Meditating in (and on) Tough Times
Feeling helpless? Here’s some help.
Posted June 22, 2022 | Reviewed by Davia Sills
- Feeling helpless is a common kind of suffering for all of us, but lately it has felt like a default aspect of life.
- The emotional turmoil within us reflects the difficult "ecosystem" in which we find ourselves.
- Some mindfulness tactics and practices can help us identify and work with our reactions to helplessness.
Even as a bit of maybe-almost-post-pandemic latitude and liberation opens up in everyday activities, so many of my patients (and colleagues and friends) are feeling heavy and burdened lately. Helplessness, in a more existential than personal way, gets close to the aching heart of it.
(Of course, a pervasive, sustained stretch of that, along with changes in sleep, energy, and cognitive clarity, may also point to a clinical state of depression. That's something to monitor and get help for, but it's a different essay.)
I wrote a bit in my last post about inertia, about feeling stuck, and offered some mindful ways to examine and overcome those psychic speed bumps and move into activity. One bullet point (a tragically ironic term) identified our slowed, even avoidant reactions to this current, traumatic moment in time.
Simmering loss is the current norm, and a hard one to miss unless one buries one's head in the dunes of distraction, ritual, or mindless tune-out. Tuning in, many witness a noxious interior mix. The body feels leaden. The heart is heavy, yet at times also spiked by flashes of grievance and humiliation. The mind goes from sludge to "Habitrail" head (look it up, younger readers) to ruminating over stalemated solutions to unfairness, violence, and cruelty. Even the capacity of awareness itself gets messed up; mindfulness gives way to dulling or dog-sees-squirrel pinging of attention.
The loss of control inside us matches and mirrors the conditions outside and around us
What seems to be slipping away, and at what risk? An assumption of "normalcy," of predictability, is wavering. The predictability of our climate, the perception of fair and honest representation in civil affairs and government, and the reliability of the information we depend on... all are in decline. A perception of trust in medicine, law, police, and spiritual leadership are all taking a hit in terms of expectation. We're losing faith in institutions being uniformly helpful—instead, fiddling while Rome (like my home state of California) burns. A sense of order, of agency, of momentum for change, and of tolerance of change—it all feels a bit brittle.
But we can also note that some of this loss is necessary in the service of change, and most of us would agree that for good change, some turning over of soil is necessary for a more productive garden. Persistent devaluations and inequities in their many forms (gender, race, who one loves, how one identifies oneself in the world) are all moving from covert to more open in the public consciousness. But challenging and changing aspects of the "old normal," however aspirational, is a loss for those tightly bound to prior expectations of reality. For every individual losing an implicit sense of privilege, many more are panicking at their sense of basic stability slipping—even of the bottom falling out.
Where there's loss, there's usually a grief process, however mix-mastered in our interior moments. In the manuscript I'm working on for a followup to Practical Mindfulness, I'm drawn to better clarifying the well-known grief sequences popularized by George Engel, John Bowlby, and especially Elizabeth Kübler-Ross. That path involves shifts in experience, with observable phenomena that we can identify on and off the cushion.
This stuff is not just for grief groups, I think; to me, it's a road map for metabolizing all perceived change, as the "inside of the head" must morph to match the "outside of the head."
My own spin boils it down to:
- OMG: Early disbelief and gross threat about the loss/change emerging in consciousness. Will it wipe me out?
- WTF: Judgment (often grievance, sometimes relief) about the loss/change. What's my relationship to this new reality?
- WCS: As in, "woulda/coulda/shoulda." We wishfully "bargain" in our heads about how we can turn the car around and not deal with the loss/change in a last-ditch effort to resist it.
- THUD: As in a fuller cannonball into the river of "it's not the same"; "disappointment" is a good term for it, I think, better than Kübler-Ross's "depression" (which suggests pathology: this ripened feeling of grief hurts but is human, essential).
- OK: We may not like it, but we get it—our inside consciousness more authentically matches our outside (changed) reality.
How mindfulness fits in
From a meditative frame, each phase has an intense, deeply-felt set of conscious phenomena in body, heart, and head—a "pattern set" of stuff in our mindscape. Each set poses a challenge, but also an amazing opportunity for us to apprehend and understand, versus distract from and avoid.
I work with patients and students on sitting with direct observation of our experience of losses and changes. Yet this current circumstance is trickier. It's really more "atmospheric," a current ecosystem to adapt to rather than a discrete event to overcome. That said, we could use some soothing tactics in the midst of this "weather" and others in the investigation of and adaptation to this helplessness-prone setting.
I can suggest three kinds of practices, of different degrees of difficulty and varied benefit. One is more fully a soother, although insight can come; the other two dive into the experience to identify it in each of us in a more granular way. Know that feeling "helpless" is not comfortable, but it is adaptive; operating in that state without some ID and acceptance only amplifies it, as with any state of suffering.
- Basic breath and body work. This is soothing and calming. As helplessness is a felt state of reduced agency, the individual capacity to self-soothe represents a palliative against powerlessness. A small-scale sort of victory, yes. But much better than fully feeling powerless. After the settling into sitting, a quick recognition of place, belonging (welcome, fellow meditators, near and far!), and the intention (ready, set, chill!), a basic and careful working out from breath-watching to a body scan is sufficient.
Or consider a variation on the "mindful breather" exercise. Imagine gathering attention in on the in-breath, then out to a sequence of body, heart, head and whole scene (lather/rinse/repeat). This sequence can also be bonded with some "yes, but..." work; "powerless (in-breath), but..." on the out-breath (e.g., gratitude for family, friends, health, love, a divine connection). Think of it of thorns and roses. The intention in all of these exercises is a basic recognition of the state of self in the moment, with some healthy aspiration that sitting with it chills things and helps us adapt little by little.
What is this feeling? This is more investigative. It takes a snapshot of the current state of self, whatever that is in the moment of meditation. These days, it's an unfortunate probability that helplessness is simmering there, somewhere. This is tough stuff, sitting with those "ouch" feelings. I find it useful to open it out, like with the "mindful breather" routine, in a sequential way—how does it feel in the body (even somatically—root, gut, heart, upward), then emotion, then thoughts that are popping, then out to the overall state of mindful sharpness.
While soothing may happen, the intention is more CSI: Where and how do I experience this uncertainty, this loss of okayness? As opposed to the basic work, it's preferable to work in this way in shorter stretches (a couple of minutes at a time), then rest back in basic breath work, then pivot back to another stretch of "inventory of me in this moment" work.
Theme ingredient. We can just go at it straight and sit with our "helplessness" intentionally! (Wait, what?) After settling in with some breath work, we can pivot to "sitting with feeling helpless" as a direct object of awareness. This can be a conjured/imaginal narrative, a moment of helplessness from memory, or (unfortunately) a replay of the above practice if "helpless" is on today's menu of experience in some form.
Proceed as above—with short periods of witnessing the experience in body, heart, head, the whole deal. Pull back to the soothing of breath work if your mind gets too chattery, swamped, or dull—that's always an act of self-care in the midst of this investigatory work.
Why do this
With careful, repeated observation, we can better identify and thus tolerate/adapt to whatever the moment visits on us (including hopelessness). Two other experiences can pop up as well. One is the partial nature of suffering in the moment. We can become better aware of "this, but that, too"—perhaps we are feeling hopeless over the news or the climate, but also grateful for friendships, for loving and being loved, for our own agency to be helpful to another.
The other is the temporariness of the feeling state. Feeling intensely hopeless comes, but also goes. What Buddhist slang refers to as impermanence is witnessed right there on the cushion, as practice for calling on it off and on the rest of our day, if we stay more mindful to it.
Sazima MD, G.(2021) Practical Mindfulness: A Physician's No-Nonsense Guide to Meditation for Beginners. Miami, FL:Mango Publishing.
Kubler-Ross, E.(1969) On Death and Dying. New York, NY: Macmillan.