Beyond Coronavirus

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It goes without saying that these are difficult times, and a lot of people are suffering.  It’s important to keep that in mind, and for each of us to do our best to help in whatever ways we can.  It’s also important to keep in mind that this interruption in business-as-usual offers possibilities for imagining a different, and perhaps ultimately better, future.  How might each of us contribute to that?

From futurist Matthias Horx, via Insight meditation teacher Jill Shepherd:

The world as we know it is dissolving. But behind it comes a new world, the formation of which we can at least imagine…

A massive loss of control suddenly turns into a veritable intoxication of the positive. After a period of bewilderment and fear, an inner strength arises. The world “ends”, but in the experience that we are still there, a kind of being new arises inside.

In the middle of civilization’s shutdown, we run through forests or parks, or across almost empty spaces. But this is not an apocalypse, but a new beginning.

This is how it turns out: Change begins as a changed pattern of expectations, perceptions and world connections. Sometimes it is precisely the break with the routines, the familiar, that releases our sense of the future again. The idea and certainty that everything could be completely different – and even better.

 

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The Optimism of Uncertainty

distressflagwhEvery January for the past several years I’ve joined activists in front of the White House to protest the indefinite detention of 40 Muslim men at the Guantanamo Bay detention center.  This year, January 11 marked the 18th anniversary of the prison’s opening.

I took the train to Washington in January with a mixture of anxiety and dread.  Anxiety that no one would show up, because who even remembers that the Guantanamo prison is still open?  Dread because this would be yet another year where, regardless of how many people did make the effort to travel to the White House to protest, the protests would be falling on deaf ears: Donald Trump, whose support is needed to close the prison, couldn’t care less.

Still, there was something beautiful in the annual ritual.  This year I had a filmmaker and cameraman with me, and the short film they created captures that.  It shows ordinary Americans of all ages traveling from across the country to Washington, DC. Many of them fast for several days before the event, in solidarity with the men who’ve undertaken hunger strikes in the prison. They gather and sleep on the floor of a local church until the day of the anniversary, when they put on orange jumpsuits and black hoods to represent the plight of the 40 men still indefinitely detained, most without charge or trial, in the US military prison in Cuba.

This year, we marched from the White House to the Trump International Hotel.

“I don’t think there’s any futility in that,” Reverend Ron Stief, director of the National Religious Campaign against Torture, told us. “Human rights is a long game… We owe it to the detainees who remain there never to stop.”

The president may not have been listening, but the protesters were connecting with each other, while calling the attention of passersby who knew nothing at all about their cause.

“What is Guantanamo?” a young woman who’d recently come to the US from Argentina asked me as I stood among the crowd at the rally, listening to the various speakers. She’d been drawn to the protest while walking through Lafayette Park that sunny Saturday afternoon.  I explained what it was; she stayed to listen longer.

Most activists are exhausted these days, and our actions can easily feel futile.  But it’s helpful to remember we’re all playing a long game, and that there’s beauty, even joy, in just showing up for it:  to support one another, to raise our voices together, and to call everyone’s attention to something larger than ourselves.

In his essay, “The Optimism of Uncertainty,” the historian Howard Zinn wrote:

Revolutionary change does not come as one cataclysmic moment (beware of such moments!) but as an endless succession of surprises, moving zigzag toward a more decent society. We don’t have to engage in grand, heroic actions to participate in the process of change. Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world. Even when we don’t “win,” there is fun and fulfillment in the fact that we have been involved, with other good people, in something worthwhile. We need hope.

An optimist isn’t necessarily a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places–and there are so many–where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory.

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Self-Compassion It

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I was in a meeting at the Pentagon recently, seated at a table surrounded by uniformed military officers and dark-suited government officials. The meeting was tense, with the officials all insisting the Defense Department was doing the right thing and I and my colleagues from other human rights organizations pointing to our evidence that in many situations, it had not. We didn’t seem to be making any progress.

At some point I glanced down at my wrist and realized I was wearing a red rubber bracelet that said in prominent white letters: “Self-Compassion It.”  I’d been given the bracelet upon completing an eight-week training course in “Mindful Self-Compassion,” and had been wearing it as a reminder to use the tools I’d learned.

Nothing wrong with that, right? Still, in this buttoned-up professional setting, I was instantly embarrassed. I sheepishly tucked my hand under the table, slid the bracelet off and stuffed it into my handbag. The idea that I would be seen considering “self-compassion” in a meeting of senior warriors seemed absurd.

The idea of mindful self-compassion can sound silly, trivial and self-involved. But it’s actually anything but.  As Kristin Neff and Chris Germer, the psychologists who created the Mindful Self-Compassion course explain, self-compassion has been scientifically proven to be critical to well-being.

Unlike self-esteem, self-compassion isn’t based on pumping yourself up to believe you’re better than anyone else.  That keeps you in a judging mindset, so as soon as you screw up, you feel worthless again.  Self-compassion is instead having compassion for yourself — not for your accomplishments, but simply because you’re a human being, flawed like everyone else, and deserving of compassion nonetheless.  Once you acknowledge that you don’t have to be perfect to deserve compassion, you naturally start feeling compassion for the other less-than-perfect people around you. In other words, it’s helpful not only for yourself, but for everyone you encounter.

Neff’s book, Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself, explains this all very well.  But most convincing to me was Neff’s story of how she’s applied it in her own life.

As a small child, her son was diagnosed with autism. She felt a huge range of emotions — including disappointment, sadness, grief and fear.  She had recently learned self-compassion techniques on a week-long mindfulness retreat. She describes how flooding herself with self-compassion allowed her to feel her full range of emotions — including the shame she felt at some of her reactions.  Only by accepting those emotions with compassion rather than judgment could she fully experience them, to the point where she could accept and then acknowledge that she was strong enough to handle the situation. Not that it was easy, but it gave her a critical tool to deal with the challenges.

After that, when her son would start acting out — screaming and flailing in public,  for example, as some autistic children do —  she would comfort herself for her feelings of confusion, shame, stress and helplessness. That calmed her enough so she could respond wisely and compassionately to her son, instead of lashing out in anger or wallowing in self-pity.

Neff’s experience illustrates why self-compassion is so valuable.  It allows us to face our situation, whatever it is, with compassion instead of judgment. That allows us to look at the situation more honestly and thoughtfully, and to choose more carefully how we want to respond.

If I’ve made a mistake, for example, instead of immediately criticizing myself as “stupid”, I can forgive myself for not being perfect, acknowledge the mistake, and look more closely to see what happened and what I’d want to do differently next time. Giving myself compassion instead of criticism allows me to move forward. On the other hand, if I immediately beat myself up and feel worthless, I’m going to try to hide from or forget the situation immediately and avoid looking at what I did at all.  And I’m more likely to repeat the same mistake again.

The feeling of compassion, much like the feeling of love, has positive physical effects on our bodies, too. Scientists have shown it increases oxytocin, which has a calming effect on our nervous systems; it improves vagal tone, which helps the body reduce inflammation; it improves relationships, which has an anti-ageing effect, and, well, it just feels good.

The feeling of judgment or self-hatred, on the other hand, creates anxiety, which has a decidedly negative impact.  Chronic self-doubt and anxiety harm the heart, immune and gastrointestinal systems. Plus they just make us feel lousy.

Compassion “involves the recognition and clear seeing of suffering,” writes Neff. “It also involves feelings of kindness for people who are suffering, so that the desire to help – to ameliorate suffering – emerges. Finally, compassion involves recognizing our shared human condition, flawed and fragile as it is.”

Self-compassion thus places us in the sea of common humanity and allows us to extend the same compassion to ourselves we would instinctively offer to a good friend, a small child, or favorite pet.  It allows us to acknowledge what’s happening, including our suffering, with kindness rather than with judgment.  For those of us who’ve allowed ourselves to be ruled by self-judgment, that’s a huge relief.

“Self-compassion provides an island of calm, a refuge from the stormy seas of endless positive and negative self-judgment, so that we can finally stop asking, “Am I as good as they are? Am I good enough?” writes Neff.

It’s hard to be a human being in a difficult world. Our social and professional settings can make us feel like we constantly have to prove ourselves, to measure up, to justify our worth. As obvious as it sounds, no one’s perfect: we all make mistakes, even if we’re trying our best, usually in less-than-ideal circumstances. The simple response of kindness – both for ourselves and for others – can go a long way.

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Some Helpful (& free) Resources

I haven’t had a chance to write much lately, but I do want to share some great online resources I’ve found useful in recent months.

When the madness of the world, the onslaught of bad news, or just the cold and dark of winter get you down, consider these two “positive psychology” podcasts as an antidote:

The Uplift podcast features interviews with a range of scientists, authors, activists and teachers who offer insight and tips on positive living and thinking. Although they seem to have stopped creating new episodes, the ones from 2017-2018 are still online and worth checking out.

The One You Feed is another podcast I really like, and it’s still producing new material. Host Eric Zimmer interviews researchers, writers and thinkers who’ve found ways to feed the so-called “good wolf” inside of us — the one that’s characterized by kindness, bravery and love, as opposed to the “bad wolf” characterized by greed, hatred and fear. According to the old parable this podcast is based on, we all have both those wolves inside us constantly battling it out. The one that wins, the story goes, is the one you feed. The podcast is free; a monthly subscription fee gets you commercial-free episodes and other bonus content.

For those interested in meditation and/or Buddhist philosophy, Dharma Seed offers thousands of free talks online on a range of topics, most from meditation teachers connected to the secular Insight Meditation Society.  Many of these are not only about personal practices that can help bring calm and wisdom, but also about key principles that can help guide our engagement with the world. Some of my favorites are from teachers like Donald Rothberg and Zohar Lavie, , who focus on service to others and the world — what’s often called “engaged Buddhism.” But there are so many great ones, it’s worth scrolling through recent titles and just seeing what interests you.

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Checking In

I direct a program for a human rights organization, and while there are plenty of good and worthwhile things about the work, there’s also a lot of bureaucracy.

I don’t just have to do my job, but I have to report what I’m doing and what I’ve got to show for it. There are the weekly check-ins, the quarterly board reports, the accounting for my budget, etc.

I understand that an organization needs to keep track of what its employees are doing and their results, but it takes time, effort, and thought. It’s a commitment.

The problem may not be so much that I’ve had to keep checking in to others, but that I haven’t made an equal commitment to checking in with myself. I’ve gotten so focused on meeting other peoples’ expectations that I’ve forgotten to regularly consider and pursue some of my interests, goals and intentions. I’ve let things that are important to me – both people and activities – fall away. Feeling overwhelmed by responsibilities, I’ve come to see many things I enjoy as what I’ll do when I retire and have more time.

Well, for better or worse, I’m not retiring anytime soon. But human rights advocacy  isn’t the only thing I care about, and it’s not something I can do all the time.

Recently, I was speaking to a group of interns seeking career advice on working in human rights and social justice. One of them asked how I keep doing this without getting so discouraged or depressed by it that I give up. She described how even over the course of her summer internship, she was finding it difficult to read all the e-mails that fill her office inbox daily with stories of human rights abuses around the world. And she wondered if she’d have the stamina to work for years being bombarded by all that bad news.

“How do you do it?” she asked.

“I don’t read those e-mails,” I answered.

I don’t have to. I’m not responsible for knowing every bad thing going on everywhere all the time. And if I did read them all, I’d be too depressed, outraged or traumatized to actually do my job. Even keeping up with the catalog of horrors I’m responsible for responding to can be mentally and emotionally exhausting. I have to put limits on it. All advocates do.

That’s why check-ins with yourself are so important. Are you nurturing the different facets of your life – physical, intellectual, creative, emotional, and inter-personal? Are you engaging in activities and interacting with people that bring you joy?

Reflecting on the past year, I’ve let a lot of those things slip in my own life. I’m not doing many of the things I used to enjoy or spending enough time with people who are important to me.

So I need to recalibrate, to recommit to those areas of my life and make time for them, even if it means I spend a few hours less working each week. I know that if I do nurture other aspects of my life, the time I spend at work will also be more productive. (Tony Schwartz, founder  and CEO of The Energy Project, has written a lot about this.)

As summer comes to a close, this a good time to consider, where is your life out of balance? And what new commitments do you want to make?

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Do It Anyway

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I finally quit my job. I’d been thinking about it for years, and I always thought that when I finally did it, I’d be relishing the act:  telling my boss and coworkers with a big toothy smile, posting it on Facebook with lots of happy exclamation points.

Instead, when it came time to actually make a move, I felt sick to my stomach.  I don’t mean just butterflies, I mean it felt like big fat rodents were wrestling in there. Which made me wonder: Was I doing the right thing?  People often say “trust your gut,” but what if your gut feels like it’s gnawing at itself?

In my case, I had a good job offer, so it wasn’t like I was being rash and taking some huge financial risk. I was actually going to be earning more money.  But I still felt sick over the change.

Feeling anxious in itself is no reason not to do something.  Your gut isn’t always going to feel good, and any big move can provoke anxiety.  There’s nothing wrong with that. When I finally realized that, I actually just let myself feel sick. I even shared that fact with my boss when I told him I was leaving.  He was perfectly understanding.  It’s a difficult decision.

When I finally got all the awkward conversations with colleagues over with, I felt much better.  I now feel completely confident that I did the right thing, and I’m excited to be moving on to something new.  But it didn’t feel that way until after I’d done it.

Modern culture offers us so many ways to manage our anxiety that it’s easy to feel like there’s something wrong if despite all of that, we still feel anxious.  Do I just need to take another yoga class, or meditate, or go for a run? Do I need medication? Or am I just doing the wrong thing?

Anxiety is actually a perfectly normal response to uncertainty.  All those stress-management techniques aren’t actually designed to get rid of anxiety, but to help us manage it wisely.  Meditation or yoga won’t magically tell me what’s the best move to secure my unknown future, but it can help me slow down enough to become aware of what exactly I’m afraid of, what my options are, and what’s important for me to consider in order to make a wise decision. It still may feel really hard to act, because the outcome will always be, to some extent, uncertain.

Buddhists sometimes talk about the heart-mind as being the center of our being, rather than the mind alone. Ancient Egyptians also believed the heart was the source of the soul and of memory, emotions and personality.  The heart is something we still associate with our deepest emotions and values, like love, affection and friendship. To me, the heart-mind idea helps gets me out of my purely rational thinking, since my logical mind can sometimes rationalize all my options, and then I feel stuck. Connecting to what I deeply value seems to me an important way of guiding and grounding major decisions. All those stress management techniques are ways of slowing down our ping-ponging thoughts enough to allow us to make that connection.

That’s different than just “going with your gut,” because our stomach is a place where we tend to feel much of our anxiety. If you avoid anything that seems to disturb your gut, you could end up in a very tiny and constricted place.

Social science research conducted by University of Chicago economist Steven Levitt backs up the idea that we probably ought to be taking more risks that we tend to, and that people who say “yes” to new opportunities rather than “no” tend to be happier. “As a basic rule of thumb, I believe that people are too cautious when it comes to making a change,” Levitt says. As American Enterprise Institute president Arthur C. Brooks put it in a recent New York Times column: “Our sin tends to be timidity, not rashness.”

Of course, some people’s sin is rashness (witness our president threatening nuclear war on Twitter), and I’m certainly not advocating that. Weigh your options, consider the risks, and connect to what’s most important to you. You may still feel fear about your decision, and that’s okay. If your heart-mind is good with it, don’t let the churning in your gut keep you from taking the plunge.

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A Key to Change

120526826_617x416 One of the hardest things about change can be acknowledging the need to make it. And that’s often because we blame ourselves for the predicament we’re in, and for not having changed already.  The pain of that self-judgment can make it nearly impossible to look honestly at our behavior and how we might do things differently.

That’s why I really appreciated Richard Friedman’s article, What Cookies and Meth Have in Common. It’s all about how the combination of our environment and our brains set the perfect stage for addiction — and all sorts of other self-destructive behaviors. That we eat too many cookies or drink too much wine or lash out in anger under stress isn’t our fault, in a sense.  These sorts of habits are what our brains naturally do:  seek comfort or “reward” of some sort when under stress.  And since our society sanctions and even encourages all sorts of destructive habits, whether by companies selling “comfort food” or cocktails, or by leaders modeling rage-filled behavior, it’s not surprising our brains give in to those.  Once we start down that path, though, it can be harder and harder to stop.

That’s because, as Friedman explains, our brains produce dopamine, which conveys a sense of pleasure in response to immediate “rewards” like sex, food, money and drugs. But the more we have those rewards, the more the brain needs them to experience even a normal, healthy dose of pleasure.  Ordinary pleasures that don’t include the addictive substance become harder to appreciate.  Our brains literally lose their pleasure receptors.

Although we don’t normally think of anger as addictive in this way, it can be, because it can feel good in the moment and give us a fleeting illusion of power and control.

Whatever the behavior, it can become automatic, not because we’re morally flawed, but because our brains are operating according to an ingrained pattern. The key to breaking that pattern is first to become aware of it, and then to consciously create new, healthier alternative patterns of behavior that serve us better.

None of this is particularly new or surprising.  But I’m repeatedly struck by how difficult people find it even to acknowledge their own unhealthy patterns of behavior.  And I think it’s because we blame ourselves for them, and that’s extremely painful. Continuing the behavior allows us to avoid that pain.

What Friedman’s and other research shows is that none of this is our “fault” in any moral sense. A combination of stressful conditions in our environment and easy access to an immediate unhealthy “reward” can lead us quickly down the road to addiction.

Although some people are more genetically predisposed to certain kinds of addictions than others, and at this point there’s little we can do to change that, we can change our environments in critical ways that encourage us to make healthier choices.

Obvious stress reducers include exercise, meditation and yoga, for example. And we can consciously limit our access to addictive and unhealthy substances.

But one often-overlooked way of reducing the stress that sustains our unwanted behaviors is simply to recognize that the behavior itself is not a moral flaw or defect. We are not to blame. It’s simply a brain pattern. By recognizing and acknowledging it, and then paying careful attention to how we react to our environment and doing our best to create a healthier one, even our brain patterns become something we can change.

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