World-renowned meditation teacher and author, Sharon Salzberg has published a new book entitled: Real Change: Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves & the World, copyright (c) 2020. The below excerpt is printed with permission from Flatiron Books.
In the tradition I’ve been trained in, it’s a long-standing custom to dedicate the positive energy arising from meditation practice to others. So, in the morning, before I meditate, I often spend time thinking of someone I know who is struggling. Naturally, the particular recipient can differ depending on who comes to mind on a given day. I might contemplate someone I met who is caring for a parent with Alzheimer’s or a schoolchild I know trying to recover from a traumatic, violent experience. Perhaps I reflect on a community that is being throttled, as if their voices didn’t count, or I might think of a horrific thing that happened just down the street—like the painting of swastikas on university walls.
Sometimes what captures my attention is the blatant cruelty described matter-of-factly in the news every day, as though the action reported were a normal way for people to treat one another. When I hear of someone being brutally treated, the action seems predicated on the assumption that the person being metaphorically or literally kicked is an object, like a piece of furniture, rather than a person with feelings and dreams and obligations and fears. Some mornings, I just want to go back to bed.
Recently, when I was doing this contemplation, instead of feeling inspired by dedicating the meditation, I just felt burdened, tired out by the relentless onslaught of pain everywhere I looked. I knew I needed a break, something to cradle my aching heart, to remind me of forces unseen and of a broad, open view of change. I had become frozen.
Most of us are familiar with the description of the fight-or-flight response to stress or trauma: our common tendency to perceive a situation as an imminent threat, and react either by gearing up (physiologically, hormonally, and emotionally) to fight for survival or alternatively gearing up to run away as fast as we can.
I felt gratified when stress experts expanded these familiar descriptions to include another common, ready reaction: freezing. It made sense to me as soon as I heard it. We each engage in all three of these reactions, of course, but it seems like each of us has a tendency to gravitate toward one of these more than the others, based on our individual conditioning. I’ll lay claim to freezing as my most frequent automatic reaction, rather than getting ready to bolt or starting to attack.
When we freeze, we’re like the proverbial deer in the headlights. We try to disappear by declaring invisibility. I was recently playing peekaboo with a three-year-old who seemed convinced that I couldn’t see her if she covered her own eyes. That reaction can be adaptive for a while: sometimes we really don’t have the resources on the spot to fully process what is happening, and numbness or temporary dissociation buys us some needed time. It’s no surprise, though, that freezing can also be greatly maladaptive. Some stress experts say fighting or fleeing are signs of hope, while freezing is lanced through with strands of hopelessness. Therefore, it can be harder to deal with.
Our reflexive responses of fighting, fleeing, or freezing—when faced with overly stressful situations or reliving trauma—can be qualitatively dif¬ferent from the marshaling of energy to strongly respond to a need. Our reflexive responses are often fitful and erratic, sending us lurching in reaction without a lot of clarity— more a cry of agony than a battle cry that recalls our purpose and brings us together with others in common cause. My own age-old habitual tendency to freeze, for example—numbing out, disassociating, spacing out, wanting to go to sleep—is not a useful place to stay long term if you really want to make a difference.
I wouldn’t want to pathologize any of our common reactions to stress or trauma, however bad they might feel. The main tools I bring to this challenge of getting stuck in the face of fear are mindfulness and lovingkindness practices—which I have trained in and taught over the course of four decades. The point of developing these qualities is not to judge ourselves harshly when we are less than mindful or kind but to learn how to not be stuck in an automatic reaction. We practice in order to cultivate a sense of agency, to understand that a range of responses is open to us. We practice to remember to breathe, to have the space in the midst of adversity to recall our values, what we really care about—and to find support in our inner strength, and in one another.
Some threats are greatly exaggerated, of course, because of our anxiety, or our feelings of weakness or inadequacy, our entrenched certainty that we will be defeated. Some threats are not real; they live only in our imagination. And while some threats are quite real, we often see them as out of proportion to how dangerous they actually are, heightening our fear. In the times we live in now— when there is great division all around the world—people are often highlighting differences rather than similarities, alienation rather than interconnection. Hatred feels like it is surging, and the scaffolding that has held our communities up—the altruism taught by faith-based traditions, the commitment to good-heartedness in secular traditions, a vision of the body politic’s common good— feels like it has become very shaky. On any given day, anywhere across the globe, people seem more readily torn apart than brought together.
The reactions of fight, flight, or freeze appear to be more of a chronic state that is starting to rule our patterns of consumption and communication, our media, our use of technology, our relationships, the dimensions of our generosity, and the limits of our imagination. We are more afraid, and we are isolating ourselves more: not surprisingly, the number of people describing themselves as quite lonely is shooting up, as reported in the United States, in England, in Japan.
It’s no wonder we’re fearful and despairing, since many times these days it can feel like we’re being hit with an avalanche of sad news on many days, while we so rarely hear inspiring visions of the future. Many people, particularly young people, feel trapped. They say that they find themselves participating in, and therefore perpetuating, a system they did not create, that does not reflect their values, and is destructive of the planet and inequitable. How to have inspiration, they ask, when the only game in town feels rigged? There’s a cognitive dissonance that goes along with that kind of trapped feeling. It’s a form of daily moral injury, what journalist Diane Silver described as a “soul wound that pierces a person’s identity, sense of morality and relationship to society.”
As I’ve traveled around the world teaching, I’ve gotten a sense of the prevalence and depth of the moral injury resulting from world events. In the political climate of the United States in early 2018, I myself encountered near at hand the very ingredients I needed to get agitated: deception from authority figures, shifting narratives not in accord with objective reality, one’s own perception of the truth continually undermined. My childhood had been shaped by people who I believe cared deeply about me. Yet they thought the best way to express that caring was by never mentioning my mother after she died when I was nine. They thought it best to describe my father’s overdose of sleeping pills when I was eleven as accidental—never explaining how a mere accident led to the rest of his life being spent in one psychiatric facility or another. It was painful to figure out when I was away at college: “Oh, that kind of pattern speaks more of suicidal intention than of an accident.” Feeling something to be true right down to the cells of your body while having that truth affirmed exactly nowhere outside, in fact denied, can make you feel just crazy. That was the flavor of my childhood.
It strongly reminds me of anthropologist Gregory Bateson’s double bind theory—a once popular (first put forth in the 1950s) though now discarded theory about the roots of schizophrenia. A double bind is exemplified by receiving two conflicting messages, so that successfully responding to one means you’ve failed in response to the other. (A common example is a mother telling you she loves you while her facial expression and body language communicate distaste.) You come to feel torn apart, frustrated, doubting yourself more and more. It might not be the source of schizophrenia, but it can be fearsome. As I looked for articles on this topic through Google, I saw one titled “The Double Bind Theory, Still Crazy-Making After All These Years.”
In service of a more malicious intent to conceal, manipulate, or dominate, these double messages are tactics designed to frighten or confuse, fostering the repeated suggestion that you can’t trust yourself or your perceptions and feelings. We call this gaslighting—a term originating with the 1944 Ingrid Bergman movie, Gaslight, and used colloquially since the 1960s to describe efforts to manipulate someone’s perception of reality to the point that they question their sanity.
I knew that inner landscape of collapse and chaos very well. Though when it emerged in the political turmoil of 2018, it had been quite some time since it had surged that strongly or been so sustained. But now, unlike in my childhood, I had tools I had learned in meditation practice. I had values that served as a North Star in my life, such as a respect for myself and others and a commitment to balance. I had insight into ways of fostering resilience and could remind myself, with genuineness, of the crucial fact that I was not alone. I believed in the healing power of love. Helplessness no longer felt natural, the way things are meant to be, but a distortion I could address and did address.
No matter the times we are living in, it takes some determination to acknowledge our own vulnerabilities alongside the truth of discord, and bias, and exploitation, and climate degradation, and yet also see what might be the source of light, or connection, or freedom.
Order a copy of Real Change: Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves & the World by Sharon Salzberg today.
The Garrison Institute Virtual Sanctuary is pleased to bring Sharon Salzberg & Joseph Goldstein together for a Virtual Retreat entitled “Experiencing Insight & Love” on September 20, 2020. Register Here.
Sharon Salzberg is a central figure in the field of meditation, a world-renowned teacher and author. She has played a crucial role in bringing meditation and mindfulness practices to the West and into mainstream culture since 1974, when she first began teaching. She is the co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA and the author of eleven books including New York Times bestseller, Real Happiness, her seminal work, Lovingkindness and her most recent book, Real Change: Mindfulness To Heal Ourselves and the World.