How to Take Care of Yourself When… There is Suffering Everywhere

In the words of one of my clients: “The state of the world makes it hard for me to feel joy.  Even though things are going alright in my life, I feel overwhelmed by the daily news of violence, environmental degradation, poverty…”

 

It is undeniable that there is great suffering on this planet.  The main news outlets are mostly filled with accounts of both local and international suffering.  Of course, logically we know that beautiful, joyful events are also happening everyday- and yet it can be a challenge to even find information about these examples of progress, generosity, kindness, and hope.

So, how do we cope with the pain of the awareness of the great quantity and depth of suffering impacting people and ecosystems all over the planet?  Like all pain that we experience, the best response is twofold: acknowledging the pain and then proactively addressing its source.  

 

This Hurts

Contrary to the messages of polite society, there are no emotional nor social benefits to being a robotic automaton without sensitivity to the pains and joys that roll through this life.  On the emotional front, anything pushed out of awareness only comes back in worse form- exaggerated reactions to pain in the future and / or physical illness, for example.  On the social front, others will find you cold and lacking personality- and deep interpersonal connection will be elusive.  An authentic, fully-developed adult recognizes and allows their own pain and processes it- allowing it to transform- in a responsible way.

If you are in pain, hold that pain for as long as you need.  Get intimate with it.  What does it feel like in your chest cavity when you see the city cut down a thriving 80-year old tree because its roots are causing problems with the sidewalk?  Where in your body are you impacted when you hear news of a serious accident in which lives were lost?  Sometimes, we only need 10 seconds to allow painful information to work its way through us.  Other times- especially when the suffering is especially deep or near to us, we need to hold and process our experience of it more deeply.  This can look many ways.  

One form of processing is to strike up a conversation with a loved one about the situation.  Just hearing another person say, “I know- that is really sad!” helps to not feel alone in holding the suffering of the world.  On a similar front, bringing the situation up in your own personal therapy can be helpful.  A therapist will likely direct the conversation towards the personal significance, to you, of this particular situation that is impacting you.  Some people find ceremony helpful.  When I hear about brutality in the world, I find the time to light incense, meditate, and pray for the victims and perpetrators to find freedom from their immense suffering.  

Golden Hour

Coming home to our beautiful planet is the best medicine.

In addition to other people and your source of spiritual life, you can also find support from the Earth.  We all came from and return to the Earth- which is able to create and absorb anything that we humans can imagine, and more.  One of my teachers takes daily walks in the Garden of the Gods in Colorado, a place filled with beautiful geologic formations.  When she sits there, she feels her troubles being held not just by herself, but by the Earth that is reaching up and holding her as she sits.  When we can transcend the illusion of isolation and see the various entities- human and otherwise- that surround and support us, our burdens become much more manageable.

We can also harness the mind-body connection and use physical ways to process our emotional pain.  Take a walk, do yoga, go on a run, surf, swim- do whatever it is that centers you and also increases your literal “flows” in your body, via the many systems (circulatory, digestive, lymphatic, etc.) of the human body.  Another benefit of some of these activities is coming into direct contact with the natural world.  One thing I do when I run through the forest where I live is to become aware of the sweet smell of the ponderosa pine trees, the fragrant earth after a rain, the slightly oceanic smell of the creeks and rivers.  I use my sensitive scent palate to find healing.  When I deeply inhale the exhalations of nature, I take them in as healing agents, filling my body with the life-force of the earth, working their way into every corner- including the places in my heart that hurt.  I’m aware this is a practice in imagination- and also that our minds have much sway in our physical health.  If there is a way you can incorporate positive imagery into your practice, why not try it?

After holding and allowing your pain to transform, one outcome may be a resolve to make a difference in the area of suffering that hit you hard in the first place.  If so, read on.      

 

I Have the Choice to Do Something

There are people working on every issue of injustice and suffering in this world.  Are you already, or are you meant to be, one of them?  This is something only you can decide for yourself.  The key concept here is “I have the choice,” not “do something.”  A friend of mine recently made reference to his “ego-based belief” that he needed to make everything alright.  It can be very empowering to see a need and to address it- you see a homeless and potentially hungry person and you offer the person food.  You visit the beach and pick up the trash you find there.  It is good and feels good to be a force of love and healing in the world.  

The challenge is that if you stopped to address every injustice and every place of hurt that you saw… you would have a hard time functioning in this world that requires that most of us spend most of our waking hours working, usually in careers that are not directly addressing these areas of need.  This is why so many people are actually blind to the great magnitude of suffering everywhere- in our own neighborhoods, schools, homes.  It is overwhelming to be aware and to have the kind of compassion that actively works to alleviate all of the suffering around us.  Unless we are able to let go of our worldly ties and dive headlong into service, like Mother Teresa, we have to choose when to address suffering and when to not address it.  If you are reading this article, chances are that you have the blessing and the curse of clearly seeing much of the suffering in this world, and it can get you down.

Many years ago I asked a spiritual teacher what I should do when I saw a man hit a dog.  I had been traveling in a developing country the week before, and I had become upset when I saw a man on the street hit a dog.  My teacher gave a long answer, but the first observation he made was, “It sounds like you are attached to the idea that the dog shouldn’t suffer; that all beings should be free of suffering…” This observation was correct.  I was operating on the assumption that a paradise of freedom from suffering for all beings was possible and that I had an obligation to correct unnecessary suffering that I saw… even though I know that suffering is a key piece of life and that there is no freedom from suffering if there is no suffering (non-duality.)  My teacher also spoke to practical approaches in the situation I presented (such as addressing the suffering of a man who would hit a dog,) but my primary take-away was the reminder that there will be suffering, and that it’s not my job to fight that fact.  It turns out that there is great freedom in relinquishing responsibility for the happiness of all beings on the planet!!  

I bring up this story to remind us that, while we can work for freedom from suffering, we must do it without attachment to the idea that we will eradicate suffering.  Like my friend who became aware of his ego-based need to make everything alright, we need to be aware of our actual position in the cosmos.  We are each one being in an infinitude of beings on a tiny planet in one small corner of the universe.  We can only go about making change in the world in a healthy way that preserves our own emotional and spiritual health when we recognize that the journey of other people’s lives, of animals’ lives, of the life of the planet are their own journeys, directed by infinite factors.  No one person’s effort- and maybe not the efforts of every human on the planet- can “fix” a single person’s life challenges or the challenges of the Earth.  In other words: let the weight of the world slide right off your shoulders, because you are not the boss of things.       

With this awareness, is there a way that works for you that you can address the world’s suffering?  You could choose one area of focus and then choose how deeply you want to dive into it.  For example, you may decide that child abuse is something you want to help reduce.  On a small scale, you can bring awareness to Child Abuse Prevention Month via social media.  You could donate to local non-profits that work with at-risk children and parents to prevent child abuse and neglect.  You could become a volunteer court appointed advocate for children in foster care.  You could go to school to become a social worker and work in child welfare.  You could do as Mother Teresa and join a monastic order dedicated to caring for impoverished children!  

Another approach could be to have a rule for yourself regarding how you address the suffering you come directly across.  For example, you could decide that if you cross paths directly with someone suffering- a hungry or homeless or distraught person- you will stop what you are doing and offer help.  You can decide that you will donate money once a month to a specific charity and that you will otherwise not get involved with strangers on the street.  At the same time, you can decide to not follow social media or the news because being aware of the suffering of the world- when you can’t directly change the vast majority of it- is hurting your mental health.

The person whose well-being you have the most ability to support is yourself.  When you make the choice to acknowledge and care for your own pain related to the suffering of the world, you are more able to make a difference through action- in the appropriate, thoughtfully considered way that you choose.        

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Pausing

Boundaries

Looking Deeply

Generosity

 

Share Your Experience
How do you handle the suffering of the world?  How do you process the deepest suffering?  How do you decide when to act, and when to not act?  Please share about it in the “comments” section.  The internet is a powerful resource for learning from others- make your experience count!  

 

How to Take Care of Yourself When… Your Own Mind is Your Worst Enemy

In the words of a former client: “When I finally looked into all of my most painful moments, I saw that it was my own thinking about the situations that made them so bad.”

Some people seem to be born with a positive disposition, with optimism at their core.  It doesn’t matter if they had saint-like parents nurturing them in all the right ways or came from the most challenging of childhoods, marked by poverty or abuse- they see the silver lining, and their joy is contagious!  Others of us struggle with negative, defeating thinking- even if things have always worked out reasonably well for us.  The mind is a powerful indicator of our ability to enjoy our time on this planet and to make a positive impact while we’re at it.  Have you found that your biggest obstacle to happiness or reaching your potential is your own mind?  Count yourself among the majority of humanity!  We all have struggled with the fact that our own thoughts in reaction to difficult situations can make the situations much worse.

The good news is that we can work with our own minds.  We can leverage our thinking mind in ways that- over time- develop a positivity bias in our brains.  As Rick Hanson says in his book Hardwiring Happiness, “All mental activity—sights and sounds, thoughts and feelings, conscious and unconscious processes—is based on underlying neural activity. Much mental and therefore neural activity flows through the brain like ripples on a river, with no lasting effects on its channel. But intense, prolonged, or repeated mental/ neural activity—especially if it is conscious— will leave an enduring imprint in neural structure, like a surging current reshaping a riverbed. As they say in neuroscience: Neurons that fire together wire together. Mental states become neural traits. Day after day, your mind is building your brain.”  

We can use this powerful information in two directions- limiting the negative and cultivating the positive, both discussed below.             

 

Respectfully Set Boundaries With the Negative Mind

Negative thoughts come and go, just like positive thoughts.  Negative and positive experiences come and go, alike.  It has been said that our minds evolved to take special note of negative experiences, in order to protect us from future negative experiences.  For other species, and for our pre-homo sapiens ancestors, a “negative” experience would be something like encountering a predator and narrowly escaping alive, or experimenting with eating an unfamiliar plant and becoming violently ill.  

We no longer have close calls with such life-threatening experiences in the mainstream modern lifestyle, yet most of us still have the same strong internal reactions to common, but unpleasant experiences.  A supervisor at work gives us a less-than-glowing yearly review or a friend neglects to include us in group plans, and it can fill our minds as if it were a life-threatening encounter.  We might have anxiety around encountering the supervisor or the friend the next day, or we might ruminate over what imminent problems the event portends, such as being fired or being told your friends no longer find you interesting.  Nevermind that 80% of the work review was positive, or that the event you weren’t invited to was a musical jam and you’re not a musician… our minds have a way of running away with shreds of negative experience and drawing a picture much worse than it actually is.  

Along the same lines, we may find ourselves repeating difficult conversations / conflicts in our minds, practicing the statements we wished we had made in order to maintain our dignity / demonstrate the inferiority of the other party.  

When we step back from these thought patterns, we can see that they are useless.  In the vast majority of cases, it is useless to fret over whether something more drastic is coming down the line after we’ve had an unpleasant experience.  It is useless to repeatedly play back challenging interactions and to build up our own sense of superiority or righteous indignation.  In fact, it’s not only useless: it’s harmful!  If there is anything to be worried about in this area, it is our own negative thought process.  As Dr. Hanson says, the repeated thought patterns we follow develop and strengthen neural pathways- whether the thought patterns are damning, angry thoughts or are loving, joyful thoughts.  I would posit that the pathways we develop in our brains lead to not only further thoughts along the same lines, but further actions, and, hence experiences.  This is the degree to which I can get behind “The Secret”- type thinking.  Yes, our thoughts create our reality: they manipulate our physical brain and sway our future thoughts and actions.  The future starts with the thoughts you are thinking right now.  Is it going to be a limiting, afflicted reality… or an expansive, liberated reality?  The choice is ours!

Luckily, we are not the victims of our thoughts.  Maybe your thoughts are way more negative than you would prefer.  The most important thing is that you see this, and determine to work with your mind.  The only way to make change is with respect and compassion.  When you see the negativity, take note, pause, and gently embrace your fighting, negative mind.  You can journal or even say a silent mantra to yourself, “Everything is okay.”  “I don’t need to fight.”  “I’m here for myself,” “I love and respect myself.”  Just like a meditation practice, you can decide to drop the negative line of thinking and pick up a positive line of thinking.  For example, dropping the argument re-hash and deciding to pay attention to the beautiful flowers on the path you are walking.  Or thinking about someone you love and appreciate.  You may have to re-direct your mind a dozen times in as many minutes, but this boundary-setting around negative thought processes is making a difference.  You are employing your pre-frontal cortex in the enterprise of minimizing negative thought-pathways in your brain stemming from the amygdala.  Your brain has its reasons for being focused on the negative, yet you have the ability to guide it towards patterns that serve you best.

 

Cultivate the Positive

Going a step further, you can choose to turn your attention towards the positive at any time.  

Flower Garden

We are responsible for growing the flowers of compassion and joy in our own hearts.

It can be a part of your meditation practice, it can be something you do once an hour with a bell chime you set up on your cell phone, it can be something you do, as mentioned above, in response to a negative thought-stream you’ve just found yourself following.  Here are just a small sample of countless potential practices to try:

A quick and calming practice is to contemplate a source of support you’ve known in your life- a person, a pet, an organization, a tree.  Allow your mind to rest on that source of support and how the feeling of being supported feels in your body.  Stay with that awareness for a full minute or two, relaxing into the soft feeling of being cared for.  

Another example is gratitude-listing.  Take 3 minutes to get out a pen and paper and write, stream-of-consciousness-style, everything that comes to mind for which you are grateful.  Some people do this every day.  I do it many mornings.

An alternative is to write down one thing for which you are grateful and the several (positive) ways you feel because of it.  For example, I am grateful for the internet because it allows me to feel more connected when others can see what I have written and respond to it.  The internet helps me feel abundant because it allows part of my livelihood to exist.  The internet helps me feel more efficient when I can use it quickly to find information as I’m making plans or writing.  The internet brings me a sense of being in community when I see that others around the world share my political and spiritual perspectives.   

The loving-kindness meditation practice is powerful, and also requires more time than the other practices just listed.  It is a heart-opening concentration practice of developing genuine goodwill for yourself and all others.  Here is a description of loving-kindness meditation by teacher Jack Kornfield, and a 40 minute talk / guided loving-kindness meditation by teacher Tara Brach.  One of the most powerful meditation retreats I have attended was a week-long silent retreat on the topic of loving-kindness.  Out of that came a commitment to practice in this way on one specific day of the week (at the least.)  I am grateful to have the regular opportunity to make a little more space in my heart.  Similar to forgiveness meditation, loving-kindness can be triggering when we bring to mind those who have presented challenges in our lives.  I believe this confrontation with our mental formations around challenging people is a direct line to freedom.  When we work with our minds, we can break ourselves free of hatred by growing forgiveness and free of judgement by growing compassion.

Another heart-opening (and more lengthy) practice I enjoy is sympathetic joy.  This is an excellent antidote to envy.  In the meditation, you contemplate the blessings and good fortune of others, and grow your sense of joy for them that things are going so well.  Here is an article describing the practice, by teacher Sharon Salzberg.  Here is also a 1-hour talk and guided meditation of the practice, by teacher Joseph Goldstein.          

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Awareness

Loving-kindness

Sympathetic Joy

Gratitude

Goodwill

Compassion

 

Share Your Experience
What have you learned about nurturing your own positive mental states?  Please share about it in the “comments” section.  The internet is a powerful resource for learning from others- make your experience count!