Just two weeks. It’s so bad it’s surreal.
If you’re panicking, I get it. So the real work now, at least in part, is to find ways not to go there—and to get out fast when we do.
So what do we do?
- Breathe. My children hate it when they are out of their minds with rage or worry and I remind them to breathe. But when we bring our minds to our breath, we bring ourselves into the present moment—which, except for those of us being detained at airports or waiting anxiously for someone who is—is not where our worries are actually happening, not yet at least. Worries usually rehash a past that is finished and can’t be changed, or tell scary stories about the future; when we get lost there we are gone to the present moment—the only place we can actually do anything. Mark Twain is said to have quipped: “I’ve lived through some terrible things in my life, some of which actually happened.” If we pause and focus on our breath, we catch a break from our catastrophizing; if we can lengthen the outbreath even a little, we remind our nervous system that there is no predator in the room with us, orange or otherwise. This is critical because when we panic and our fight-flight-freeze response kicks in, the most highly evolved part of our brain checks out, leaving us with far less creativity for figuring out what to do next. We can’t make wise choices in that state; we need to calm down first. Yes, we have work to do—but, well, you know the drill: put on your own oxygen mask first.
- Take another breath and think through where and how you want to act. There is a fire hose of information—most of it really, really bad news—coming at us from all sides, plus requests for monetary support and commitments to act—all with the word “emergency” attached and multiple exclamation points. This can be paralyzing: how on earth do we know where we are most needed or can be most effective? What will be a complete waste of our time? That’s roughly where I was last Friday, before news of the Muslim travel ban hit. Then, within the next 18 hours, I received two emails from two favorite bloggers (Katrina Kenison and Mark Morford), both of whom compiled lists of suggestions: organizations, news sources, resistance manuals. By now, all the kids are doing it. So if you don’t know where to start, check the internet for the voices you trust and see what breadcrumbs they may have left for you to follow.
- Pick one or two issues that particularly energize you. We will need a lot of energy, over an extended stretch. Passion is good fuel, so better to follow your gut here than your “shoulds.” My biggest concern right now is voting rights, which were under attack before the current administration started blathering about the 3 million people it claims voted illegally in November. I don’t think for a minute they believe that; I think that’s just their excuse for trying to make it even harder for people they think will vote against them to vote at all next time. (Did you know the orange horror has already registered his candidacy for 2020? I’d like to make sure we have a shot at voting him out.)Then be honest with yourself. What are you good at? What’s in your emotional range? Can you stretch that a little? How much time can you spend, without starving your children or forgetting to take them to the dentist? How much can you afford to give to organizations you are moved to support? Should you give just a little to a bunch of them, or a little more to one or two?
- Rinse, repeat: back to #1. Breathe. The bad news will keep coming. So start today to take time to do the things that will preserve sanity and health—beginning with pausing and breathing anytime you feel overwhelmed.
But don’t stop there. Our minds and bodies are not two separate things, they are completely interwoven, and there are things we need:
Sleep. You probably already know that everything seems worse when you haven’t slept enough; this is not a time to skimp on sleep. New York City-based holistic psychiatrist Ellen Vora says that “getting adequate good-quality sleep is your best protection against anxiety,” and that most people need 7-9 hours a night. Steer clear of caffeine after noon, and get off screens—computer, phone, TV—an hour before bedtime. (More suggestions here.)
Eat well. “You can’t overestimate the relationship between food and mood stability,” in Vora’s view. She quotes philosopher and author Alain de Boton, who has written, “It isn’t disrespectful to the complexity of existence to point out that despair is, often, just low blood sugar and exhaustion.” Vora’s simplest recommendation is to “eat real food,” avoiding the fake, processed stuff which is linked to binging, inflammation and depression.
And help keep your blood sugar stable by eating regular meals. “When our blood sugar crashes,” Vora warns, our bodies respond by secreting the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline, in a stress response that “feels identical to anxiety.” This is something that has happened to me twice over the past few weeks—I think it’s a new development in my biochemistry, but it could be that I never noticed it before I heard Vora speak. So pay attention to anxiety that comes up when you haven’t eaten in a while. Vora also cautions us not to write off the connection between caffeine and anxiety: “When we’re caffeinated, our nervous system is ready for a fight. Introduce a stressor, and you have an all-out anxiety response.” More suggestions here.
Move. Even a little exercise—regularly—is better than none, and helps with both anxiety and depression. My thing is yoga, but that doesn’t have to be your thing: I’ve seen Facebook posts from people who swear by kickboxing (at home, using a video subscription), lifting weights, using a slam ball (something I had never heard of till last week), handball, running stairs. “Lower your standards,” Vora advises. Small amounts in your living room qualify. “Stand more, sit less, walk whenever possible.”
Meditate. If you’ve never learned, now is a perfect time, offering one more drug-free anxiety treatment. Meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg’s annual 28-Day Meditation Challenge just started: you can still register (until February 6th) and start building this new habit with almost 17,000 other people, receiving daily emails and videos.
If you believe you are uniquely incapable of meditating because your mind is just too nonstop crazy, think again: all our minds are like that. It took me years and years to start practicing regularly, but I no longer go a day without sitting for at least a few minutes, usually more like 45. This doesn’t mean I stop thinking for 45 minutes, just that I sit down and watch my breath along with all the thoughts that blow through, noticing them and then letting them go, instead of following and spinning stories about them. Human minds generate thoughts—tens of thousands a day. And that’s not the problem; the problem is that we let those thoughts drag us all over creation, and they can drag us into trouble. I’ve heard Sharon Salzberg compare blindly following your thoughts to sitting beside a riverbank enjoying a quiet afternoon, hopping on board some boat floating past because it looks interesting—with no idea who’s on board or where it’s going—and winding up someplace you definitely didn’t want to go. Far better to watch it pass from your spot on the shore if you don’t want to ruin your day.
When we dwell on the anxious thoughts our mind spins off—regardless of their validity—those ruminations become additional stressors. Meditation offers us practice at watching thoughts come and then letting them go, instead of buying into them and stressing ourselves out. This gives us the experience of sensing the larger awareness that does the watching—a sense of perspective completely unavailable to us when we’re lost in the midst of thought-generated distress. With practice, we realize that we don’t have to believe everything we think, and that doing so often makes us miserable. Regular practice makes it increasingly likely that we will remember all this even when we’re not meditating and bad news arrives. Over time, when we hear whatever we hear, we will be less likely to panic; and if we do panic, we will recover more quickly.
Read. I pick up a book anytime I’m stuck—on a life question or a piece of writing. I usually choose dharma books, memoirs, or poetry, but that’s just me. There are so many wonderful books in the world, so many beautifully written and completely different takes on life—reading reminds us that ours isn’t the only possible one. I get pretty tired of the inside of my own head.
Listen. —and sing! Berkeley-based meditation teacher James Baraz runs an annual course (both live and online) called Awakening Joy (the 2017 edition just started, and you can still register). He recommends singing every day, and I definitely feel better the days I remember to do this. Play the radio and sing along in the car, or while cleaning up. Turn on your favorite playlist (NOT the news!) while you cook dinner. I often listen to talks on dharmaseed.org while folding laundry; and I listen to NPR’s On Being every week when I change the sheets on the beds.
In his 2005 book Coming to Our Senses, mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) pioneer Jon Kabat-Zinn explores the notion that that “the human species can be seen in some sense as the autoimmune disease of the planet”: both “the cause of the earth’s distress and its victim.” He reminds us that:
What we are facing now and how we hold and understand this moment shapes what might emerge in the next moment, and the next, and shapes it in ways that are undetermined and, when all is said and done, undeterminable, mysterious.
But one thing is certain: this is a journey that we are all on, everybody on the planet, whether we like it or not, whether we know it or not … We can either be passively carried along by forces and habits that remain stubbornly unexamined and which imprison us in distorting dreams and potential nightmares, or we can engage in our lives by waking up to them and participating fully in their unfolding, whether we ‘like’ what is happening in any moment or not. Only when we wake up do our lives become real and have even a chance of being liberated from our individual and collective delusions, diseases, and suffering.
Coming to Our Senses (Hyperion, 2005), p. 2
Kabat-Zinn wrote these words more than a decade before the orange menace became president, but I have read nothing lately that rings truer. We may not currently have the ability to take the controls of the airplane that the president seems determined to fly into the side of a mountain—whether he knows it or not—but if we manage to avoid the collision, we will have even more work to do once he’s out of the cockpit. For now, we do what we can—in this moment, starting with ourselves. Let’s not wait till after orangeness, okay?