I Cannot Self-Regulate with Mindfulness Now That The World is Collapsing
I used to be able to self-regulate stress pretty quickly by putting myself in view of the sky or a tree, or by closing my eyes to listen to ambient sounds. I happened upon this as a young child: I have a preverbal memory of feeling my body melt into the rain in the garden beyond the screen door. I think this was the first moment I was conscious of being a self, of being me.
Later, this habit was captured and refined by teaching and training in Buddhism and mindfulness and yoga, where the instructions pointed me towards sensory awareness and breathing and interoception and (at least for me) the constancy and reassurance these offered.
“You always have the opportunity to pay attention to your breath” was an empowering instruction for me.
Or: “The breath is always there, supporting you, like a friend.”
This worked for me, and I thought it worked for everyone until a human friend told me that it wasn’t true for her because living with CPTSD means that her “regular” breathing patterns can be triggering for her to pay attention to, because they carry the rhythms of damage.
So for a while I had a skill, and a worldview that supported it. I don’t necessarily think this is or was a uniformly good thing. At times, it allowed me to spiritualize my tendency for avoidant attachment. It could be similar to the feeling I had during the years I smoked: a cigarette gave me about eight minutes of absolute aloneness, focused on my breath and not on other people. I stopped smoking when I found meditation, but a part of that avoidant/dissociative drive remained. In a sneaky way, it got buried or rebranded.
These days I’m finding that I have less access to that self-regulation. I know there are many factors to this which I won’t describe beyond saying: work stress always seems to increase, parenting can be super exhausting, I’m getting older, my inherited health issues and coping strategies are more apparent, recovery time for everything is getting longer, and technology can torture me.
I also can’t unlearn the fact that mindfulness etc. is a de facto spirituality of neoliberalism. My politics can no longer tolerate privatized religion.
But at a heart level, there’s something else, related to the nature of the tree itself. It helps me understand my friend with CPTSD more experientially, even though I don’t carry that history.
Here it is:
The self-regulation I’ve described above and relied on is inseparable from naturalistic security.
It depends on a vision of and relationship to the “natural” world that has been lost, and cannot be recreated or sustained except through the delusions of privilege.
I haven’t realized it until now: for me, mindfulness depends on a functional and safe world. My friend tells her classes that the benefits of mindfulness depend on having a nervous system that hasn’t been hijacked by trauma.
There’s an overlap between these two things: trauma can make the world insecure. Trauma can make the breath a stranger.
Yesterday I’m pushing the three year-old on a swing in the park. He’s bubbling over with glee but I’m spinning out. I pause, turn off my phone, and that’s a little better. I train my eyes on the grandmother maple in the middle distance and try to match my breathing with the movement of leaves in the light wind. For a moment I drop down and inside in a familiar way, but it only lasts for a moment.
The moment is not just broken because the six year-old is calling for me to watch a monkey bars trick. It’s broken because the tree cannot hold my attention.
Why? Because I do not believe it, trust it, nor feel I deserve it. It shimmers in and out of view. That same morning I’d read about the Greenland ice sheet losing more water in a single day than scientists thought possible, and the image of those torrents of water seem to form the backdrop for the tree, washing the in-the-moment-perception of it away. The convergence of real news about the destruction of “nature” and the technological immediacy with which that news is delivered has injured my brain to the extent that I cannot trust or relax into my senses.
The news has become a hologram projected onto its subject.
This distrust runs so deep that even if for a moment I do relax into the maple branches there is a part of me that knows that this beautiful tree and this perfect weather today is not simply the way things are, but an illusion running on borrowed time. Not just the existential, borrowed time of those aware of death. That’s so nineteenth century. I’m talking about the borrowed time of ecological injustice; the borrowed time of knowing that this tree’s cousins are on fire in Siberia in a way that is inseparable from the embodied carbon trapped in the coffee cup in my hand, that this weather is connected to that glacial melt or the heat waves in Iran.
At times I fantasize about unplugging. At the end of the summer we get a week on an island up north with family, and unplugging will happen there. It will be healthy for my nervous system, and maybe I should do it more often. But parenting is a constant call to attention if not vigilance, and this seems to intersect with the moral imperative of not shutting out the torrents of melting glacial water, even as they threaten to wash me away.
I don’t have an answer to this beyond starting to name it, and being shown that discussing these things with my partner is at the core of any relief I might have. The natural world cannot regulate me in its embrace of security and constancy, because they have shattered it, we have shattered it, I have shattered it.
Now I look for peace by attuning to the rhythms of those I love, and feeling how our struggles resonate. I look for it in the joy of my children, but also worry I will become a vampire upon them. So I try to limit how much they see my depressive gaze looking at them for relief.
I know that this is not my fault, and that guilt will get me nowhere, but yet it is my responsibility, and I will keep trying.
Self-regulation, insofar as it depends on intact forests and glaciers, can no longer be a primary value for me. I want and need to be relatively sane and functional, but that’s no longer going to happen through some privileged waltz with an idealized and eternal world.
It will happen, I think, by going deeper into how I love people, deeper into how I can expand the circle of who I love, deeper into what it is like to share suffering and uncertainty.
So I suppose that “sharing” is replacing the “natural world” for me as the baseline source of constancy. I’m trading in self-regulation for co-regulation.
Mindfulness says “the tree is there now and I am here with it”
The image of the tree gone or suffering, even the other trees suffering, is mind stuff.
There is a suffering tree, but I can choose this tree. I care about the suffering trees and ice sheets melting; all the failures we make with nature. But I can’t live a life based on that point of reference. I can’t be an activist based on that chaos or my own actions create more chaos.
I need a center so I can choose action that flows from as much inner peace as I can cultivate. Mindfulness Helps me.
The idea (which I also have) that mindfulness won’t work, is the hologram of news being successful. It’s the ego telling me “Get off your ass and worry!”
It may be the spirituality of neoliberals and Buddhists. But Mindfulness cannot be claimed. The books and apps and retreats and gurus don’t own it. Those attachments are again, mind stuff.
Love as a source of inner guidance sounds like the stuff of A Course in Miracles. Perhaps a source of investigative fun! I know of one such bizarre ACIM cult in Wisconsin Dells!
Well said, sadly! This would be a great submission to the NY Times for a wider audience.
I commented on this in your FB thread when you started to explore it, and I am happy to see it here in your blog. I sometimes consider that Consciousness is neutral. It does not discriminate between our bodily and psychological sense of comfort v. distress. Also that our dying earth might be beautiful and a pure expression of consciousness, or more scientifically, just an expression of forces at play in the Universe. (Not that I think we should use this as an excuse to surrender efforts to save it.) It’s only our own perspective….our need for this earth… that make the changes we are seeing a problem. It is only traumatic for us (living humans) as part of the biome…come parasite…who have infested this organism in a way that destroys it. So perhaps it was false to find refuge in the earth in the first place. Because we discriminate…we look towards the beautiful, comfortable and the peaceful, or the awe inspiring. Perhaps it was incorrect to turn our gaze towards what made us feel safe for solace in the first place, refusing to fully take in the tragedy, ugliness and violence in nature. Here is an excerpt from a recent blog post of mine…. Don’t mean to take up space on your platform. Just thought you might be interested because I’m struggling in a similar way. Also…this thing you say about family. YES! There is little time to self-regulate via the methods we learned before children. So how to weave those moments in throughout the day IN THE CONTEXT of family life…which is…the hardest! For some context, the subject of this post was how yoga teachers promise the comforting notion of ‘transformation’…but can’t really deliver:
“Human beings evolved to watch for the turn of season, the strike of the predator, and the spear of the enemy. In the modern absence of those things, we don’t know what to do with our leisure-time, so we re-create (and invent) scarcity, fear and violence. This manifests from a deep place of “I need more.”
Our yoga teachers sometimes invite us to become conscious of our dissatisfaction with our human condition. (Though without the following statement, this may not be very good for business.) From within that ‘noticing’ we are quickly advised to “open our hearts” to a sense of compassion/gratitude/forgiveness”. With this exercise, she (usually ‘she’) reminds us that if we focus on the compassion/gratitude/forgiveness, our attention shifts. I’ve said it myself as a teacher, and must admit that in the context of modern practice, it works. For the moment.
Consider, however, that this is shallow training from teacher to student. It is nothing more than another soundbite. Not because it’s not true, or because it can’t open someone to feeling, or because it’s not worth saying. It is shallow because that mat, that retreat, that clean studio with the sculpture, those friendly people, that beautiful teacher, that context, does not ask the student to stretch (except maybe limbs). It’s easy to see the ‘light’ from within the privilege of comfort and self-care.
This moment is not a transformative moment, it is a moment of celebration—the validation of a wish. There is nothing wrong with that. Indeed, we should celebrate. We should wish. But let’s call it what it is: Short of the occasional minor revelation, the reminder is but a shallow exercise in revisiting something we already know but are not yet courageous enough to fiercely apply.”
well that seems right – trading in self-regulation for co-regulation, since so much of the injury we do/have done to the planet is done in the name of the toxic ideology of “independence” in defiance of the “natural” truth of interdependence. so perhaps this moment is calling us to wake up to how truly interdependent we are, how the melting of the arctic ice and the colonialism in your coffee are connected to the fact that we are all going crazy because we are fundamentally animals who know when their homes are threatened. i am glad you are waking up to the fact that mindfulness is based on privileged and sometimes spiritual bypass and that privatized religion is also part of the problem and the delusion that has let us forget how complicit we are in the death of the world. keep on writing. no one has the answers. we probably won’t get out of here alive – that is the human race – and as a parent, i empathize with your suffering on behalf of the children. but the race is not quite run and waking up is the best way to keep in it. with love
This is one of the best essays I have read in a long time. Thank you.
Feelings so recognizable. The interoception (I looked it up 🙂 ) of Vipassana is, I often say, the most powerful skill I ever learned. It then of course moves into Metta. The stage one Metta meditation flows naturally out of the interoception of oneself but as one moves into the stages focused outside oneself a certain narcissism falls away and a focused kindness for others takes over. Soon that kindness becomes dominant and concern for one’s inner turmoil becomes a distant memory. I hope this helps in these difficult times.
Two (maybe three) major fallacies surface, even against the author’s apparent training:
1. That mindfulness is about avoidance. Mindfulness is the opposite of avoidance. Even if your breath is irregular, you can attune to it.
2. That the “world” is collapsing. It depends on what one means by “world.” Our time on it as humans is simply, finally, starting its final act. The planet, and many species besides us, will abide. No one can or should apologize for my species; climate change should be prevented at all costs. But we all know it won’t. So stop having babies, embrace someone you love, and breathe.
Wow. Thanks for putting your thoughts out there. Amazing to read, and I get a sense of similar feelings coming up for me. So important to read this right now.
Please write a book. People need to read this.
I’m wondering what you mean by “I also can’t unlearn the fact that mindfulness etc. is a de facto spirituality of neoliberalism. My politics can no longer tolerate privatized religion.”? Do you mean “a new kind of liberalism” or the economic theory?
The economic theory.