I’ve made it a habit not to tune in to the news media, but lately I just can’t avoid it. I was upset by the protests in Charlottesville and then floored at the news of the terrorist attack in Barcelona. Now thousands of families are suffering from the effects of extreme weather systems. Does the bad news ever end?
What happened in Barcelona has been the most shocking. My family and I lived in Barcelona for seven years. One of my children was born there, and I practically consider myself half Catalan, so the news hit particularly close to home.
Even though I have often struggled with my place as a foreigner there, I still feel a deep connection to Catalonia and its people. The violence that took place felt like a wound in the city and in my psyche. I felt deep sadness and grief as though a part of the collective social fabric of that society. I realized in this process how much Barcelona is a part of me.
We want to be positive, so why doesn’t the world cooperate?
It’s hard not to take bad news personally. The closer violence is to us physically or emotionally, the easier it is to feel hurt and want to lash out or to fight back.
Even when we aren’t physically present, the 24-hour news cycle and social media offer us the possibility to ruminate and rehash, lash out and express hatred towards the perpetrators or the other side. Social media encourages us to put our negativity out into the world. We share it with our friends, family and colleagues and all of those who are willing to hear, and they share it with us too, resulting in a cycle that keeps going.
Bad news is a constant challenge to spiritual practice
Horrific events can seem to call into question the value of a contemplative or spiritual life, one that focuses on allowing and processing rather than reacting. What is the place of teachings such as to “surrender the world” or “be in the world but not of it” in the context of world crises? These things are “so bad”, shouldn’t we be doing something about them?
For those of us on this path, it can be difficult to know how to apply our own experience being spiritual or positive to what is going on around us. On one hand, we are convinced that life is a great gift and that we all have the opportunity to realize our full potential. On the other hand, we are exposed to examples of brutality inflicted by one human being upon another. We know that negative thoughts and emotions are physically harmful to our brains and we don’t want to experience them, but we don’t want to be apathetic about what is going on around us or be oblivious to the suffering of others.
Still, exposing ourselves to negativity around the clock is not an effective way to process our negative emotions and raise our energy. Even though times of great trauma are great opportunities to practice inner work, the process can be psychologically painful and physically debilitating.
The practice of equanimity during times of crisis
Times of crisis are a great opportunity to practice equanimity. In the Buddhist tradition of loving kindness, equanimity essentially means seeing the bigger picture, or being present for whatever is happening. While there are techniques to practice during good times, like caring for our wellbeing or practicing our faith, bad times are a great opportunity to really flex our equanimity muscles. These are the steps I use to develop equanimity in bad times:
5 steps to processing negativity and developing equanimity
- Choose the positive
The first step to feeling better is always to choose to be open to handling the situation in a positive way. This automatically rules out handling the situation from a place of anger, fear or hatred. Choosing the positive is as easy as saying it out loud. Once we have mentally chosen the positive, it is by telling the truth and owning up to our own inner struggle that we can begin to bring our emotional state to a positive place.
- Reduce or stop exposure to negative information
The news and social media offers us the opportunity to relentlessly rehash the negative emotions that we feel in the midst of any crisis. But studies show that exposure to negativity is bad for our brains. Our health demands that we stop exposing ourselves. Most news coverage is a repetition of information, stories and images captured at the time of an event. Once we know what happened, we don’t need to go over it again and again. When we tune out of the information overload we can find the space to calm down and be with our experience.
- Merge with the personal and collective experience
No matter how painful the feelings and emotions within are, being present with them allows us to process them. If instead of reacting in anger, we sit with it, we can observe how it softens and transforms. Eventually, it will go from negative to positive. Anger is often a cover up for sadness and grief, and as we sit with it the energies rise on up to higher emotions. The whole process can be practiced and witnessed.
Guilt might come up: like in feeling that we don’t deserve to work through this and feel better when everyone else is suffering from it. Then we might find fear that we might miss out on new developments in the media. We might get angry and feel like we have to act and then come to a place of courage that we have responsibility in ourselves to find out what the experience means for us.
This could give way to beauty in the recognition that we are more connected to a people or a place than we previously thought. And we might end up feeling an overwhelming sense of compassion for those we know who are living the event more dramatically than we are. We might even that our processing of the trauma is a part of something larger taking place.
- Balance the negative with the positive
This is particularly difficult when things take on the dimensions of extreme events or crises. Part of us rejects the experience so much that at first we can only see its negative parts. Even if we already believe mentally that there are two sides to every experience, we may still resist the emotional aspect. But once we stop resisting the positive, we will see it. Going through this process in itself can help us feel better. There is almost always the opportunity to learn something from every experience. Equanimity comes from “being in the middle” of whatever is happening. Not labeling it, not rejecting it, not getting attached to it.
- Decide to let it be
If we truly want to be at peace with the world, we must stop wanting to change it. This seems to be at odds with the beliefs that we hold from almost any other energetic experience of life. How can we accept, much less find meaning in a crisis? Yet the desire to change in itself expresses our rejection of the world as it is. Our ideal world doesn’t exist except in our heads. Asking that something not be as it “is” is a form of resistance. Energetically, we are peace with an experience when we stop asking that it be something else. There is a delicate balance between being at peace with the world (a high level energy) and being in a state of apathy (a negative energy). This is a big challenge in the lives of positive or spiritually-oriented people.
In reality, our wellbeing is not dependent on anything external. This idea gets challenged in any difficult situation, whatever form it may take. In the midst of tough times, the nature of the experience itself is such that we may doubt it. We only have faith in the process to guide us. Cultivating equanimity, though seemingly unpopular with most of the world, offers great relief from anxiety and suffering.
Do you actively practice cultivating equanimity? What are your challenges?