Emergency first-aid kit for difficult times
I’m in one of those moments when it feels like the universe is taking a dump on you.
Maybe to see if you can deal with it, maybe just because shit happens.
It’s a concatenation of difficult things – family troubles, relationship troubles, work setbacks.
And on top of all that, the climate crisis, and the end of the world as we know it.
I read a great essay by the literary scholar Roy Scranton, in the MIT Technology Review, where he thinks about the good life in a collapsing civilization. He writes:
the good life as we know it is no longer viable. Consider everything we take for granted: perpetual economic growth; endless technological and moral progress; a global marketplace capable of swiftly satisfying a plethora of human desires; easy travel over vast distances; regular trips to foreign countries; year-round agricultural plenty; an abundance of synthetic materials for making cheap, high-quality consumer goods; air-conditioned environments; wilderness preserved for human appreciation; vacations at the beach; vacations in the mountains; skiing; morning coffee; a glass of wine at night; better lives for our children; safety from natural disasters; abundant clean water; private ownership of houses and cars and land; a self that acquires meaning through the accumulation of varied experiences, objects, and feelings; human freedom understood as being able to choose where to live, whom to love, who you are, and what you believe; the belief in a stable climate backdrop against which to play out our human dramas. None of this is sustainable the way we do it now.
Take everything from me, climate change, but leave me my morning coffee for pity’s sake.
These difficulties, personal and planetary, make me feel heavy and sad, like gravity has suddenly increased. It makes me feel blue. I mean, literally blue – my face and skin colour change when I’m really sad, and I go a sort of pinky-blue, like a chicken breast past its sell-by-date.
But by now, in my 40s, I’m quite experienced at these difficult times. And I’m OK at dealing with them.
Here’s my three-step emergency process for difficult times.
When difficult thoughts and emotions arise and punch you in the stomach, don’t try and push them away. Accept them. Welcome them. But welcome them without identifying with them.
This thought, this emotion, banging on the door of your attention right now, is welcome to come in, but it is not you. It’s a part of you, which arises and then passes away, like a cloud is a part of the sky.
This Rumi poem has helped me for decades:
Learn the alchemy
True Human Beings know:
the moment you accept what troubles you’ve been given,
the door opens.
Welcome difficulty as a familiar comrade.
Joke with torment brought by a Friend.
Sorrows are the rags of old clothes and jackets that serve to cover, and then are taken off.
That undressing, and the beautiful naked body underneath, is the sweetness that comes after grief.
When a difficult thought or emotion arises, you can react with fear and shame or anger, but that makes it far worse.
You can lose lifetimes in that vortex.
Instead, hold your ground and welcome the difficulty as an opportunity for the practice of self-compassion and radical healing.
There, where it really hurts, where you feel most weak and inadequate, is where some of the most important work of your life will happen.
You can do the work – do the magical alchemy that Rumi speaks of – by practicing kindness to yourself, kindness to that painful part of you.
The Tibetan Buddhist nun Pema Chodron says, in her life-saving book When Things Fall Apart:
Right here in what we'd like to throw away, in what we find repulsive and frightening, we discover the warmth and clarity of bodhichitta (loving-kindness).
We can allow difficult thoughts and emotions to arise and pass away because there is something within us which is not this thought or this emotion, but which instead witnesses them arising and passing away.
This is what Acceptance and Commitment Therapy calls the ‘transcendent sense of self’. It is the space of awareness and light, into which the wild animals of our thoughts and emotions emerge.
You are not this anxiety, but you can observe it with compassion. You are not this depression, but you can let it be.
You can let these shaggy beasts arise and pass, without pushing them away or identifying with them too strongly.
Hold the space with kindness, equanimity and light.
The more monstrous the visitor, the greater the reward when you overcome your aversion and hold your space with kindness.
Be like Chihiro in Miyazaki’s classic Spirited Away. When a Stink Monster visits the bath-house where she works, and everyone else runs away in fear and loathing, she has the courage, kindness and equanimity to hold her space. Then the monster reveals itself to be a river spirit, and grants her a boon. (You can watch the scene here - it’s a wonderful film if you haven’t seen it).
This means that we have a set of values which we commit to, even when things are very tough.
In tough times you realize that happiness is not a sufficient goal or life-philosophy.
Sometimes you’re not happy. And if you sit around waiting to be happy, things won’t change.
Basing your life around happiness is like being a cyclist who will only cycle downhill. You’re not going to get very far in life.
Instead, we commit to certain values, certain practices, and try to do them on happy-feeling days and sad-feeling days.
For me, that means trying to do a morning meditation. It means trying to think about other people and do something to improve someone’s day.
It means trying to take care of my body. Exercise is a massive help to me when I am down. Yesterday I biked from Bristol to Bath and back. In the middle of the bike ride, I got some bad work news. I was in the perfect place to deal with that – biking through beautiful fields.
At a deeper level, it means committing to a certain ethics, a certain vision of the good life, even when you’re not sure what difference it makes.
Roy Scranton writes:
Our apocalypse is happening day by day, and our greatest challenge is learning to live with this truth while remaining committed to some as-yet-unimaginable form of future human flourishing.
We don’t know what the future will be or what kind of good life will be possible in it, but we have to keep faith that some form of goodness will be possible. And that our ethical actions today have meaning, even if we can’t prevent the collapse of our civilization.
We don’t know what human civilization will look like in 50 years, or even if humans will exist in 50 years.
The Enlightenment religion of progress, the faith that things will keep getting better for every generation, is ending.
It can feel like nothing matters. And from a mystical perspective, maybe it’s true that nothing really matters much, not in the way we think it does.
Yet everything matters as well. Each little interaction matters. Each act of kindness or unkindness matters, down to the words we say and the food we eat.
It matters even if this is our last day on Earth.
According to Tibetan Buddhists, your last days on Earth are an incredibly fecund opportunity, a time of potential liberation. You may do all the work you’ve been sent here to do in those last few days.
We happen to be born into this difficult time, an end-time. But maybe there’s a blessing in that, and even a compliment.
We have been set a hard level. But hard levels are not bad. Hard levels are good. You can do a lot of good in a hard level.
You may not share my faith in reincarnation and karma, but you could have a humanist version of ‘everything matters’ as well, where you do the right thing and try to spread kindness and justice, just because you think it’s the right thing to do.
We need a commitment to a transcendent vision of goodness where we can’t necessarily see the outcomes of our actions, but we keep the faith that it’s worth it anyway.
The final tool in the emergency first-aid kit is engagement. Engaging with other people, other beings.
When one feels down, one can feel like a loser, and one’s instinct can be to hide oneself away, in shame and despondency.
Do the opposite. Do what feels totally counter-intuitive.
See people. Engage with people. Where it’s appropriate, let them know it’s a difficult time for you, but also be there for them.
Just show up, even when it’s hard.
If it’s too difficult to see humans at the moment, connect with other beings. Dogs, cats, horses, trees, rivers, angels, God.
Your suffering is not just your suffering. It is suffering. Other people are suffering too. And maybe you can help them and they can help you.
This is also true of the climate crisis. We can suffer alone, shut ourselves down with drugs and virtual reality.
Or we can go through this together. Hold each other and love each other.
So that’s my emergency first-aid kit for difficult times. Not very original, but it works.