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… A Relative Has Estranged You

“My grandfather doesn’t approve of my marriage, and has cut me out of his life.  I can’t be someone I’m not… but I also feel incomplete without my grandfather in my life.”

 

Estrangement is a very painful- and often hidden- part of many families.  Sometimes, the estranger (the one deciding to end communication with another) is explicit in his or her intentions: “I don’t want to see or hear from you again.”  Other times, the estranger simply never responds to efforts at communicating from the estranged (the one being estranged) and doesn’t reach out to the estranged.  My assumption in writing this article is that if you are identifying as an estranged person, you have tried to communicate with the estranger, and they have either not responded to your several attempts via different avenues (telephone, email, letter, stopping by) or they have explicitly said they do not wish to be in communication with you.  At this juncture, it is safe to say that you have made all the reasonable effort you can make, and that a return to communication will have to happen through future efforts of the estranger.  

When you become estranged, rejection, loss, grief, shame, unworthiness, and a host of other debilitating feelings may come to the fore.  To be estranged- especially by a relative- is one of the most triggering of the human experiences.  A family is oftentimes a symbol of security, love, and acceptance- and yet, here, you are experiencing instability, indifference, and rejection.  The most important thing for you to know is that the estrangement is often not about who you actually are.  In fact, estrangement is most often indicative of the social and emotional intelligence of the estranger.  Many people- when they have a disagreement with someone- are able to initiate a dialogue about the conflict and come to a place of healing and relationship preservation.  Not so, with the estranger.  Barring a hard “no-contact” boundary on account of abusive history perpetrated by the estranged, the estranger is often incapable of maintaining healthy relationships with people whom they find challenging- and sees no reason to develop this capacity.     

Some people deeply value family and family connections, and others don’t.  This can be one way that estrangement happens: if a relative does something you don’t like and you don’t value family, it might be easy to decide you never want to see that person- or his or her children- again.  On the other hand, some people deeply value family and family connections- so much so, that they have developed an enmeshed experience in their families, where identities blur and the choice of a relative is seen to reflect either poorly or positively on oneself.  In this case, it may be very painful to estrange a relative who has made a choice you wouldn’t make for yourself- and yet you might value your “pride” or “honor” over keeping the relationship intact.  

I put the words “pride” and “honor” in quotations because they are smokescreens hiding something not so positive in the shadow aspects of the estranger’s consciousness.  Much estrangement comes from the estranger judging something about the estranged and “disowning,” or cutting that person out of the estranger’s life- and sometimes, out of a whole nuclear family or branch of the extended family.  The example quoted at the beginning of this article is an example of such a case.  When the estranger is judging the estranged, it is very often coming from self-hatred, via the psychological process of projection.  The estranger sees something in the estranged that the estranger has been rejecting in him or herself, pushing consciousness of these traits or tendencies down so as not to think about them- though they often do manifest, anyway- simply in ways the estranger is not willing to see or address.  A dramatic example of this is the phenomenon of right-wing, openly homophobic politicians who are found to be soliciting gay sex in public bathrooms.  These politicians are projecting their fear and hatred of their own homosexuality onto others, actively oppressing an entire group of people.  At the same time, they are engaging in the action they say and believe that they hate- albeit surreptitiously and anonymously (until they are arrested, publicly shamed, and their political careers are ruined!)  While projection doesn’t often have such a dramatic consequence, the consequence of families being broken apart on account of someone’s unchecked projection is a major disturbance in the fabric of the family and in the emotional well-being of all family members involved.     

If you have been estranged by a relative or a branch of the family, the pain is real.  You may not be able to reunite your family, but there are several things you can do to take care of yourself.

           

Cultivate Your Compassion

The very first thing we need to do when we’re in pain is to acknowledge the pain and to be gentle with ourselves.  If someone asks about the relative who has estranged you, it’s okay to say you haven’t heard from that person and that it’s something you’d rather not discuss.  Take time to journal if that helps you.  This is also a great time to seek the company of friends and other relatives who will be able to support you as you navigate the waters of estrangement.  The care of a psychotherapist is a powerful tool on which to call, especially at a time like this.  In your work with a therapist you may be able to uncover your personal emotional and cognitive symptoms resulting from the estrangement and develop coping strategies for them.  You may also be able to address the healing possibilities described in the next two sections, Heal Your Relationship, and Fill Your Life With Loving People.     

Further, when we consider the deep suffering that the person who has estranged us must be experiencing, it is a little bit less painful to be estranged.  When we see that this rift is on account of someone else’s suffering and that it is out of our hands, we are able to let it go.  Take some time to consider the magnitude of confusion and pain that the estranged must endure every day to be able to cut a part of themselves off- like cutting off a hand, or a leg.  When you envision this suffering, you may begin to realize that your own suffering is not even the half of it.       

 

Heal Your Relationship

While the estranger has made it clear that they no longer wish for a relationship with you, you still have the capacity to heal your relationship- or the representation of that relationship- within yourself.  Two ways I suggest doing this are through prayer and forgiveness meditation.  Prayer means different things to different people, but in this case, it would involve sending up prayers for the estranger to find peace and healing.

Forgiveness meditation is a process where you allow your heart to rest on the ways you have hurt yourself and others, and the way others have hurt you- all out of confusion and pain- and to cultivate forgiveness towards yourself and others.  When you are able to see the pain and confusion out of which you and others have acted, you are more able to actually feel forgiveness.  People who are suffering cause others to suffer.  This meditation cuts through the illusion that the estranger is acting from a place of strength, pushing you down and hurting you.  Remember that to forgive does not mean to forget.  While forgiveness may allow you to not carry hatred any longer in your heart, you are still able to use discernment about whom you welcome into your life.  I have heard it said that forgiveness is “the abandonment of the desire for the other to suffer.”  Here is a text version of a forgiveness meditation, as well as a 10-minute video meditation, both by Jack Kornfield.      

 

Fill Your Life With Loving People

 

sparkler

The World is Filled With People Who Want To Be Near Your Light

The beauty of our highly populated and internet-connected world is that there are so many people to befriend.  What may seem like a loss of the estranger is actually an invitation to broaden your “family” to include new people.  Your tribe can be an international powerhouse of loving, supportive people- if you want it to be!  Unlike the distant days of small villages and only ever knowing the same 200 people your entire life, you can now build a family of choice.  Whether in your city or town, or with people you have met while traveling the globe- in person or virtually- you can find community.  Don’t let the grief of familial rejection hold you back from finding your tribe.  And don’t let that grief cause you to shutter your light.  Let your light shine, and find others who are sending out the same signal.  There is a community for everyone, and community is- from my personal and clinical perspective- the most important factor for mental health.  There is a tiny fraction of the human population that genuinely does not feel benefit from being in community- if you know you can benefit from building your social circle, reach out and find your people.

Even deeper than the general concept of community, we also all need people in our lives who fill certain roles.  There are numerous archetypes- or characters with specific traits and behaviors- that cross cultures and are found in all of our psyches, according to Carl Jung.  Examples could be the mother, the brother, the priest, the hermit, the father, the crone, the fool, the teacher, the judge, etc.  When we are able to embrace the elements of these archetypes within our own psyches, we are most whole.  It is also helpful and stimulating of growth to have people in our lives who play some of these roles for us.  In an intact family, you would have an actual mother who is nurturing and compassionate and patient and an actual father who is supportive and loving and encouraging.  However- whether through estrangement or not- some parents aren’t actually like this.  In that case, you can become friends with older women or men who treat you in these respectfully maternal or paternal ways.  I want to be clear that this is very different than the often-criticized “daddy issues” or “mommy issues” that some people have: a need to be taken care of by an older man or woman (often in a romantic relationship) on account of being rejected by one’s actual mother or father, or an angsty need to rebel against an older man or woman (such as a boss at work, landlord, or professor) on account of some unresolved anger towards one’s actual mother or father.  

Your tribe can be comprised of not only age-peers who have your same interests, but multi-generational kindred spirits who are role models and mentors for you, and for whom you are a role model and a mentor.  You don’t have to have any actual sisters or brothers to love people as if they are your own siblings.  Let this estrangement be an invitation for you to turn around and embrace others.  

 

Important skills you are strengthening:

Creating Community

Journaling

Compassion

Acceptance

Forgiveness

Prayer

Share Your Experience
If you have experience healing from estrangement, please share it in the “comments” section.  The internet is a powerful resource for learning from others- make your experience count!