We Can’t Survive In a State of Constant Agitation

Monday, October 2, 2017 - 4:30 pm
Chinese model Xu Naiyu watches a movie on her phone as models sleep during a break at China Fashion Week in Beijing.

We Can’t Survive In a State of Constant Agitation

Since the election, many in my community have been caught up in a frenzy of politics. Even those who do not follow the ups and downs of national policy cannot help but feel the agitation around them. The relentlessness of it has caused many to fall into despair. No matter what our level of interest in the daily world of politics, I really believe that attempting to encounter the world from a place of love is an important contribution to self-care in this time of turmoil.

Jeanine, a woman I met while teaching, described how her morning routine has become much different after election day. Now when the alarm on her phone sounds, she rolls over in bed and grabs her cellphone. She wakes up in a rising state of fear about what might have happened while she has been asleep. Almost before her mind has surfaced to consciousness she starts scrolling through the news. Jeanine scans through Twitter and Facebook, her eyes taking in bulletins about lies being told, doubts about the motives of people in power, angry statements and threats from foreign countries, along with sarcasm, irony, and mockery.

As her mind opens to the day, she absorbs the aggressions taking place in foreign lands, assaults on civil rights, and the other alarming news she finds there. This parade of horrors rivets her and often she loses track of time. She startles when she discovers that an hour or more has gone by while she remained fixed in bed, a glowing screen inches from her eyes, following links to news sites and watching video clips of outrageous statements. When she sees the time, she jolts away in a hurry knowing if she doesn’t rush she might be late to work.

Even leaving the bed does not loosen the grip of this. Jeanine described making her morning tea with her eyes still stuck on her phone and sometimes brushing her teeth with one hand and the phone in the other. Although this morning habit exhausts her before she leaves the house, Jeanine said that she feels she must be vigilant. If she ignored these events she would not be doing her duty as a citizen.

This brings up the problem of how to stay informed without becoming overloaded. She would not respect herself if she turned a blind eye to the painful truths of the world, but the world breaks her heart. This habit does not do anything to help her change the things she is so concerned about. In many ways it substitutes for action.

I saw a lot of myself in Jeanine and had discovered that what I needed was to try to root my contact with the world in love. One might say that love is not a response powerful enough for these times, and that vigilance, resistance, and action to defend one’s values are more appropriate stances.

Yes, actions are important; they are absolutely essential, in fact. But I don’t believe we can survive for long in a state of constant agitation. Our bodies and hearts need rest to replenish stores of energy. This is something best done from a place of love.

When a change in law or policy harms us, we may feel powerless and discarded, unworthy of love. Experiencing that helps us empathize with the suffering of others. We may feel heartbroken when we see people so battered by circumstances and lack of opportunity that they feel that they have nowhere to turn. And we may feel a deep love for the planet, and recent actions to discredit climate change might be the cause of our anxiety.

In that way love presents itself as risk, as it often does when you love another. The love you feel causes you to care deeply and when you do, you may take on some of the hurt that your beloved feels. Love can also protect you. It is love that is the point of contact for how much we care about what happens to ourselves as well as those around us.

When Jeanine and I talked about this she was at first resistant to protecting herself. She saw that as selfish and weak when so much she cared about was at stake. I agreed that it was important to stay engaged, but I asked her to consider how her fixation on the news sapped her from taking actions to oppose what upset her.

She began the day in a state of agitation and was exhausted by the time she came home and then watched more news before she went to bed. Where was the time in her day to take care of herself? Where was the energy and focus to break this grip on what was happening outside of the world she could affect, so that she could choose to act to stop the initiatives she opposed?

I suggested that she place the phone in another room and use an alarm clock to wake up in the morning. That way she would have to make a conscious decision when she admitted the world in. Jeanine, acting like an addict, said she couldn’t possibly do that because she needed to know immediately. As she said that, she started to laugh at how exaggerated her reaction was. “I’m not the Secretary of State!” she said.

She decided she’d try to restore her former morning routine of getting up, stretching, putting on some music, and taking a shower. In her bathrobe, she’d make a cup of tea. After that half hour had passed, she could decide if she wanted to check the news on her phone. The news would not control her day and her mood if she remembered to create a boundary around it.

It is less than a year since the election and many people I speak with are already exhausted and hopeless, thinking of giving up because their constant state of alarm is debilitating and discouraging. I have compassion for that exhaustion and feeling of futility — I’ve been there. Yet I also believe that we can be energized by love.

Finding common ground with others who share our values and taking collective actions that express those strongly held beliefs reminds us of the good in the world and the good in others. If we allow the bad news to be the only news we hear, we may give up the fight, which would be the most debilitating of all actions. The best way to stay engaged is to make a choice when and how to do so — and to do so from a balanced stance of love for ourselves and love for the world, at the nexus where we can draw those two together in actions that connect both.

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is a monthly columnist for On Being. She is a meditation teacher and the cofounder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts. She is the author of many books, including Love Your Enemies, Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation, and Real Happiness at Work: Meditations for Accomplishment, Achievement, and Peace. Her most recent work is Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection.

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  • Jeanne Staehli

    “… taking collective actions that express those strongly held beliefs reminds us of the good in the world and the good in others. ”
    Collective Actions and strongly held beliefs….are powerful. I come from a place that tells me violence by word or deed always moves us in the wrong direction. Uncertainty about whether any group – even the ones I know and love – can be counted on to remain non-violent when mob mentality takes over – that’s my excuse for remaining depressed and inactive.

    • Gabby

      If we are healthy enough for it, we can act for the good in concrete ways even when we are discouraged about the big picture. Small differences we can make matter, at the very least in supporting innocent and endangered people so that they can survive until the tides change.

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  • photodoc

    To that excellent post I will add the following: Exercise, healthful diet (eliminate or vastly reduce ingestion of all the factory-farm and other assaults on our health and culture); adequate sleep (difficult under stress) avoid tobacco products, and limit alcohol. We must act as though we are soldiers in a war, because we are in a war– a war against everything good that we have been raised to cherish. We face a corporate takeover of our lives– from institutionalized lies about energy sources to the failure of society to imprison those who poison us AND steal our tax money as subsidies; to slightly lesser criminals who hide behind the law to harass us and steal our money (ask me about my experience with a criminal firm that provided a means of former clients using credit cards to pay for our services, and how those thieves profited from their immoral and probably illegal activities); Our stress is on overdrive simply to allow us to survive. We have to be more physically fit than the enemy; we must be more loving than the enemy; and we must be ready for a long war against those who use us as chattel. We must act together, for our own long-term good, and that of all others.

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  • Ella

    This is me, and it’s making me feel hopeless and depressed. Truth is, there’s not much I can do about so much of what is happening, yet like the child of abuse I am I think that by remaining watchful, vigilant, knowledgeable I can somehow stop the horrible things from hurting me and my family. What hurts more is that I’m finding I know so much more than most people I talk to about the details, which makes me even more anxious and afraid.

    24-hr vigilance and anxiety is not enough. Losing all joy and hope for the future and energy to actually do the few things I can to help fight this ugliness taking over our country has to stop. Paralysis from being overwhelmed by the shear number of things we must confront to keep our country from being destroyed has to stop.

    I’m just not sure what to do right now to help my nation. But I’ve got to get my mind right first before I do anything else.

  • odotmac

    A diagnostic result of constant agitation can be PTSD.

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  • Jen S. Jones

    We live in a holographic universe according to many futuristic scientists. Look up youtube videos of the holographic universe computer simulation theory that many scientists are now believing in. We can’t can’t change the world by focusing and becoming obsessed with it, b/c it’s a simulation based on the energies of human thought. The darker the energies of human thought gets, the darker the world becomes. Humans are to blame for the mess we are in. If 1 out of 5 children are beaten and 1 out of 4 are mentally abused as kids, according to scientific studies, we are going to create a hologram that is hellish. We can only focus on how we can help bring uplifting energies of love to cancel the dark energies. If we focus on politics etc. then we are being deceived by the hologram and computer simulation game. The only thing we can do is try to uplift others consciousness. And stop eating meat, as this may be one of the causes of the lower energies on our planet.
    In researching the ancient jewish Essenes, Essen which means Chosen. These were the ancient jews who lived away from others in spiritual communities in Israel. they were the ones seen as the Rightous ones. They thought eating meat was blood ritual sacrifice. If we all give up meat, then we can uplift the energies in our world. They wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls and their teachings of energy, and spiritual living were lost in mainstream Jewish religion. But yogi philosophy is the closest thing I have found to this consciousness. I wish they taught this in Hebrew school, it would have saved me from much misery. The only thing I remember from Hebrew school is other kids making fun of the pants I wore that my foreign mom had bought from me. I have no other memories. they need these trainings in hebrew school.

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