Lately, I’m struggling to accept reality. I don’t mean things like the Earth being round, I mean the reality of my life. For instance, a client is one month late on a payment. I haven’t heard a peep despite the repeated telephone calls and emails I’ve sent. Every day I check my bank account hoping the payment has arrived, and when it doesn’t, I call them again, email them again, and still nothing. I’m having a LOT of trouble accepting that situation. And then there’s what happened on Saturday.

My next-door neighbor, the one that lives in a house, hired a construction crew to jackhammer their pool from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Yes, I used noise-canceling headphones, and yes it helped a lot, but still. Reality was not what I wanted. When I fantasized about how I would spend my Saturday, it was not wearing headphones all day.

For things I don’t enjoy, a part of me says, “No! It’s not supposed to be this way! Something different is supposed to happen!” It’s true I want a different reality, but that doesn’t mean it’s occurring despite my best efforts. If there’s a way for me to will my desire into existence, by golly, I’ll do it. And yet, there comes a point where there’s nothing left to do. There comes a time when you just have to wait for the jackhammer to finish, literally and metaphorically.

white flag

I’m waving the white flag, so to speak. Photo by Andrew Neel on Unsplash.

The only time I felt peace on Saturday is when I surrendered, when I stopped fighting reality. When I said, “You know what? This sucks. I don’t like it. But there’s nothing I can do to change it and instead of spending energy wishing things were different, I’m accepting what is.”

I don’t want to sit with pain because it’s well, painful. It’s uncomfortable. I try my best not to feel uncomfortable, but that’s not reality. In reality, life is messy, uncomfortable, it doesn’t go our way. In reality, a client is late on a payment and a jackhammer runs for about six hours. I can’t dictate reality but I can control how much or how little I’m surrendering. There’s a story I like about this.

A professor walked into class one day, held up a cup of water for all to see, and asked, “How much do you think this cup weighs?” The students answered, “50 g! 100 g! 125 g!”

“What would happen if I held the cup like this for a few minutes?” the professor asked.

“Nothing.”

“What would happen if I held it up like this for an hour?”

“Your arm would begin to ache.”

“You’re right. What would happen if I held it for a day?”

“Your arm would go numb, you would have muscle stress and paralysis and have to go to the hospital for sure!” one of the students shouted amid laughter.

“Very good. But during all this did the weight of the cup change?”

“No.”

“Then what caused the arm to ache and the muscle stress?” the professor asked.

The students were perplexed.

“What should I do now to come out of pain?” asked the professor.

“Put the cup down!” said the students.

“Exactly,” the professor replied.

I don’t have a magic wand to make things the way I want them to be, but instead of expending energy stewing in irritation, I can put the metaphorical cup down. I can say, “OK,” and stop fighting. Surrender isn’t sexy in action-oriented cultures, but there’s a reason it’s mentioned so often in spirituality. Surrender usually leads to serenity and that’s certainly something I could use more of. I bet other people could too.

I dream of a world where we accept reality. A world where we understand the wisdom in no longer fighting circumstances, of instead surrendering to what is. A world where we let go of what we can and cultivate a feeling of serenity.

Another world is not only possible, it’s probable.

All week the topic of self-compassion versus self-esteem has come up in conversation with friends. I learned recently that what I thought was self-compassion is actually self-esteem and the two are very different! That matters because self-compassion is the trait that gives us more motivation, more grit, better health, and greater happiness, according to research.

Self-compassion is the desire to alleviate your own suffering whereas self-esteem is a positive judgment of yourself. It’s saying things like, “I’m a good person, I’m a success, I’m attractive.” Self-esteem is important because the opposite, hating yourself, can lead to some dark places, but the trouble with self-esteem is it’s conditional. It’s dependent on you continuing to do things that bolster your self-worth: acing a test, killing it at work, etc. What happens when you fail?

As for me, I keep leaning into self-esteem when I fail. I say things like, “It’s OK, you’ll do better next time.” Or, “You got this! You can do it!” The trouble is, self-esteem messages don’t work.

Juliana Breines and Serena Chen conducted a study at UC Berkeley about a decade ago where students were given a difficult vocabulary test that everyone failed. The researchers split the students into three groups: a self-compassionate group, a self-esteem group, and a control group.

In the self-compassion group, students were told, “If you had difficulty with the test you just took, you’re not alone. It’s common for students to have difficulty with tests like these. If you feel bad about how you did, try not to be too hard on yourself.” The self-esteem group was told, “If you had difficulty with the test you just took, try not to feel bad about yourself – you must be intelligent if you got into Berkeley!” The control group was told nothing.

flower on fingers

Self-compassion is soft, like a flower. Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash.

The students were informed they would receive a second vocabulary test and were given a list of words and definitions they could study for as long as they wanted before taking the next test. The researchers used study time as a measure of students’ motivation. They found students who were told to be self-compassionate after failing the first test spent more time studying than those in the other two conditions. Not surprisingly, study time was linked to how well the participants performed on the second test.

Self-compassion helps with more serious issues too. Numerous researchers found that self-compassion helps war veterans. Soldiers who practiced self-compassion were less likely to develop PTSD symptoms and functioned better in civilian life. They were less prone to use drugs and alcohol, and were less likely to commit suicide.

What is self-compassion? It has three main components according to Dr. Kristin Neff, a preeminent researcher on the topic. She says self-compassion is self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness. Self-kindness means showing care, understanding, and support toward ourselves when we fail. Common humanity involves recognizing all humans are imperfect, that you’re not alone with your flaws. Mindfulness is being aware of the pain associated with failure without trying to shove it away.

For the past week, instead of beating myself up for not exercising as much as I’d like, or telling myself, “Come on! You can do it!” I practiced self-compassion. I said, “Hey, this week has been stressful and you’re tired. It makes sense that you don’t want to exercise. Lots of people feel that way. When you’re ready, I know you’ll move your body in a way that feels good.”

It was the first time in a while that I didn’t have a nagging sensation I was doing something wrong for being sedentary. It was the first time in a while I didn’t conduct internal bargaining and say, “You can rest today, but tomorrow you need to make up for it.” Instead, I gave myself what I needed and it was glorious. And wouldn’t you know it? When I felt energetic, I was motivated to work out because it came from a place of love, not fear. There’s something to this self-compassion thing after all.

I dream of a world where we show ourselves love, care, and understanding when we fail and make mistakes. A world where we ditch the conditional self-esteem messages and instead give ourselves the unconditional support we crave. A world where we all practice self-compassion and recognize it for the valuable trait it is.

Another world is not only possible, it’s probable.

 

Someone asked me recently, what do I care what Elon Musk does with his money? To start with, why shouldn’t I care? We live in a society that pretends we’re not all connected. That what one person does somehow has no effect on anyone else. Want to own a newspaper company? Sure, go ahead! Build a rocket so you can go to space? Knock yourself out! Won’t make a difference in my life! But it does.

My spiritual teacher says, “The establishment of an ideal society depends on the mutual help of the members and their cooperative behavior.” We don’t have that. Instead, we have a hypercompetitive, rugged individualism mindset that is frankly antisocial. To take a recent example, Elon Musk’s buyout of Twitter is for his own gain. He’s not using money to help solve world hunger like he suggested he might.

In October 2021, David Beasley, the director of the United Nations’ World Food Program, told CNN that it would only take “$6 billion to help 42 million people that are literally going to die.” When the article was shared on Twitter, Musk responded and said he would sell Tesla stock if the program could provide a plan. Beasley did and thus far Elon has not donated. Some people think he still will, but I’m not holding my breath because again, most billionaires use their money for selfish pleasures like going into outer space, buying yachts, and building numerous multimillion-dollar homes. Either that or they use their money to acquire more wealth.

Hundred dollar bills

Some people need less of this. Photo by Alexander Mils on Unsplash

Another reason why I care what billionaires do with their money is it gives them an outsized voice. In the case of Elon Musk, owning Twitter will give him far too much influence on a media platform that has repercussions worldwide. Why should one person have so much power? Plus, when it comes to governance, the opinions of Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Elon Musk far outweigh mine because they can afford high-priced lobbyists and unlimited campaign contributions. If a bill is bad for their business, it’s highly unlikely it will get passed.

Not to mention, the average citizen suffers when wealthy people make mistakes. When the banks failed in 2008, people lost their investments and their homes while bank executives received huge bonuses. We bailed out the banks but the ones who caused the loss of homes and investments became richer, according to Reuters.

What’s the solution here? A maximum wage, for starters, but also changing what we value. Instead of being in a race to acquire as much as we can as fast as we can, yogic philosophy touts aparigraha or non-indulgence. Specifically, not indulging in the amenities and comforts of life that are superfluous for the preservation of physical existence.

In the case of billionaires and their vast accumulation of resources, they’re hurting everyone. Income inequality depresses economic growth, leaves less for society to divvy up, and gives rise to criminal behavior, according to several studies referenced in the Washington Post.

So the short answer to why I mind how billionaires spend their money comes down to this: I care about the collective. My spiritual teacher says, “The collectivity is not outside you – your future is inseparably connected with the collective fortune. You must take the entire collectivity with you and move toward the sweetest radiance of the new crimson dawn, beyond the veil of the darkest night.”

To take the collectivity with us, we have to concern ourselves with what billionaires are doing and furthermore, not let people become billionaires in the first place.

I dream of a world where more people care how billionaires spend their money. A world where we understand our futures are inseparably connected to the futures of others. A world where we take to heart the principle of aparigraha. A world where we move together to create an ideal society.

Another world is not only possible, it’s probable.

This post was originally published in July 2017.

The other week I read an interesting philosophical treatise about the structure of our universe, which is an oval. We are made up of atoms with electrons moving around a nucleus. On a larger scale, the Earth is the nucleus and the moon is moving around it. In our solar system, the sun is the nucleus and all the planets are moving around it. However, there is also a Supreme or Cosmic nucleus, according to my spiritual philosophy.

A friend commented on the discourse and said from his perspective, we are all emanating out from the same nucleus. We all have the same center, the same core. Regardless of whether or not a person believes in a Cosmic Consciousness, or subscribes to my spiritual philosophy, we do have the same core. It is a fact we are all made up of atoms. It is a fact we are all made up of stardust, to paraphrase Carl Sagan. To quote an article on the subject:

“The carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen atoms in our bodies, as well as atoms of all other heavy elements, were created in previous generations of stars over 4.5 billion years ago. Because humans and every other animal as well as most of the matter on Earth contain these elements, we are literally made of star stuff.”

I’ve been hearing about this concept for many years so it’s easy for me to gloss over it, but thinking about how we all have the same core, allows me to connect even deeper with others because inside we are the same, and knowingly or unknowingly, we are moving together. Some people are moving closer to the Supreme hub like the Dalai Lama or others like him that carry a universal outlook. 

We are all dancing around a nucleus. Photo by Hulki Okan Tabak on Unsplash

People who espouse ideas about oneness, connection, and moving beyond the boundaries of our identities are getting closer to the Cosmic nucleus. They aren’t necessarily joined just yet, but they’re getting closer! And that’s what my spiritual teacher says we should all do. 

“Each and every aspirant, each and every artist, each and every scientist, and each and every philosopher must be ensconced in this supreme veracity,” he said. “They will have to be one with the Supreme, [and] each will have to coincide his or her microcosmic nucleus with the macrocosmic one.”

The speed with which this happens varies, and some people move further away from the nucleus, but no one can move beyond its scope. Even the most terrible person, even the most despised people are still circling the nucleus. They may be at the periphery, but they still have the same nucleus, and that means I can recognize those people, too, are a part of my universal family. They, too, are on a spiritual journey with me and that means I can soften my heart toward them. Because we are all connected at the core.

I dream of a world where we recognize we are all made of the same stuff. A world where we recognize we all emanate from the same source. A world where we remember we are all circling the same nucleus. A world where we recognize we are more connected than we often acknowledge. 

Another world is not only possible, it’s probable.

I had an interesting dream the other night. I was on a spaceship and due to a setting, some people saw an illusion (luxury furniture, plush rugs, a tidy space) while others saw reality (cheap furniture, threadbare rugs, a mess). It was like a movie scene that magically changes an Ikea chair into an upscale-designer one with the wave of a hand.

The dream got me thinking about reality and perception. How do we know what we’re sensing is the truth? Humans only perceive a tiny fraction of what exists when it comes to our senses. For instance, we only hear sounds in the 20 Hz to 20,000 Hz range but as we know, sound exists above and below that level. Similarly, of all the possible photon wavelengths available, our cone cells detect only a small sliver: the 380 to 720 nanometers range.

Why then do we act with such assurance about the reality we perceive? Why do we insist on our version of the truth when it could be less than accurate? A dog has a far different version of reality than I do because a dog can hear a lot more than I can. Is my reality any more true or less true than the dog’s? If my senses aren’t 100% reliable, what can I trust?

Reflection of woman in water

Perception can be so easily skewed. Photo by nine koepfer on Unsplash

In this day and age, we’re encouraged not to trust anyone, especially mainstream media, the government, or anyone in a position of authority. I understand the impulse because journalists make mistakes sometimes and the government can withhold information from the general public. On the other hand, what makes a random person on the internet trustworthy?

I just read an article on Elle.com about Bay Area mom influencer Katie Sorensen who falsely accused a couple of abducting her children. To be clear, there is no evidence that crime took place. Sorensen made the whole thing up to attract Instagram followers, which is exactly what happened. Her account ballooned after the fake video was viewed 4.5 million times. And if you’re wondering, yes, Katie is an attractive, white, blonde woman and yes, the couple she accused are brown.

People believed Sorensen’s story because she made an emotional video. They were moved by her sentiment. My spiritual teacher says, “One races after the idea that has come into one’s mind like an unbridled horse, without considering its good or bad consequences. The horse may move along the right path, or it may fall into a chasm. One cannot be certain.”

We’re living in a time where sentiment is being exploited and rationality is on the decline. There are YouTube videos galore extolling various conspiracy theories: that furniture and home goods company Wayfair trafficks children, the Earth is flat, the government is run by reptile people, COVID-19 is a sham, etc. People prey on our emotions and also our skepticism. They either tell lies or ask questions that are seemingly unexplainable: “Why did the government do XYZ?” and then answer the question by saying, “They’re lying to you.”

toy pinocchio

If only our noses grew like Pinocchio’s when we lied. Photo by Florencio Rojas.

It’s easy to say someone is lying and significantly harder to prove the truth, as evidenced by the Sorensen tale. The police had to investigate her story, interview the couple she accused, and use numerous resources to determine Sorensen lied. Instead of immediately buying everything presented to us, whether it’s a mainstream media news article, YouTube video, or Instagram post, how about asking some more questions; like, “How do I know this source can be trusted? What is the evidence?”

Talk is cheap and people are lazy. It takes a lot of effort to pull off a conspiracy. Have you ever worked on a group project? Then you know it’s next to impossible to get every person on the same page and carry through with a plan. Yeah, it can happen, but in all likelihood what we view as a conspiracy is actually incompetency and fallibility. People make mistakes. They change their minds. It doesn’t mean there’s a cover-up.

My spiritual teacher says, “Rationality is a treasure of humanity,” and I’m seeing just how true that is.

I dream of a world where we ask more questions. A world where we don’t immediately accept whatever is told to us, no matter who is telling it. A world where we practice discernment to determine whether something is real and true or merely playing on our emotions. A world where we develop a rationalistic mentality and put it to good use for the betterment of all.

Another world is not only possible, it’s probable.

Just Wait

Sometimes I have temporary amnesia in that I forget how much can change in a day, an hour, an instant. If I feel blue, I think I’ll always feel blue. If I feel happy, I think I’ll always feel happy. I pretend a state of being is permanent when in reality, it’s anything but. For instance, I’ve been hawking my bank account, just waiting for payments to come in. I started to fret about what I would do if I didn’t get paid, the steps I would take. And then, cha-ching! The money arrived! Hallelujah! I literally danced with joy.

But the opposite also happens. I can cruise along, feel that all is right in the world, and then receive a text message that a friend died. Before receiving the news, I could have been smiling, but after reading the text I would start crying. Emotions are like this. They’re energy in motion. I rarely remember that though because I’m either chasing the happy, feel-good emotions, or I’m pushing away the sad, feel-bad emotions.

wait sign

Wait it out. Photo by Semyon Borisov on Unsplash

Our society does this too. We are encouraged to buy things – shoes, a phone, a car – or use drugs – alcohol, weed, ketamine – to chase away the pain. Our brains encourage this sort of behavior because they are in a perpetual quest for more dopamine, the feel-good, “more” molecule. But instead of trying to create a feeling, what if we just … waited? What if we instead recognized everything, EVERYTHING we’re feeling is temporary?

The temporary nature of life is on my mind because I wasn’t speaking hypothetically about receiving a text message notifying me of a friend’s death. That happened. I saw him on a Zoom call and then two days later he died of Parkinson’s. It’s surreal to me how quickly things can change. And my friend’s death is shaking me up because he was a staple of my childhood. Someone who was always around. I took it for granted he would continue to be, even after he got sick because I forgot everything is temporary.

My spiritual teacher says, “This expressed universe is nothing but a collection of temporary entities which are undergoing constant metamorphosis according to the sweet will of nature.” We are all temporary entities and we are all constantly changing. Nothing stays the same. Nothing. When I remember this, every emotion becomes easier to bear; every experience becomes richer precisely for its impermanence.

This isn’t a profound post, I’m not revealing a truth you don’t already know, but maybe like me, you forget. Maybe you forget the person next to you is not immortal and neither are you. Maybe you forget the pain you feel will end. Maybe you forget at any moment you can feel euphoric because you received good news. Instead of chasing after a feeling, what if we pulled back a little, practiced more detachment and surrender, and understood all we have to do is wait? Because even if it doesn’t seem like it right now, you’ll feel great again soon. I promise.

I dream of a world where we understand emotions are constantly changing. A world where we realize we can’t force ourselves to feel one way or another and we stop trying. A world where we understand if we just wait, we’ll feel great again.

Another world is not only possible, it’s probable.

As you’ve likely heard, the first-ever Amazon labor union was formed on Friday. What I love about this story is the David versus Goliath aspect. I can think of no better representation of a modern-day Goliath than Amazon. After all, Amazon accounts for more than 40% of ecommerce, according to emarketer.com. The next highest percentage of internet commerce is Walmart, coming in at 7.1%. So. There’s that.

And, regarding workers specifically, Jeff Bezos said in a New York Times article he didn’t want hourly workers to stick around for long because he viewed a large, disgruntled workforce as a threat. That attitude shows because the company spent $4.3 million in 2021 alone on anti-union consultants, according to U.S. Department of Labor filings. And maybe you’re saying, “Amazon doesn’t need a labor union because employees have great working conditions!” That’s what Amazon is touting, but the reality doesn’t match because Amazon measures the time each employee spends off task at its warehouses, meaning every bathroom break is accounted for. If a person spends too long in the bathroom, they can be and have been, fired.

I could keep going, but I already wrote about the poor working conditions in a blogpost last year. Instead, let’s talk about our David, Christian Smalls. First off, how perfect is that last name to represent David?!? Also, he’s someone Amazon discounted because, in a leaked memo obtained by Vice in 2020, an Amazon layer told Jeff Bezos that Smalls was “not smart, or articulate.”

David statue

Keeping it classic here with the David sculpture. Photo by Mateus Campos Felipe on Unsplash

Take that, Amazon! The man you viewed as not smart or articulate spent the last two years talking to workers on Staten Island, holding cookouts, conversing with them at bus stops, and educating them on why a labor union is necessary. And it worked. Despite previous failed attempts, the Amazon factory known as JFK8 has a labor union. The vote wasn’t close either – the “yeses” outnumbered the “no’s,” by 500 votes. Yes, Amazon is fighting the outcome because of course they are, but still. In this day and age when we hear so many stories about corruption, plutocracy, and big corporations doing terrible things despite the opposition of the general public, it’s nice to hear a story about how the little guy can still win.

It reminds me of a quote from my spiritual teacher who spoke a lot about dharma, or the essential characteristics of human beings. There’s a lot to say on the subject, but in brief, my spiritual teacher praises the higher qualities of human beings; the ones that are aligned with truth, justice, generosity, and compassion. He said whenever human beings follow these higher qualities, their well-being, victory, and prosperity are ensured.

Furthermore, “whoever goes against these ingrained human characteristics … will be doomed to destruction. By divine decree, everyone has the right to live in the world with dignity. If anyone creates any obstacle against this dharma-oriented system, if they oppose it, they are bound to be destroyed. No one has ever been victorious or will ever be victorious by opposing dharma. Always remember that when dharma is with you, whoever will oppose you will be razed to the ground – their destruction is a must.”

A caveat here is sometimes that destruction is slow. It can take decades to appear and/or may happen in another life. However, I take heart knowing that in the long run, the righteous, the justice-oriented, the person who is fighting for a better world, like Christian Smalls, in this case, will win.

I dream of a world where we remember real-life David versus Goliath stories exist. A world where we understand sometimes the little guy does trounce the evil, big conglomerate. A world where we realize if we continue to do good in the world, to follow our higher nature, eventually we will succeed.

Another world is not only possible, it’s probable.

I had a humbling experience on Friday. While listening to my new favorite podcast, “The Happiness Lab,” the host Dr. Laurie Santos discussed inattentional blindness, or the inability to perceive objects if we’re not paying attention to them. She ran an experiment with her Yale students where she showed them a video of people passing a basketball. She asked her students to count the number of passes among people wearing white shirts.

When they revealed the answer – 15 passes – she said, “Great! But did you notice the person wearing a gorilla suit walk through the circle of players?” Invariably, the students said, “No. What? A person was wearing a gorilla suit?” When I heard this, I thought to myself, “Wow! Really? They didn’t notice? I bet I would pick up on the person in the gorilla suit. After all, I’m a highly sensitive person and notice things people miss.”

spiritual writing

You would think a gorilla is easy to spot! Photo by Patrice Audet on Unsplash

Dr. Santos also mentioned when people are pressed for time, they are more likely to have inattentional blindness. In other words, rushing causes us to stop noticing small details. Well, on Friday night, I was rushing and received a telephone call from a friend named Michael. I have six Michaels in my contact list and texted the most recent Michael that showed up in my text conversations and said, “I got your message, I’ll call you in an hour.” I called him in an hour, he didn’t answer, and I noticed his outgoing voicemail recording had changed.

It was only after my friend said, “Hey, did you mean to call a different Michael?” that I put it together. D’oh! Called the wrong one! Here I was thinking I’m immune to inattentional blindness and it turns out, no, I am not. I zeroed in on the name “Michael” and blocked out the last name. The experience reminded me that I am one among many. Yes, I often fall into the outlier category, but that doesn’t mean I’m better than anyone else and, yet, that’s exactly what I started thinking on Friday before calling the wrong “Michael.”

My spiritual teacher says most people suffer from some sort of complex: an inferiority complex, superiority complex, fear complex, etc. He adds that “a complex of any sort is a psychic malady, a psychic disease. To consider oneself superior to others is a serious human mistake. Similarly, thinking oneself inferior to others is also a mistake. To suffer from an inferiority complex is also a psychic ailment. You must not encourage either a superiority complex or an inferiority complex. You must maintain a psychic balance; you must maintain a mental balance.”

Maintaining a mental balance for me means recognizing I’m human, I make mistakes. It means adopting an attitude of humility, or freedom from pride and arrogance. When I looked up the origin of the word “humility,” I found it stems from the Church Latin word humilis, which literally translates as “on the ground.” Also, part of the word humility’s etymology is other words that mean “Earth.” I like that. Being humble means keeping my feet on the ground, staying present here on Earth, and recognizing I’m no better and no worse than anyone else. In other words, I am also likely to miss a person wearing a gorilla suit.

I dream of a world where we recognize we are no better and no worse than anyone else. A world where we understand we all have strengths and weaknesses but that doesn’t mean we’re superior or inferior to others. A world where we place ourselves on equal footing with our fellow human beings. A world where we adopt an attitude of humility and realize we are likely to miss a person wearing a gorilla suit.

Another world is not only possible, it’s probable.

Both Can Be True

My friend Kat Nadel, a Nonviolent Communication (NVC) facilitator, mentioned she’s writing a blog about eight things NOT to say to Ukrainians right now. One of those things is including the words “at least” anywhere in your response. For instance, if a Ukrainian says, “My 12-year-old niece had to travel by herself to Romania and now she’s sheltering at a refugee camp all alone,” and you say, “That’s terrible! At least she’s safe.”

Saying “at least” is discounting the experience, feelings, and perspective of the person sharing. “At least” never makes anyone feel better. It’s not connective, it’s not empathic. I know we’re encouraged to look on the bright side of things, to be grateful, and I agree with those practices, BUT not at the expense of emotional connection. And that’s what saying “at least” does. It puts distance between you and whoever is sharing.

We have a name for this practice: toxic positivity. It’s “dismissing negative emotions and responding to distress with false reassurances rather than empathy,” according to UW Medicine. “It comes from feeling uncomfortable with negative emotions. It is often well-intentioned but can cause alienation and a feeling of disconnection.”

spiritual writing

This picture makes more sense as you keep reading. Photo by Zhen Hu on Unsplash

Yep. Sure does. It’s also interesting for me to realize that not only do we “at least” other people, we also “at least” ourselves. I’ve done that for the past few weeks. Whenever I’ve been irritated or concerned about something – my shoulder hurting, waiting on money from clients, wishing I wasn’t so tired, etc. – I’ve said to myself, “Well at least I’m not in Ukraine.” It’s true, I’m not in Ukraine, but that doesn’t make the pain I feel in my shoulder dissipate. Instead, I feel bad that I feel bad.

The thinking goes, “I ‘shouldn’t’ feel what I’m feeling because other people have it so much worse.” And yes, they do, but why does it have to be a competition? Why can’t I feel heartbroken, worried, and shocked about the situation in Ukraine while also feeling dismayed, sad, and concerned about my shoulder? I can! Both can be true!

The empathic response to both myself and others is to say, “I hear you. It sounds like you feel _____. Do you have a need for _____?” And that’s it. No fixing, no changing, no pitying, just presence to what is alive both in myself and in others. This is so very hard but it seems to me what we all need more of is true connection. We need true witnessing of someone else’s pain as well as our own. Let the pain, the feelings, all of it, be there because this is what it means to be alive. I can’t speak for everyone, but I know I try to inoculate myself from pain, from hardship. It’s my dream to have an easy, cushy life but, um, that’s not feasible.

Even the uber-wealthy, the people who have every material object they can desire, are not inoculated from pain or hardship. Even for them, divorce happens, death happens. To be alive means to endure something you don’t enjoy. It just does. And instead of turning away from the pain or engaging in toxic positivity, the best thing we can do for ourselves is to stay with it. To cry about people fleeing Ukraine in droves. To worry about rising gas prices. And to say “ow” when our shoulder hurts.

I dream of a world where we meet each other with empathy, not toxic positivity. A world where we understand while someone will always have a worse situation, that doesn’t change our situation. A world where we realize we can feel upset about events in the world as well as sad about occurrences in our own lives. A world where we remember both can be true.

Another world is not only possible, it’s probable.

Facebook keeps showing me pictures from trips I took to Europe years ago, including one from Denmark in 2016. What I remember about that trip, other than laughing and exploring the country with a dear friend, is how everything reminded me of something else.

For instance, gazing out a train window, I could have sworn I was in Iowa, not Denmark, because the land was so similar. At the beach, the combination of the sand’s color, dunes, and water reminded me of the Outer Banks in North Carolina. I know there are places in Denmark that are completely unique, but all in all, whenever I travel, I’m reminded everything is more the same than it is different. Yes, the landscape, but also the people.

I may not speak the same language as someone else, but we both care about our friends and family. We both want to be happy, to feel secure in where we live. We all have the same needs, and in times like these, all times really, it’s important to keep focusing on what binds us.

spiritual writing

These rocks say it all. Photo by Phyllis Poon on Unsplash

In our world, there are some people who are trying to create division. There are some people who use one group or another as a scapegoat for the world’s problems. They speak in broad strokes like, “All of these people are like this,” or “Those people are like that,” which is dangerous. When we enhance separateness, that creates conflict because at the root of mistreatment is an “us” and “them” mindset. It’s easier to justify atrocious acts when a person becomes someone who is “not like me.” Or even worse, not human.

My spiritual teacher corroborates this and says “us” and “them” thinking makes different groups become more violent toward each other. We’ve seen this over and over again. Frankly, haven’t we had enough? I’m not so naïve to think there will never be any conflicts in the world, but I think we start moving in a better direction when we realize, to paraphrase Shakespeare, that we all bleed when we are pricked, that we all feel pain and sorrow, that we all want to be happy and to realize our dreams. We want the same things even if how we go about achieving them is different.

I’ve used this quote before but it continues to be relevant. My spiritual teacher adds, “Human society is just like a garland which is made of different types of flowers, woven together by one common thread. The overall beauty of the garland is dependent upon the beauty of each flower. Likewise, each strata of society must be equally strengthened if we are to maintain the unity and solidarity of society.”

We must all be lifted up. We must support one another. We must see each other as people who are just like us if we have any hope of maintaining unity and solidarity. Peace comes from a place of connection and that starts with recognizing we are more similar than different.

I dream of a world where we recognize what unites us rather than divides us. A world where we focus on our similarities, not our differences. A world where we remember people are people everywhere. A world where we work together to create as much peace as we can.

Another world is not only possible, it’s probable.

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