Not only do we live in a living universe, but the living universe lives within us.
— Duane Elgin
Photo by Nine Köpfer on Unsplash
"In the ruin of heartbreak, you find the diamond of a divine passion that can resurrect the dead" ~Rumi
Do you sometimes feel despair when you consider the magnitude of the challenges currently facing the planetary community? If so, I'm actually relieved for you - it means that you have access to your feelings and are not completely shut down, and we need our feelings in order to fully engage awakened activism. Your despair gives me hope, it means you care deeply.
What if despair is actually a sign of mental and emotional health given our current circumstances?
I believe that every one of us with some capacity for empathy and with some awareness of the relentless degradation of all earth's living systems and the pervasive social injustices in so many of our industrialized cultures, would experience despair at least occasionally, if not daily.
As sacred activist and writer Andrew Harvey points out, when you are brave enough to let in the magnitude of what is happening on a global scale, "...the only sane, human, and useful reaction is heartbreak."
Why is despair useful?
Joanna Macy says it beautifully here:
The refusal to feel takes a heavy toll. Not only is there an impoverishment of our emotional and sensory life - flowers are dimmer and less fragrant, our loves less ecstatic - but this psychic numbing also impedes our capacity to process and respond to information.
What is despair? The online Cambridge English Dictionary defines it as "The feeling that there is no hope and that you can do nothing to improve a difficult or worrying situation."
This feeling of hopelessness and powerlessness, while healthy and appropriate, can be very uncomfortable and I don't want to minimize it in any way. The key is learning how to constructively engage your feelings of despair so you become liberated to respond to situations more effectively.
Four steps for working with despair from an awakened activism perspective:
3. Community & Support
STEP 1: ACKNOWLEDGE
Let's begin by acknowledging three basic truths:
First: it is just hard to be here, period. Yes, there are countless awesome and wonderful things about being alive, and, it is also challenging to be in a body that is vulnerable, has needs and limits, and is dying a little bit every day. It is intense being in a world that is so complex and beyond our control, with so many forces that are so much bigger than us. There's a way in which being in this imperfect world, in an imperfect and tender body, is just a really challenging deal... even in the best of times.
Second: we can acknowledge that it's especially challenging to be here right now at this particular moment in history, when so much is at stake and things seem to be heading toward multiple global crises. It can be really hard to know what to do, overwhelming even.
Third: we can acknowledge that there's nothing wrong with feeling despair! It's an indication we have a healthy dose of empathy and care for our planet and her inhabitants. Despair is normal when you feel "you can do nothing to improve a difficult or worrying situation."
Acknowledging these three things may not take the despair away, but it can provide an important kind of relief that comes when we stop fighting ourselves.
Only when we stop fighting or resisting despair can we begin to transform it.
STEP 2: INTEGRATE
From an awakened activism perspective, any uncomfortable experience is seen as a doorway to spiritual growth. Our feelings and reactions are intelligent and hold our evolutionary potential, and we gain this evolutionary potential - and learn to trust it - by consciously integrating rather than dismissing our feelings. Also, because we are awakening into our wholeness there is no need to exile any part of our experience, despair included!
Here is a suggestion for integrating despair. The key is to feel fully while at the same time compassionately witnessing your experience: Feel it, Be it, and See it.
Note: You won't "get rid of despair once and for all" by doing this process. Because of our capacity to love, there's a way in which heartbreak is just a natural condition of being in this wild world of matter because there will always be some form of suffering and loss. However, as we continue to integrate, despair gradually becomes less debilitating, our hearts widen to hold more and more life, and joy and trust become increasingly accessible.
STEP 3: COMMUNITY & SUPPORT
We don't need to do this alone! Nor can we...
It can be very helpful to find kindred souls with whom you can share your concerns, ideas, and mutual encouragement. You may want to check out spiritual groups with an interest in activism (e.g. my All Hearts on Deck subtle activism group), or gather some friends for a book group around activism topics, or find an online group that resonates with you. In addition, you may consider exposing yourself to stories of people who are taking action, such as YES magazine, or the Drawdown project. Being with others, and being inspired by others, can help us move into action.
Because the integration process can be challenging to do alone, skilled facilitation can be invaluable, e.g. working with a conscious therapist, counselor, or coach for focused one-on-one support.
If you really want to leverage activism as a spiritual path, then it would be helpful if your supporter is grounded in an awakened perspective and experience.
"...[A]lone you get overwhelmed, and it becomes traumatizing. But once people have tasted that they can, with each other, speak about what they see and feel is happening to our world, a number of things happen, in addition to the fact that they fall in love with each other. There is a trust and realization of, "Oh my god, I'm not alone."
STEP 4: ACTION
Paradoxically, taking some action, even a small one, may often us move out of the sunk place despair can hold us in.
I invite you to explore making a commitment to lean in and participate somehow, even if it seems inconsequential. Let yourself be surprised at what happens when you choose to act out of love anyway, despite what your mind thinks the odds of success are. Taking small actions can change our energy, start the ball rolling, and can give us a sense of meaning. Begin with your immediate sphere of influence, and explore the various aspects of your lifestyle - food, clothing, transportation, shelter, community, local ecosystem.
If you've already made a commitment and taken lots of action and still feel that you're not doing enough, you may need to go through the integration process a bit more, and focus on the "not enough" feeling. There's some deep and important work in the feeling of not enough that can be very liberating in the long run.
Sometimes despair sets up camp and there may be periods when you're just not able to do very much. When this happens, some self-forgiveness might be good medicine - we don't have as much control over our emotions as pop culture might have us believe, especially when the despair we're feeling has echoes in past trauma.
When you "hit bottom" you are given a choice: to give up, or to offer what you can. If you need some time in the dark waters of depression and cynicism, so be it. I've been there too, and will be again. Yet I invite you to keep choosing to take one small action for the good of other beings, and remember you're part of a much bigger evolutionary movement. Check out my Power of Small Steps blog post.
Activism as a Spiritual Path
Wednesday, May 16, 2018
5:30 - 7:00 pm
Olympia Timberland Library
Margit Bantowksy, MA, is an artist, coach, teacher and facilitator.