Do Not Fall Into Despair: Mindfulness as Antidote

Chernobyl Exclusion Zone (photo by G Meyer)

There have been many reasons for despair in the world lately. Maybe as you followed along with the COP26 United Nations climate change conference, you found yourself deeply discouraged by our inadequate response to the climate crisis. The recent emergence of the omicron variant may have dashed any hopes you were harboring for a return to normalcy after the COVID-19 pandemic. Perhaps the continued rolling back of hard won human rights is making you question our humanity. Any one of these difficulties might cause us to abandon hope. Fortunately, mindfulness can help resource ourselves to face these challenges with wisdom and resilience.

While it’s important to recognize the grave challenges humanity is facing (and creating), when we fall into despair we lose our mindfulness begin to disengage from our lives. We all experience moments of despair, but we can’t live there long. Despair involves feelings of meaninglessness, desolation, and apathy. Because it requires a prediction that all is permanently and irrevocably lost, we’re no longer occupying the present moment, but instead despairing an imagined future. When we fall into despair, we buy into a belief that nothing we do matters or will ever matter. This belief chips away at our will to care – and without caring, there is little motivation to be of benefit in the world. Despair is a near enemy of compassion, because it can be mistaken for “caring too much”. As Roshi Joan Halifax points out in her book Standing at the Edge, when we are in despair we have fallen over the edge of compassion into an untenable abyss.

Fortunately, a dedicated mindfulness practice can help us stand firmly and solidly on the edge where we can continue to be of service in the world – or give us the wisdom and fortitude to find our way out of the abyss when we’ve fallen in. Through our practice, we cultivate the resilience to bear witness to life’s difficulties and choose a skillful response. It helps us develop an embodied sense of:

  • Humility – we recognize that we often cannot know the ultimate outcome of things or the greater meaning behind how things are unfolding. For example, we have been surprised by a growing ecosystem around nuclear disaster sites. To learn about the impact on animal life, wildlife ecologist James Beasley, an associate professor at the University of Georgia studied the exclusion zones near the Chernobyl and Fukushima Daiichi nuclear reactor disaster sites. He found that despite dire predictions, populations of animals are increasing, including previously endangered species. According to his research, there is no correlation between contamination levels and the abundance of wildlife in the zone. Another example is the concept of Post-traumatic growth. Studies have shown that people who endure psychological struggle following adversity can often see positive growth afterward, developing new understandings of themselves, the world they live in, and how to relate to other people. This includes an increased appreciation of life, improved relationships with others, expanding openness to possibilities, and greater resilience.
  • Interconnection – we come to see that impacts and outcomes involve something greater than our small selves. By acknowledging those who existed before us, those yet to be born, and our interdependence upon other beings and the ecosystem that sustains us, we step out of the confines of time and “I, me and mine“, taking a less personal, more expanded view of experience. We realize on a deeper level that we are not alone, and this understanding helps sustain us.

I will not fall into despair… I will keep myself hearty ’til freedom is opportune… – Solomon Northup, 12 Years a Slave

Joan Baez in known to have said, “Action is the antidote to despair”. Following this sage advice, when we sense we may be falling into despair, we can choose to take mindful action. We are empowered to:

  • Intentionally cultivate within ourselves mindful attitudes, such as compassion and beginner’s mind.
  • Practice self care to resource ourselves for working with difficulty.
  • Allow ourselves space to grieve losses and disappointments.
  • Realize impersonality and cultivate selflessness – Kierkegaard said despair is loss of meaning of self. By seeing the bigger picture and taking a longer view, we do not rely on the self alone for our sense of meaning and purpose. We recognize the small, but important role we play in the greater web of existence.
  • Give voice to and advocate for needed change according to our deepest values, within our spheres of influence.

…I grew up on the Great Lakes and recognize a seaworthy vessel when I see one. Regarding awakened souls, there have never been more able crafts in the waters than there are right now across the world. And they are fully provisioned and able to signal one another as never before in the history of humankind. I would like to take your hands for a moment and assure you that you are built well for these times. Despite your stints of doubt, your frustrations in arighting all that needs change right now, or even feeling you have lost the map entirely, you are not without resource, you are not alone.

Look out over the prow; there are millions of boats of righteous souls on the waters with you. In your deepest bones, you have always known this is so…. One of the most important steps you can take to help calm the storm is to not allow yourself to be taken in a flurry of overwrought emotion or despair – thereby accidentally contributing to the swale and the swirl. Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach…. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good. What is needed for dramatic change is an accumulation of acts – adding, adding to, adding more, continuing.

– excerpt from Do Not Lose Heart, We Were Made for These Times, by Clarissa Pinkola Estés, Ph.D.

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