Nine practices for times when world events overwhelm us and we feel defeated.
August 2016: Rediscovering this article in our archives, we were surprised to realize how timely it is two years after it was written. The details keep changing, but as much as ever, we need help to face traumas around the globe.
August 2014. We came upon a sculpture by Sir Jacob Epstein titled “Elemental Figure” (picture on the right) which spoke to our feelings of fear, grief, and loss after Israel’s assault on Gaza has left thousands homeless and injured, ISIS is threatening the genocide of communities in Iraq and the United States in response is conducting a bombing campaign, the Ebola plague is spreading, thousands of children fleeing desperate situations at home are being denied sanctuary in our country, and global warming continues to wreak havoc on the natural world.
We feel like this primitive fellow hunched up in a ball to protect himself from the onslaught of events and forces. His frozen hands clasp his ankles and his head is tilted in surrender. Today we see ourselves as this anxious and defeated human being.
We also identify with the speaker in this poem by Nobel Prize-winning poet Pablo Neruda:
This time is difficult. Wait for me.
We will live it out vividly.
Give me your small hand:
we will rise and suffer,
we will feel, we will fly.
We are once more the pair
who lived in barbed places,
in harsh nests in the rock.
This time is difficult. Wait for me
with a basket, with your clothes,
with your shoes and a shovel.
Now we need each other,
not only for carnations’ sake,
not only to harvest honey –
we need our hands
to wash with, to make fire.
So in this difficult time
let us face up to infinity
with four hands and four eyes.
(translated by Alastair Reid)
How do we respond to difficult times? We turn to our spiritual practices. Here are some of our tried-and-true ones.
Nourish Your Positive Emotions with a Breathing Exercise
1. Breathing in, I experience calm in me. Breathing out, I smile to the calm in me.
2. Breathing in, I experience joy in me. Breathing out, I smile to the joy in me.
3. Breathing in, I experience equanimity in me. Breathing out, I smile to the equanimity in me.
4. Breathing in, I experience openness in me. Breathing out, I smile to the openness in me.
5. Breathing in, I experience happiness in me. Breathing out, I smile to the happiness in me.
— Thich Nhat Hanh in Creating True Peace
Give Thanks for Your Body
While [remaining] in a comfortable position, gather your thoughts and feelings into a prayer. Give thanks for your body, for one particular organ and its ceaseless working. Become mindful of those in the healing professions who help persons who have an illness that affects this particular organ. Pray for those who are ill and those who care for them.
Finally, allow yourself to become aware of the deep connections of the human family, for we are very much alike in the structure and arrangement of our physical selves. Let this connection enter your awareness; pray for the whole human family.
— Mary C. Earle in Broken Body, Healing Spirit
Taste and See That Life is Good
The Bible says, “Taste and see that life is good.” This statement stands up to fear and laughs in its face. It is a refutation of fear. It is a statement of truth. For those who live in fear, life does not taste good. But when fear dissolves, the sweetness and nourishment of life are restored.
When someone gives you a dire message, when your catastrophic expectations start to grow, immediately replace them with this statement of truth. Say to yourself, Taste and see that life is good. Focus on that. Dwell on it deeply. When the fear has passed, you can look at whatever piece of news you were given with calmer, clearer, and wiser eyes. And if there is something that needs to be done, your innate knowingness will reveal it to you.
— Brenda Shoshanna in Fearless
Watch a Night of Television
Here’s a challenge for you: Watch a night of television and notice what seeds are planted inside you by what you see and hear. Notice what gets stimulated in your imagination. Think about the /uploads/features/images you are being fed and their potential effects on your life.
— Sandra Ingerman in Medicine for the Earth
Everything that happens to us, is us. There are so many times when we want to deny this, to blame others, to pretend it never happened, to distance ourselves from the ugliness we may have been part of. There are other times when we cannot accept our success. We downplay our goodness, we slough off our accomplishments, we fail to take credit when it is due, we do not allow others to be grateful for what we have done. Both negative and the positive, as well as all the moments in between — that is our life. And in order for us to be wholly and truly ourselves, we will need to take responsibility for it all.
Think about the things you have done this year for which you have yet to claim credit. Write out a claim check for each one, and when you are ready, go and “pick them up.”
— Terry Bookman in The Busy Soul
A Day Without the News
Go through the entire day without watching or listening to the news or reading the newspaper. Try your best to shut out the outside world, and concentrate on your own world instead. If someone you encounter wants to talk about current events or the political scene, politely inform him or her that you’re taking a short break from things over which you have little control and are focusing on things you can command.
Following the news day after day can induce a feeling of depression and helplessness. Taking a respite from the constant negativity of the world scene can be rejuvenating.
Fill up the time you normally devote to following the news by doing anything else you love to do — talk to a friend, read, listen to music, go for a walk, visit your favorite restaurant — and make sure you take note at the end of the day if you feel different from the way you normally feel.
— Alan Epstein in How To Be Happier Day by Day
Hum, Croon, or Sing
Do you whistle while you work? If not, then start doing so. Hum, croon, or sing if you prefer. There is no better seed for happiness than making music. If you feel down, express a sad song. It will pick up your emotions and carry you somewhere. Feeling happy? Then put on a happy face and sing about it.
Get yourself a new address book. It doesn’t matter what size it is. Fill the book with as many names of songs that you know. Every time you hear a new song that you like, add its name. Carry this address book with you. Whenever you catch yourself stuck in a feeling that needs to change, get out your address book and dial a song. Sing it to yourself. Know the Bushmen’s secret that passionately singing a song can build a road if you sing it with all your heart and soul. Each song leads to an address, and at the end of its road is a place of transformation, unique and perfect for the situation in which you sing it.
— Bradford Keeney in The Bushman Way of Tracking God
Take the Day Off
Every one or two months,
Take a day where you do absolutely nothing,
Just as you would do if you had the flu,
But do it when you’re not sick.
Switch off the phones; shut down the computer.
If necessary, stay in bed all day.
Do as little as possible.
Just lie still and give the body and the psyche a chance for deep healing.
If you’re married, if you live with your family or friends,
You could even alternate stillness days:
One of you could completely take care of the other, including meals in bed, then switch.
If possible, refrain from watching television or other distractions.
Just lie still and give all of yourself,
Including your senses,
Twenty-four hours of undiluted rest.
— Arjuna Ardagh in Leap Before You Look
We may feel powerless in the face of the large and small hostilities lacerating our planet, but we are not. Peace, both individual and global, begins with us. When we embrace a spiritual path that brings tranquility to our hearts and minds, we are taking the first step toward bringing peace to the world. Inner calmness will create gentle speech and moral actions, and we will replace self-absorption and ill will with a genuine caring for others. As we bring these qualities to communications with our families and friends, people we work with, and those in public life who serve us, we radiate peace out into the world.
May my commitment
to not harming others
through my thoughts, words,
inspire me to work
to bring peace to all beings
with whom I share this world.
— Jean Smith in Now! The Art of Being Truly Present