I’m on Facebook brownout.
I check the pages that relate to my hobby. I respond to private messages. And I stop there—no scrolling, no taking the clickbait, no reading political posts (at least on the days I can resist them).
Same with the news. My capacity for grappling with world affairs is more limited than it’s ever been. I read one or two sources I trust, scan headlines elsewhere, and stop when I’m overstimulated.
From what I can see, millions of Americans are doing the same. We are afraid, exhausted, or both. So we are withdrawing.
Apparently, this is an equal opportunity plague. As someone who runs kind of center-left politically, I think of this era as particularly difficult for progressives. But thoughtful conservatives feel it too. Many of my right-wing friends don’t respond anymore when I ask their opinions. One of them cites the vicious social media climate as the reason she no longer puts her (deep, nuanced) thinking out there. According to a recent article from The Atlantic, research out of Tufts University confirms the reticence on the right to express their position.
This withdrawal can be more or less helpful, depending on exactly what we’re doing. We can turn our backs on the world once and for all (not that helpful). We can hide for a while as a form of self-care in a nasty world (more helpful). We can seek out new ways of being in the world, engaging with it, that perhaps work better. At various times, I think, I’ve done all three.
Now, a year into my own seclusion, I’m starting to see where faith and spirit can play a role. Here’s what it’s doing for me and, maybe, for many of us:
1. I sit with my fear and just…observe it.
If that sounds like zazen (a form of Zen meditation), that’s because it is. Focus on the breath; when a thought occurs, observe it and let it go. When I observe emotions like fear in this way, they tend to lose their grip on me, sinking into the larger reality of inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale. Zen reminds me that everything (including fear) is impermanent, and that attachment to anything (including fear) leads only to suffering.
Other traditions can shed different light on fear. Reflecting on a well-known Christian teaching, for example, leads me to the epiphany that everything is subsumed in the God of love. That’s what Saint John (or the writer of his letters in the Bible) meant with the words, “There is no fear in love, for perfect love casts out all fear” (1 John 4:18).
Observing my own fear tills my inner soil for the next step:
2. I acknowledge my adversaries’ fear.
Most of us don’t do this well. We think our own fears make sense—they’re justified by something—while the fears of those on the “other side” are baseless. So we dismiss Christians who feel persecuted in today’s America, or people of color who fear the police, or anyone who fears the power of (pick one) Donald Trump or the mainstream media.
Such causes of fear, and their basis in reality, are important to explore and address. In this context, though, that’s beside the point. The point is that we all feel our own fear, and we all see our own fear as legitimate. Honoring one another’s fear, however “reasonable” or “unreasonable” it is, can be a crucial first step in seeing one another as we are—which nudges us toward the compassion at the heart of every spiritual tradition.
3. I let my practice change me.
Spiritual practices give us so many benefits: inner serenity, clarity of mind, more connection with our bodies. This is very good. But they can do so much more. Many ancient sages and gurus have spread their wisdom because they understood its capacity to align people with the Ultimate (God, Source, mystery, emptiness, whatever term you use). The Buddha taught non-attachment not just because it led to individual happiness, but because it aligns us with the ultimate reality of emptiness—that is, that we are all part of a system that Thich Nhat Hanh calls “inter-being,” which describes the interconnectedness of all things devoid of any individual, separate existence.
Through spiritual practice, we allow the Ultimate to reorient our deepest selves and begin to un-do all the conditioning that has told us we are not enough. When this happens, we begin to reflect the virtues closest to the heart of the Ultimate—which, according to many faith traditions, include love, compassion, and welcoming. The more we become these virtues, the more we can extend them to people living in fear.
There’s a lot to be fearful of these days. The above methods of facing fear are not new—we’ve had them for millennia. I’m going to go ahead and keep using them until I find a new and better way to be present in this scary new world.
Author: John Backman
Image: Elephant Journal/Instagram
Editor: Callie Rushton
Copy Editor: Travis May
Social Editor: Lindsey Block