How to Find Ground Where There is None
By Joy Reichart, New Ventures West, guest contributor
This article has several questions for reflection in blue italics. In these places, you’re invited to pause, feel into your response, and perhaps explore a bit with some notes or journaling.
In the fall of 2017, New Ventures West founder James Flaherty wrote this invitation.
"As I write, another category five hurricane is bearing down upon the Caribbean, President Donald Trump has just threatened to “totally destroy” North Korea, the U.S. Congress is making plans to take healthcare away from tens of millions of American children and adults … and those are just the headline stories. We also have our close-in, individual suffering/limitations/terrors to face: sickness—our own and that of our beloved ones, the uncertainty/despair of many of our own children, our aging and loss of our abilities and powers, and, of course, death.
What happens for you as you read this list? Can you stay with it? Do you want to look on “the brighter side”?
My point is not to depress, but to collectively become more fully aware of what’s happening. Our shared world is being disrupted, rearranged, is collapsing in many ways. How will we respond?
The first essential step is being able to fully face the situations in our shared and individual worlds. We too easily distract ourselves, pointlessly complain and gossip, throw up our hands in resignation. We then abandon our vision, undercut our strength, dilute our genuine compassion, and replace it with pity and blaming others.
We can, however, re-find our feet and stand with resolve and dignity, reawaken our courage and intelligent sensitivity, reoccupy our hearts and our connections to everyone, no matter how we think or feel about them."
There was a small part of me—the one James is speaking to, the part committed to not turning away—who knew in 2017 that things wouldn’t get any better. Still, it’s shocking to see where we are just over four years later. Even with all the wisdom and guidance in James’s words, there is too much happening now for any one human psyche, heart or nervous system to make sense of.
This is especially evident in this very moment in history, April 2022, when, just as the worst of the global pandemic seems to be receding at last, a massive war has broken out in Eastern Europe. Around and beneath these all-consuming events live all the forms of injustice, oppression, greed and ignorance that both fuel and are fueled by the collapse of our systems and the destruction of the planet.
I don’t need to recap all that is going on. Even if you can’t bear to bring it all to mind, your body certainly feels it.
Some thinkers refer to this as a metacrisis. Here’s how futurist educator Zak Stein puts it.
“There are a large number of crises drawing increasing amounts of public attention, such as the ecological, economic, immigration, geopolitical, and energy crises. But there is also an invisible crisis unfolding within our own minds and cultures that is getting much less attention. This is the metacrisis, which has to do with how humans understand themselves and the world… systems and societies are in trouble, but it is the psyche—the human dimension—that is in the direst of straits.” - Kyle Kowalski quoting Zak Stein in A Crisis of Crises: What is the Metacrisis?
When doing falls short
We’re smart humans. We know how to solve problems and set things right. So when things are as complex as they are now, it’s common and understandable that we start doing. I know that whenever I feel anxiety in my body, suddenly my home becomes very clean. Furniture gets rearranged, old objects thrown away, dinners cooked, dishes washed…Any of this sound familiar? What’s your go-to when things are feeling out of your control?
When COVID was at the forefront of our collective attention, horrible as it was, there were at least clear actions we could take to protect ourselves and each other and contain its spread. There were obvious ways to care for and support each other. Those ways weren't perfect and certainly weren’t easy, but they led somewhere.
Everything else that is happening, though? This meta-crisis? Certainly, there are donations we can make. Prayers we can say. Shelter we can offer. Solidarity we can express. We can stay open to learning, try to educate ourselves and each other about what we don’t know. All of these are wonderful ways of trying to orient ourselves in the chaos and make what difference we can. But even if we devote every waking minute to this, it is beyond any individual or even group of individuals to address in any significant way.
Take a moment to feel into the response in your system to that statement. What’s arising in you? Knowing? Relief? Fear? Outrage? Have you already gone to the comments and started typing up your argument?
Turning toward, bearing witness
Stephen Jenkinson, an educator on death and dying, likens being awake in the world right now to witnessing the death of a parent. He says,
“You approach. You’re terrified, you’re enormously distraught, you don’t know what to say or do, but still you must make your feet walk toward his/her deathbed. That’s the obligation we have if the culture itself is dying. Our job is to be a faithful witness to what is happening.”
Heavy stuff, but if you are reading this, you already have the capacity to acknowledge it, and have likely been sitting with the question of how to do just this—how to turn toward.
This is what James is inviting us into above: to continue to develop ourselves in such a way that we can stay with all that is happening. It is the way of being we are cultivating as Integral Coaches—for the sake of supporting our clients, our communities, and indeed bringing what light we can to the world. To stand fully in our vocation, holding space for ourselves and others to remain present in the face of all we can’t control.
Responsiveness and right action
Naturally, this isn’t a call to sit there and do nothing at all; however, the action we take is most effective when we are attuned to what is called for. Sure, we can respond to invitations to donate, we can get caught up in burgeoning movements online, we can head in any of the infinite directions that attract our longing to fix and help. However, if we are not anchored in our bodies and the knowing that lives there, our actions are less likely to have an impact.
It is therefore important to cultivate responsiveness: another central focus of Integral Coach training. By attuning to our three centers of intelligence - mind, heart, and body - we begin to develop the capacity to respond more skillfully in the world. Try feeling into this quality right now by asking yourself: What is here in this moment, or what is alive for the person sitting in front of me, or what call do I hear from the world right now… and what is called for in response?
This is how we continue to locate ourselves and one another in this choppy ocean of space and time. It’s how we stay connected to the ground. This way we’re less likely to dissolve and lose track of ourselves, getting caught up in the chaos and augmenting it with our own arbitrary actions.
Self-compassion and community
Ultimately, when I’ve tired of futilely ‘accomplishing’ things, what helps is to find my way back to myself through practice: sitting, writing, martial arts. Connecting with a community who never fails to orient me to myself. Dropping the body of the One Holding the World Together and remembering I am one of billions of overwhelmed bodies doing our best to make sense of it all.
Nothing is ‘solved’ in these moments, per se, but my nervous system is calmed, and then I am available to bear witness to what is happening, and support others as I can. What practices, people, resources aid you in reconnecting with yourself?
Still, it’s all too big. It’s way too big. There is no one answer. Allowing ourselves to surrender to this truth, even just for a few seconds each day, starts to open up space for us to be with it in new ways. Can you let yourself be in the enormity of this for a moment? What happens?
Always, always there are communities we can connect into—ones that hold the shared intention to stand in the fullness of life, however it is expressing itself just now.
Joy Reichart is the Communications Director at New Ventures West in San Francisco.
New Ventures West invites you into a community space, where you can begin to learn skillful ways of holding space and begin to cultivate the kind of presence and compassion that is so vital right now. Join New Ventures West for a free community event or take $100 off Foundations of Coaching with the coupon code MINDFULLEADER.