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.