“The abused are trained to not talk about the abuse. It keeps the system in place. And when it becomes necessary, not talking about abuse is brutally enforced. We are living in the Panopticon. We police one another. Or we cower under our blankets.” – T. Thorn Coyle
As a therapist who works with mindfulness and is organizing a group called “Declutter Your Life!” I am someone implicated in Moore’s article, cited above, which is worthy of a read. With this article, and the recent events in the media, I feel the need to take a stand. I do not agree with everything Moore says, but I think she is speaks to real problem in the way we market and understand mindfulness work. In a religious context, meditation and mindfulness practice is not primarily about relaxation or feeling better, it’s a means of developing increased calm and focus to become more effective at doing the work the religion calls its adherents to do, which can include service to gods, service to humanity, and service to the Earth. In Western pop psychology, we took the technique out of its context and left a vacuum of purpose.
Rushton, Kaszniak, and Halifax cite a definition of moral distress as ‘‘the pain or anguish affecting the mind, body or relationships in response to a situation in which the person is aware of a moral problem, acknowledges moral responsibility, and makes a moral judgment about the correct action; yet, as a result of real or perceived constraints,
participates in perceived moral wrongdoing.’’ These authors are doing intriguing work studying moral distress among palliative care workers, but I think the concept has implications for all of us.
We are living in an age of outrage, in which we are constantly bombarded by news and images that stir up moral feelings and empathy. Media feeds our horror and anger, emotions that want to move our bodies to action, for protection or nurturing, but for most of us it stops there. Maybe I think about going out and volunteering to deliver first aid to a devastated county and then think about how hard it will be to get vacation time from work, or board the dog, and who’s going to take care of the house while I’m gone? Or I get outraged by some news and feel afraid that talking about it at work in the wrong way will endanger the lifestyle that feels so secure and precarious at the same time.
When the urge to act, the feeling becomes stuck inside, and we suffer. We return to self-numbing habits, shut down emotion, and avoid action. But the alternative often looks like going to unrealistic extremes, to feel overwhelmed, because the problems are so huge and I feel so small.
In my approach to psychotherapy, Individuation is not about becoming more walled-off and separate from the world. Individuation is about recognizing who I really am and what really matters to me. The Self is embedded in relationships. My family, my cultures, my work community, and my country are all facets of my Self that I must recognize and integrate over time, including their darkness and complexes, because it all already affects me. I think this truth is harder to recognize for people in the US whose identities were treated as the norm, such as White people, masculine-gendered people, non-transgendered people, heterosexual people. These groups are not necessarily compelled to consider how culture, politics, and history shape their identities, whereas those who do not share those identities cannot see anything but that truth.
Mindfulness, in my practice, is a technique for improving consciousness about one’s self and experience. We learn to dis-identify from thoughts, feelings, and sensations, creating space to understand our larger Selves, including those unconscious complexes that show up in patterns that affect us in ways difficult to recognize. These include complexes of culture, history, and identity. This includes awareness of the stress and pain that arises when I want to do something to help the world and stop myself. Mindfulness helps me to free myself of those automatic defaults to inaction and numbing. Self-observation helps me to see, “Oh, every time I want to do something I automatically think either I need to quit my job and start a revolution, or else I need to do nothing. Maybe there’s something in the middle that I can do.”
Meditation is not about lying to ourselves. We look at the mirror of our hearts and minds and learn to see who we really are, including what matters, what is painful, what is challenging. As we become better at separating our thoughts, feelings, opinions, and sensations, the mind is freed to engage in more incisive analysis, to contemplate solutions to challenging problems with less reactivity. When the mind and body become more intimately connected, we learn how to step out of the energy-draining patterns of analysis and argument that keep us from taking action.
The above-linked article from Rushton, Kaszniak, and Halifax offers a nuanced and useful articulation of the problems that arise with moral distress. Without emotional equanimity and self-awareness, many of our reactions tend up being about reducing our own discomfort. If I feel genuine empathy for your pain and I lack the skills to keep myself calm and remember this is your pain, not mine, then my response might be more about trying to get you to stop making me uncomfortable. Offers of “help” become self-serving and ignore the other person’s genuine needs. That’s how we end up saying, “Oh, don’t feel bad! Cheer up!” to people who are miserable or grieving. That’s how we end up in these loops of moral outrage, shouting and insulting each other to drown out the feelings of pain and helplessness. Mindfulness and self-observation help us to find our real boundaries. We can face someone who is suffering, feel their pain, and find out what they need from us.
There’s a joke that in the West the saying is, “Don’t just sit there; do something!” and in Eastern spiritual traditions it is more like, “Don’t just do something; sit there!” In my opinion, Doing and Being are partners. When we act without reflection or examining our inner selves, I think we tend to react and perpetuate the problem. If we do nothing but contemplate and examine our inner selves, then we deny the world our gifts and ability to make change. I often see quoted the lines attributed to Gandhi about being the change we want to see in the world, and there is a truth to that, but we can also remember that Gandhi changed himself in a way that was radically confrontational to his culture and government, and his work was not isolated but done in community.
I advocate for working on knowing yourself and finding mental and emotional healing. That is the work I do. If that’s what you need to focus most on now, that is a huge undertaking and worthy of respect. I think your healing can be the healing others need as well. I think the causes that touch your heart and move you are the causes that can further your own healing and the healing of the world. You do not need to start by sacrificing everything. You can start by reading a book to get more information, finding out who else is working on the issue and what they’re doing, showing up to an event and being present, having a conversation with someone who disagrees with you. Right now, you are co-creating the world. If it’s not the world you want, you are the best person to start making it so.