Anxiety

  • Mindfulness in the Face of Terrorism

     

    The news is filled with tragedy every day. Yet there was something different about what happened in Paris last week. It wasn’t that it was any worse than other atrocities or acts of terrorism; it was that it was so close to home. And, although it may feel like an uncomfortable truth, gunmen storming an office on an ordinary Wednesday morning is more personally frightening to us than the same happening to a school thousands of miles away.

    It doesn’t mean we don’t care about other parts of the world, it just means that our brains are wired to seek out threats, and danger so nearby will naturally affect us more deeply. The question is, how do we remain mindful in the face of such tragedy, and how do we keep our hearts open amid such strong emotions?

    Fear, Anger and Hate

    It may seem flippant to quote Yoda from Star Wars when writing about such a serious matter, however there is undeniable truth in what the scriptwriter wrote for the character: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

    Although we live in an unpredictable world, we’re pretty good at forgetting that we’re not in control. Most of our days pass by without incident, and so when we hear on the news that something terrible has happened we are shocked back into the reality that life can be precarious and unsafe.

    Many of us have probably wondered, “Are we next?” This is a scary prospect. For Londoners it’s also bound to bring up painful memories of the 07/07 bombings. These fears are then fuelled by sensationalist media coverage. If we’re not mindful, we can end up feeling paralysed by fear and despair.

    Our initial reaction to the attack on Charlie Hebdo may have been shock or sadness, yet if we’re honest with ourselves how many of us then became angry? With that anger comes all kinds of aggressive and defensive thoughts and feelings. This is normal fight-or-flight stuff. However, if left unchecked, these thoughts and feelings could rapidly turn into hatred.

    This is how racism and prejudice are born; when we allow normal emotional reactions about individuals to turn into beliefs about entire groups of people. This is why mindfulness is so crucial. If we mindlessly descend into hatred, this doesn’t just cause suffering within us; it also fuels division outside of us too. Approaching our feelings with acceptance, compassion and honesty helps us avoid getting lost in this destructive spiral.

     

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    Acceptance Doesn’t Have To Be Passive

    While acceptance of feelings and circumstances is important, this acceptance doesn't mean, as Tara Brach says, “to be a doormat”. It doesn't mean that we have to simply accept that bad things happen in the world and that we have no influence; that we need to accept the anger, fear or sadness that this brings up, add a little (self-)compassion into the mix, and that's it.

    If we feel passionate about injustice, acceptance is only the first step. The next step is to take action. Why? Because we can be accepting and still go to a demonstration such as the one in Paris and thus let the world know that we furiously condemn the killings of those journalists and want to stand united with others for peace. Mindfulness is not about simply sitting on a cushion, it can also give us the courage to get up from that cushion and engage with this world.

    Having Open Hearts, Even When it Hurts

    Even though it’s hard, we need to give ourselves permission to have an aching heart. The pain triggered by such tragedy can be overwhelming. We may lose faith in the goodness of humanity, or despair at the fact that we don’t live in a kinder world. It’s easy at times like this to become suspicious of each other, to want to disconnect. But we don’t like feeling these things, and so our instinct is to fight it. This just creates more suffering.

    The practice of mindfulness helps us to hold this range of emotions with gentleness. We realise we don’t have to push these thoughts away, because our compassionate heart is able to hold them lightly without turning them into truths about the world.

    Our fear and anger can be so strong as to make us forget the good things about people. Yet mindfulness helps us stay committed to the truth. The truth is that terrible things do happen, but so do good things. The existence of terrorism does not negate the fact that people also do wonderful things for each other every day.

    Ultimately, accepting the painful feelings which arise, and acknowledging that this pain is an experience we share with the whole of humanity can help stop divisive beliefs from taking hold. And making a conscious effort to remember the goodness in people will help us keep our hearts open.

     

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  • Stories Like These ...

    Depending on what we have experienced in our early childhoods, we hold certain beliefs about ourselves and the world and these ‘stories’ then become firmly established as we grow up. As an adult, we may, for example, hold the belief that bad things are going to happen to us, so (perhaps without realising) avoid tricky situations or anything that might present a risk.

    Or we may believe everybody will eventually abandon us or let us down, causing tensions in our relationships or even a tendency to avoid getting close to others. We all have such painful 'Achilles Heels' - our soft spots that can hold us back in life or even cause us suffering if we believe them to be true.

    A psychologist called Jeffrey Young of Columbia University has identified 18 themes - what he calls personal ‘schemas’ - that can help us recognise our sore points.

    While reading through them, you might try bringing a mindful awareness to the thoughts and physical sensations you experience when you come across ones that you identify with. Try not to judge yourself or beat yourself up, but just kindly observe any physical reactions you have to the thoughts.

    Abandonment / Instability: My close relationships will end because people are unstable and unpredictable.

    Mistrust / Abuse: I expect to get hurt or be taken advantage of by others.

    Emotional Deprivation: I can’t seem to get what I need from others, like understanding, support and attention.

    Defectiveness / Shame: I’m defective, bad, or inferior in some way that makes me unlovable.

    Social isolation / Alienation: I’m basically alone in this world and different from others.

    Dependence / Incompetence: I’m not capable of taking care of myself without help on simple tasks and decisions.

    Vulnerability to Harm / Illness: Danger is lurking around every corner, and I can’t prevent these things from happening.

    Enmeshment / Undeveloped Self: I feel empty and lost without guidance from others, especially from people like my parents.

    Failure: I’m fundamentally inadequate (stupid, inept) compared to my peers and will inevitably fail.

    Entitlement / Self-centeredness: I deserve whatever I can get, even if it bothers others.

    Insufficient Self-control /  Self-discipline: I have a hard time tolerating even small frustrations, which makes me act up or shut down.

    Subjugation: I tend to suppress my needs and emotions because of how others will react.

    Self-sacrifice: I’m very sensitive to others’ pain and tend to hide my own needs so that I’m not a bother.

    Approval-seeking / Recognition-seeking: Getting attention and admiration are often more important than what is truly satisfying to me.

    Negativity / Pessimism: I tend to focus on what will go wrong and mistakes I’ll probably make.

    Emotional Inhibition: I avoid showing feelings, good and bad, and I tend to take a more rational approach.

    Unrelenting Standards / Hypercriticalness: I’m a perfectionist, am focused on time and efficiency, and find it hard to slow down.

    Punitiveness: I tend to be angry and impatient, and I feel people should be punished for their mistakes.

    Once you’ve identified the two or three schemas that are most resonant for you, see if you can notice when they reveal themselves in your life. You might find noticing them easier if you have a think beforehand of how these schemas manifest for you - the kind of thoughts, emotions and behaviour they trigger.

    Then, when those schemas or beliefs appear, see if you can recognise them for what they are: simply stories swirling around our heads. And although these stories might at times feel very real and can bring us much suffering, they might not always be true.

    Do also remember that we all hold such beliefs and can therefore suffer at times. So don’t judge yourself for having them; instead, when they show up, be kind to yourself. By recognising the stories as simply stories and by holding them in a loving space, they will eventually loosen their grip.

     

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