Here’s what the Buddhist author and activist Joanna Macy says about empowerment in despairing times: “Unblock our feelings of despair about our threatened planet and the possible demise of our species. Until we do, our power of creative response will be crippled.”
We may have been despairing, but we are never helpless. Helplessness and hopelessness are learned. When they dominate our psyche, we have generally blocked opening to our despair. If we feel paralyzed, frozen, especially as we look toward our future, that’s despair. We may feel a tightness or squirming in the pit of our stomach. Can we open up to those sensations and any accompanying thoughts or feelings without saying, “I should just get over it”? Can we acknowledge, pay attention, and be present with the stress in our body we have noticed, even if we have an apparently functional life?
Helplessness and hopelessness are psychological defenses that help us avoid bad feelings and may even soothe us, but let’s not forget that they are learned, and they cover the natural joy that emanates from heart-mind.
If you are having trouble acting from heart-mind and instead feeling despairing, here are some things you might do:
1.) When you were a kid, did your parents fail to support your dreams because this reminded them that they lost? If this is the case, unblock the despair through your bare awareness, then notice what deeply interests you and take a small step toward activating that interest.
2.) Realize that your helplessness may just be due to inexperience. Maybe your hopelessness is only due to your fear to step beyond your comfort zone. How about taking one small step and then another as I did when I was petrified of dancing at my daughter’s wedding in Paris in front of a bunch of French people. These actions are completely necessary if we want to move beyond the limitation of any despair we feel.
3.) Scan your consciousness to make sure you are spending your time doing things that you have enjoyed in the past, cared about, or been committed to. The more we do these things, the more we will be able to tolerate ups and downs, no matter how severe they are.
I worked for several years with an aspiring Zen student who attended 20 plus days of retreat over a two-year time span in spite of the fact that his body began to shake each day after two or three sittings. I suggested limiting his participation in retreats in which we do our most intense sitting. But he declined, after saying that what he cared most about in his life was getting a taste of the deep calmness and spaciousness that he had learned comes from arduous sitting. He stuck with it. His shaking stopped and now he himself is a teacher.
4.) Put yourself first so you can put others first. Many spiritual practitioners have a horror of being thought selfish. Do you cringe if your kids come home from kindergarten with a note saying they have been not sharing with others? We were taught to avoid selfishness like the plague and yet to be authentic, we need to be in touch what we really care about. It’s possible to get in touch with our deepest desires and aspirations instead of straining so much of the time to do the right thing. When we allow this to happen, we are getting in touch the deepest part of our being, of all being. Heart-mind has been there since birth but has gotten covered by the superficial personality we show to others. If we open up to it, instead of feeling helpless and hopeless, we can experience a deep love pouring out from our still center.
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Tim Burkett, Guiding Teacher