatever reality is presenting me with in that moment, and in such a manner that does not foster attachment or aversion. For example, I suffered a back injury when I was younger which required two surgeries. I struggled with chronic pain for a very long time. Mindfulness meditation helped me radically change the way I dealt with that pain. If my back started to hurt when meditating, I did not become upset and frustrated. Instead, my perspective became one in which I accepted that pain was a part of my present reality. I sat with the pain, I watched it, I monitored what thoughts it generated when a very sharp pain hit. In short, I accepted my pain and decided to learn from the pain, to make it a part of my meditative practice. Ironically, it wasn’t too long after this shift in perspective happened that I noticed my back pain became less and less intense. Today, while it may hurt once in a while, it’s nothing compared to what it used to be.
Explore your thoughts, feelings and emotions
What thoughts, feelings, or emotions are being generated within you when you see or hear the arguing, bickering, or name-calling that is so prevalent on social media and in politics? I understand and respect your desire to help friends from different political perspectives better understand one another and perhaps even become willing to work together. However, if they are not willing to listen to one another, or to you, what about that situation generates the thoughts and feelings you are starting to experience that make you want to pull away from the world and people altogether?
If someone came to me for therapy with those issues, I would first want to explore with them why being a peacekeeper is important to them. I would also want to explore with them what happens when they fail to be the peacekeeper. There are several possibilities, but from my experience, oftentimes the person has somehow gone through very painful, stressful, or unpleasant experiences when they failed to keep the peace. Many times, these individuals were put in charge of trying to keep the peace between two people they deeply cared about. The most common situation I have seen is one in which a child is perhaps the peacekeeper between two parents. This is a no-win situation for the child, especially if their peacekeeping efforts fail, resulting in even more painful experiences. People who have been forced into the peacekeeper role many times experience intense shame and guilt when their efforts fall short. Feeling a failure, oftentimes the desire is to pull away and keep others at a distance as a way to ensure emotional and psychological safety.
My suggestion for you is to sit with these experiences and to try and learn from them. What happens within you when two people are not able to get along? What does it remind you of? What thoughts and feelings are generated within you when your efforts to try and help someone gain more understanding fall short? What is happening within you when you decide to go on social media, where everyone is bombarded with all the negative and hateful rhetoric? I’m not saying to stop. I’m suggesting that you mindfully explore what pain within you is being touched and how that pain makes you want to pull away from others and the world. When you can discover that, and start to mindfully sit with that pain and accept it within your experience, I believe tremendous growth will result.
Our culture is currently being driven by fear. The desire to want to pull away and hide from everyone is also driven by fear as well. When you begin to mindfully sit with those things within you that are generating that fear response, fear will lose its grasp on your life; you’ll become fearless. That fearlessness will greatly aid you when dialoguing with others who are being driven by fear. Your fearlessness can emit a calming, peaceful energy that has a way of driving fear away and helping others become more open and vulnerable with one another. Fearlessness, I believe, is the solution.