With everything going on in our world over the past year or so, sometimes feeling like impending apocalypse or armageddon – I find that many people have been struggling with increased fear, helplessness, anger, and numbness.
A mentor spoke with me recently about the importance of ‘disconnecting from the pain grid’ – and I found that phrase alone to be a helpful reminder in these times, like a mantra. It might seem like a selfish act to not feel the pain of the world. But as a healer I know that if I am feeling the pain of my patients, I cannot show up with the resources they need for healing. If you are a parent you may know that if you are having a melt-down along with your child, your child will not feel held, safe, comforted and able to down-regulate themselves. ‘Disconnecting from the pain grid’ doesn’t mean we don’t care or don’t have compassion – but it means we can show up with more resources for the suffering that’s there.
Roshi Joan Halifax speaks of ‘empathic distress’ – a common state when we are bombarded by stories and images of pain, devastation, and horror in the media. This phenomenon happens because human beings are like tuning forks – we really do pick up on others’ pain. Empathic distress is the moral distress and futility felt when we feel a profound moral conflict about what we’re seeing, with the inability to do anything about it. This can lead to moral outrage (I’m right/ they are wrong), or states of avoidance through addictive behaviors or numbing out.
Contemplative practice and touching stillness helps us down-regulate our nervous systems so that we can become more sensitive without being hyper-aroused (which can lead to anger, distress, or numbing out). When we are more stabilized, we can face the world with more capacity.
I’ve been thinking about the great joy that people like Thich Nhat Hanh, the Dalai Lama, and Archbishop Desmond Tutu emanate – individuals who have seen such devastation and violence in their homelands. Yet those who come in contact with them speak of the joy and light that shine through them – and that light and that joy, that they nurture even in the midst of trauma and sorrow, has a positive influence on those they come in contact with, and has actually helped them to take action that has had great impact to create real change in the world.
We all have this storehouse, this jewel of light and joy within us, that no amount of suffering can mar. What happens if your practice is to strengthen and polish this jewel? Do you feel that your happiness is selfish when there is suffering in the world?
I ask because with all the suffering in the world, you might feel like if you’re not feeling the pain, you don’t care. But does your fear, your sadness, your grief actually help the situation, or does it paralyze you from being able to do anything? Do you do more good by being in fear, helplessness, anger, and numbness, or by cultivating space and radiating joy to those around you?
Photo Credit: “January 8, 2014” by THE ZEN DIARY – https://flic.kr/p/no1p1i