As I listen, stunned, to wave after wave of disheartening news I wonder how on earth to make an effective contribution. Persistent injustice and growing inequity thrive in a culture of denial and distraction, of comparison and alienation. What can each of us offer in this environment? I keep returning to the fundamental teachings of the wise elders I have known: if we want to bring about real transformation we must begin with how we relate to ourselves and to all the living beings around us.
Most of us yearn for some kind of meaningful change but I don’t believe we can have a healed and equitable society, living in a flourishing ecosystem, if we don’t each do the inner work required. Otherwise, no matter what action we take, we react out of our conditioning and project our wounded-ness upon others. Injustice, whether human or environmental, couldn’t survive in a climate where everyone is deeply respected and accepted.
It is no accident that this pandemic asks us to become less focused on others and more familiar with our own company. What am I, personally, broadcasting into the environment around me? We think that the swirling weather patterns of thoughts, emotions and sensations that make up our experience are confined within the bounds of our skin. Actually we continually energetically transmit our experience into the world around us. At the same time, our system is also listening to these energies thrumming about us. Without awareness we react to life out of whatever weather we are experiencing rather than responding with heart-connected clarity and wisdom.
Faced with the daunting prospect of contributing to change I find it enormously empowering to remember that it begins inside each of us. Of course we need real action right now but in order for it to be skillful and effective it needs to be motivated from a place of heart-connected awareness; of the sacred within all beings; of our illusion that whatever we are thinking at any given time is the ‘truth’ or ‘reality’; of our feelings as a vital form of listening to, and communicating with, the world around us.
Hearing Our Emotions
Today this last one captures my attention – feeling as listening. We waste so much energy in denial of what we are feeling. In western culture we view our emotions as personal, psychological events that we must manage inside us. But indigenous peoples throughout the world have always known our emotions to be a vital form of listening to a living world that pulsates with feeling. While we’ve been conditioned to skip over painful and ‘negative’ emotions, other traditions recognize that the world speaks to us, and through us, in the language of feeling. Our painful emotions call out to us, not only of our personal imbalance, but also of qualities in the ‘field’ or environment. Unfortunately we tend to see them as a personal malfunction. Captives to our mind, we rarely allow ourselves to pause and really listen to the essential, life affirming energies of our full range of emotions.
How do you respond to an uncomfortable or painful feeling? Here are some of the things I do: I go numb and distract myself; I turn to my favorite addiction; I get lost in circular and disempowering thinking; I leap into action in order to fix the situation. And yet I have learned to invite myself again and again to take a few moments and simply feel. Because we need our grief right now. It expresses our care and value for what has been lost. It helps us to heal and let go. There is a lot to grieve for at the moment. We need our healthy anger which arises when we, or those we care about, are being violated in some way. It gives us the impetus and courage to set boundaries, to stand for what we believe, to take to the streets in peaceful protest. We need our remorse. The pain of it inspires us to change our behavior moving forward. Without a willingness to feel the remorse of the ways we have benefited at the expense of others, both human and other-than-human, we won’t move beyond our own self-interest.
But these feelings are uncomfortable, intense and even painful. So how do we allow ourselves to feel without becoming overwhelmed? How can we feel our current situation without descending into resentment, despair or hopelessness?
For this I turn to the medicine of the natural world. Lately I’m calling on my friendship with the ancient, gnarled oaks who inhabit the woods behind our home. I dream into their experience of being deeply rooted in the earth below, strong arms reaching out to the world around, broad trunk unshakable in the face of any weather. The cold rain of sorrow falls and I allow it to wash over and through me. The whistling, ragged wind of anger blusters while my branches dance and yield. The icy frost of fear creeps up my body and I stand firm, rooted in the nourishing earth. Then brilliant sun shines down, warming and enlivening between visitations from the cloud people.
As a wise old oak, I don’t take these emotional experiences personally. I meet and receive them as natural and inevitable forces of life that flow through me. I can listen to what they tell me before leaping immediately to interpretation and action. I can pause and discern if this feeling arises out of the narratives spinning in my mind right now or if I am feeling its resonance in the environment around me.
If you would like to journey into the vibrant and life-affirming realm of emotional wisdom you might like to take a look at my upcoming 7-week online course.