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What Can Help?
The pain of the war is often unbearable. Here are four mindfulness-based practices might help you cope a little better so that you can help others.
So many of us are hurting right now. Depending on our politics and communities, we may be primarily grieving over Israel, or Palestine, or both – but ironically, despite those differences, we’re united in feelings of pain, anguish, and rage. Funny, that.
And yet, as I wrote earlier this week, we haven’t had enough time to grieve, or even process the unspeakable tragedies that have just occurred and are still, at this moment, occurring. Already, the next phase of the tragedy is unfolding, as Israel’s military response has begun in earnest, prompting defenses from some quarters, outrage from others – and just a lot more pain all around. Once again, people may see the issues differently, but the pain and rage is remarkably similar.
What might help, in such a moment?
The question is eerily familiar for me. During the early days of Covid, I was working for Ten Percent Happier, which produces guided meditations and podcasts, and while obviously the circumstances were quite different, we faced the same question, as people struggled with fear, grief, confusion, and trauma. Well, if you’re feeling any of those now, this post is for you.
I want to emphasize that taking care of ourselves isn’t just about making ourselves feel better. It’s about making ourselves more available: to help, to protest, to soothe those who are suffering, to take care of our families and friends, even to agitate those who have the luxury of not paying attention. Sure, self-care can degenerate into narcissism and indulgence. But is that really a danger for you right now? Speaking for this particular rabbi-writer-journalist, I think it’s more like a life raft.
1. These things happen to the body – so tend to it
One of the most important lessons from research into trauma, anxiety, and grief is that these phenomena happen to the body as much as to the mind. Everyone knows that emotions have physical components: the pit in the stomach, the racing of the heart, the quickening of the breath. Yet often, we still try to think ourselves out of these difficult feelings, which doesn’t work.
In times of extreme anxiety, rage, or pain, it’s often useful to skip over the ‘reasons’ we feel as we do, and focus on the body instead.
For example, if you’re feeling paralyzed by fear, try calming techniques like “box breathing,” which I teach in this video. If you’re agitated or angry, do simple things, like eating, exercising and sleeping as normally as possible, even if you don’t feel like it. (Note: I often fail at this.) Periodically notice where the body is tensed up, and relax out of that. (At just this moment, I noticed I’ve been tensing my jaw and grinding my teeth. Is this helping anyone? No.) Do this often enough and it becomes almost automatic. As Bessel van der Kolk famously wrote of trauma, the body keeps the score; I suggest focusing your attention there.
2. Use mindfulness to cut down on the bad stuff
Mindfulness is the capacity to be aware of what’s happening in our present-moment experience, including our thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. It is the essence of most meditation I teach, and it’s an invaluable ally in times like these.
For example, we all know doomscrolling is unhelpful – it plunges us into more despair, it incapacitates us, it hurts. On Sunday, I did a lot of it, and actually, that felt alright; it felt okay to be devastated, hopeless, and helpless.
Now, though, I don’t want to do that anymore. So I notice the urge to check the news or social media, and sometimes, thanks to mindfulness, I catch myself. If I’m already on social media, I try to notice when I’ve gotten lost and get a moment of awareness of what’s going on. I don’t have to repress anything – I just have to recognize what’s going on, and not indulge the urge that I know is not in my best interests. If I’m aware that I’m at risk of self-destructive behavior, I can set an intention to be mindful of the urge to indulge as soon as it arises – and then just hold it, say no thanks, and move on..
The same is true with harmful speech. Of course, some dialogue, even some argument, may be appropriate in a time like this, when people’s lives are at stake. But if I’m being honest with myself, I know that a lot of the crap I say and want to say – especially online – is not helping anybody. It’s just blowing off steam and causing more conflict in the process. So, with a little mindfulness, I can notice that the physical sensations of anger (heat, tension, heart rate) are present, and that’s a clue that maybe I shouldn’t post that angry note. If I succeed at this half the time, I give myself a little gold star.
And the same is even true with regulating our news intake. Believe me, you do not need to follow every horrifying event of this horrifying disaster. If you’re reading this, I suspect you are already over-informed. You definitely should not watch the explicit videos. So, before checking the news, do a quick mindful check-in: see how you’re feeling right now, in the body and mind. Will refreshing your news feed actually make you feel better? Or will it just scratch an itch until the wound is reopened, raw, and bleeding again?
Mindfulness is also an ally in noticing when I’m running the same thoughts and anxieties over and over again in my mind. At such times, I might make a gentle mental note, as simple as the word “alright, there’s the anxiety,” so that I can, maybe let go of doing so. Or at least be more aware.
3. You are not alone, so don’t act like it
Primates, when they’re hurting, crave support and companionship. You are one of them. Consider reaching out to a friend, and asking how they’re doing. Or reach out and ask for support if you need it. This isn’t an invitation to debate the nature of Zionism – it’s an offer of support. Maybe that support can come in a group setting, or if you’re an introvert like me, maybe just one to one. But gently push yourself a little. Get over that inertia and fear. Listen more. Connect.
Remember, our pain, even our rage, ultimately comes from love, from a profound concern about the tragedies unfolding before us. Getting in touch with that reality can help us connect with one another in a more authentic way.
4. Don’t feel guilty about being a mess
I can’t emphasize this enough. It is, in my professional and rabbinic opinion, completely justified and understandable if you are a huge mess. I sure am. I can’t get my work done, I’m exhausted, I’m drained, and I’m angry. I am not anywhere near my best self right now.
Now, are some people suffering more than I am? Obviously yes. Some people have suffered the worst losses imaginable. But I’m not helping them by shaming myself for having a hard time, or pretending that I’m not. On the contrary, if I want to help others, I need to be resilient – more resilient than I am right now, in fact. I really believe this – I’ve seen it firsthand in my LGBTQ activist work, and I saw it in Covid. Put your oxygen mask on first, before helping others.
If we have the clear intention of being more available for people who really need us – whether people in our lives, or people who we don’t know but who we want to stand up for because our values demand it – self-care isn’t selfish. Obviously, I don’t mean taking a decadent vacation or blissfully ignoring what’s happening. I mean little things, like cultivating some self-compassion, because it is hard to hurt this much and it’s helpful to hold those feelings with compassion rather than judgment. I mean things like taking a walk, taking a break from the news and chatter, giving yourself a rest, changing the subject. Again, if you’re reading this, I doubt you’re going to stay away for long. Don’t feel guilty about taking a break, if you can. Which, I know, many people cannot. That is the point.
Will any of these practices help alleviate the suffering that Israelis and Palestinians are experiencing right now? Not directly, no. But indirectly, I think it can. First, as I’ve said, taking care of ourselves helps us be more available for others, whether in our community or across the globe.
But more importantly, tending to ourselves keeps us tender, open, and human. The greatest risk in this conflict is forgetting the humanity of the other, of failing to remember that ‘they’ feel as I feel. This isn’t about equating this action to that one, or contextualizing or failing to contextualize, or arguing for one policy or another. This is about remembering that, whatever policies or actions or struggles we may support, the pain of a parent whose child has been killed is excruciating, no matter where that parent lives.
I don’t want to ever numb myself to that reality, no matter how much it hurts to experience it. But I can’t feel compassion if I’m shut down.
And while I admit to not having much hope right now, the human capacity for compassion is about the only thing that inspires it.
Hey there - I’ve really appreciated the support I’ve received from readers this week in the form of comments, notes, subscriptions, and direct messages. Thank you sincerely.
There are a few other things going on right now that I wanted to let you know about. Starting October 17, I’m teaching a six-week course on Buddhism for Jewish mindfulness practitioners - obviously we’re reconfiguring that to fit our current reality and I hope it’ll be nourishing for people. On October 19, I’m giving a talk in Berkeley on psychedelics and Judaism. And on October 20 and 21, I’ll be the scholar in residence at Congregation Beth Am, near Palo Alto, where I’ll be talking about building resilience in times like these, as well as about different Jewish perspectives on the ethics of conflict.
These are extraordinarily difficult times for many of us. Please take care of yourselves and those around you who are hurting.
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