The world’s problems may feel overwhelming, but we can nurture our caring spirit so we stay active in solving them.
Looking around today, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that our world is screwed. Of course, there’s a lot of beauty in the world, too; but the sheer magnitude of violence, greed, hatred, and straight-up stupidity can be overwhelming if we pay attention and care about what’s happening around us.
What’s more terrifying, though? When good-hearted people get overwhelmed by all of it, lose touch with their humanity, and stop caring.
The challenge of staying human in the middle of this comes down to how we respond to the suffering around us and in ourselves. If we despair and give up, that’s not helpful; on the other hand, it also doesn’t help if we allow self-righteousness to poison us with indignation. Whether we are hurting because of our own problems or from witnessing the pain of others, we have to learn how to take care of our compassionate natures, so we don’t get overwhelmed.
In my book, How to Stay Human in a F*cked-Up World, I write about how a meditation practice can help you to cultivate an open heart in the face of so much suffering. These teachings can be applied to a formal sitting meditation practice, or just used to develop new ways to relate to yourself. Here are some of the things I’ve found helpful—supported by science—that you can do yourself when the world becomes too much.
The part of life that’s beautiful
When everything around you seems f***ed up, it’s easy to think nothing good exists—or even if it did, it wouldn’t matter. However, if you only pay attention to what’s painful in your life, you will inevitably end up exhausted and overwhelmed. Since we tend to keep bad stuff in our minds more than good stuff, we need to actively seek out what’s beautiful in life to overcome this natural negativity bias.
One practice I offer in my book is to list all of the conditions for happiness that are present in your life right now—maybe things you take for granted, like having a warm bed or having a close friend. Every moment contains infinite causes for happiness and infinite causes for suffering. The condition of our minds depends on what we’re paying attention to. So, we train ourselves not to forget what’s beautiful.
The part of life that’s painful
Acknowledging what’s beautiful in the world doesn’t mean that we’re ignoring what’s painful.
Instead, we learn how to mindfully listen to pain with love and acceptance. We become aware that fear, anger, or grief is present inside of us. Then we can approach our pain with the attitude of “I see that you’re suffering. Everyone suffers sometimes, and you’re allowed to feel what you feel. I am here for you.” This acceptance can help us to manage our stress and have more energy to stay compassionate when faced with the problems of the world.
In my own life, there are many moments when I feel like avoiding my suffering. However, I’ve learned that my life can be much better if I do the exact opposite. Instead of running away, I bring a more focused attention to the unpleasant sensations in my body and tell myself, “Whatever you feel in this moment is completely OK.” Resistance may arise in me—I may tell myself that I don’t want to feel like this—but I just shift my attention and acceptance to that voice, saying to myself, “I know you want ease and safety, just like everyone else does. I’m here to listen and help.” This self-compassion soothes me and works much better than trying to transform my pain by ignoring it or berating myself for it.
When I say “like everyone else does,” it helps me to keep in mind our common humanity—particularly the fact that what we do is always motivated by the desire to avoid suffering and find wellness. If you’re angry about a social injustice, the deepest motivation for that anger is your wish to live in a peaceful and just world. If you lost your temper with your child and now feel ashamed, the deepest motivation in your shame is your wish to have the best possible relationship with your child. When we look at our thoughts, feelings, and actions under the light of that understanding, we can more easily forgive ourselves and others when we or they fall short.
Stay human, even when other people suck
Humans can be pretty terrible at getting along. Whether it’s two people who are in love but can’t stop hurting each other or thousands of people who are trying to build a social movement but can’t agree on anything, it seems like it shouldn’t be this hard. But it is.
When your interaction with someone is derailing, take a minute to consider whether you are criticizing or making a demand of them. Then, check in with yourself: What need is underneath this? What’s my deepest motivation? Maybe you’re yelling at your spouse because she’s late (again) from work and the dinner you made is getting cold. The hidden need might be that you don’t feel respected or appreciated for your efforts…and you’re hungry!
When you identify the hidden need, self-compassion becomes easier. In that moment, your practice can sound like, “I’m angry because I want to feel respected and appreciated, just like every other human being. That wish in me is beautiful, and it’s OK for me to feel it.” Breathing like this for a minute or so will usually defuse your frustration. In the light of seeing your own deeper needs, you’ll also feel more curious about the needs motivating the other person.
Applying the teachings of mindfulness and self-compassion to real-life challenges isn’t easy. My new book tells the story of how I’ve learned to deepen my practice through healing from a difficult childhood, engaging in political organizing, and losing my wife to cancer. I hope it can inspire you to deepen your practice, as well.
This article first appeared on The Greater Good, the online magazine of The Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley.