am just reading about the Las Vegas mass shooting. Matt’s brother and his extended family — eight people — live there. They seem to be fine, but many people aren’t. And we are all, every one of us, deeply affected by what’s going on. As a not-so-effective political activist, I am not going to write about gun laws and automatic weapons here, but I do feel moved to write about the fear that is infecting and affecting us all.
We swim in it these days. We breathe the air of it. We ricochet from one story to another. Nuclear bombs, mass shootings, hate crimes, hurricanes. And last week, I read two articles in the paper about surviving the apocalypse. One was about where to go (Tasmania and New Zealand are favorites of people who can afford to buy up land there), and the other was about what to have in your house in case — things like taser guns, pepper spray, iodine tablets in case you’ve been exposed to radiation. We are living in an upside-down world where fear rules. Fear first. Fear in most all headlines. And I know I keep saying the same thing, but it’s the same because it’s perennial wisdom and it’s true all the time, no matter what: the importance of practicing what my friend Catherine calls “mind-management.”
I do this all the time because my mind is insane. I don’t try to fool myself about it or pretty it up. My mind, when left to its own devices, ricochets from one scary story to another. From one person who did me wrong to the next. And if there is no scary news event that particular day, I dredge one up. But these days, it’s enough to simply read the news. And the stories that come from the news. Get taser guns? Buy iodine pills? Have enough food to last a month? Go live in an underground hut?
The atmosphere of fear and dystopia that we are living in and its effects on our brains, hearts and nervous systems cannot be exaggerated. It’s as if we are breathing poisoned air and deciding that if we only ate a low-carbohydrate diet, we’d be fine. While eating what nourishes our bodies makes a profound difference — and seriously, if anyone believes that, I do — it doesn’t affect the air we’re breathing and the non-caloric “food” we are swallowing. It’s crucial that we open our eyes and take in the level of panic and fear-mongering that is going on because it affects every moment of our lives. Every interaction, everything we say to our children.
Here’s what I practice many times a day and what I recommend to you:
Use your body as a signal. When you notice the signs of fear — pounding heart, stomach tight, contracted body — listen. Listen to the stories you are telling yourself. Remind yourself of the one thing in your life you CAN control — which is not your thoughts, but your reaction to them.
Everyone has a crazy mind. Everyone has thoughts that go wildly from the past to the future. Bring yourself back by the simplest things: what you already have. Your senses. The sounds you are hearing in that exact moment. The sights you are looking at in that exact moment. What your foot is touching. The feel of the chair beneath you. The color of the sky. Come back. Break the trance.
Treat your thoughts lovingly, as you would a small child who is throwing a tantrum. Be fierce and strong, but be loving as well. Judgment and shame are not your friends. They never, under any circumstance, lead to long-lasting change.
Stop listening to the news all day long. Stop reading the headlines more than once a day. Stop listening to talk radio incessantly. Headlines and talk radio are still threaded with people’s opinions.
Make it a practice to ask yourself what is not wrong right now. List five things immediately. I woke up today. I’m breathing now. I can hear a bird outside my window. The person across from me just smiled at me. This allows your nervous system to relax. From that relaxation, you can decide what to do. When you speak and act from fear, you spread fear. When your heart is open, you spread benevolence. You remember what you love. That’s a good thing.