I’ve been thinking a lot about social media activism, and what we as individuals can do at these times of powerlessness and fear. I’ve been thinking about the ease with which online conversation turns ugly and hateful. I’ve been thinking about how I can “hold the center” for my students in an online environment, and what this idea might mean to them. This is an expression in yoga that many believe doesn’t mean anything, only because of how challenging it is to define.
Hold the Center, Hold the Space
As a human, I have bad days. [Insert shocked gasp here.] As much as the students in our community are empathetic and caring people, this is not their problem. They are in the room with me because they have their own trauma, and are looking for a space to get this trauma out of their systems. They have family who have recently died, or demeaning bosses who are shredding their sense of selfhood, or are facing health problems that seem insurmountable. They have given me their money and time, entrusted me with their bodies and minds, in order to find a way to strengthen their resolve and face another day. If my energy is scattered, if I let the petty human parts of me encroach on their safe space, I have not only done them a disservice, I have failed to practice my vocation.
This is not to say my human parts are unwelcome in a class. On the contrary, I will draw upon my personal experiences or ways the practice has personally helped me frequently. However, at the end of class when we say Namaste, I tell people this means that the highest, best possible version of me honors them. I work to make sure that is as true of a statement as I can offer in that moment. I am not always perfect. Sometimes my scatterbrained tendencies leak into class, or my personal practice is not strong enough to counter the energy coming toward me from a class that has a lot going on. One class I teach is for people suffering from serious mental illnesses, and may also have significant developmental disabilities. It is all the more important that I am reading them to see what instruction in working, what isn’t, as well as what unexpected issues may be arising for each student individually.
Sometimes classes bring up strong emotion. Students struggling with bodies that no longer function the way they wanted begin to veer toward self-loathing. Moments of vulnerability and challenge can bring up strong emotions from no where. It is not unheard of for students to begin weeping uncontrollably, sometimes for the first time in decades. On at least one occasion a severely traumatized student had a full blown panic attack. It is vitally important when this happens that these students feel as though they are in a safe place and that “This too shall pass.” My personal energy contributes toward creating and protecting this space, so that they can withdraw inward to reflect, or extend outward to overcome challenge, as much as they need in the moment.
Holding the center means being able to set the superficial aspects of being human aside while still accessing those deepest aspects that help us connect. I may set aside an immediate and personal grievance with an individual before class, but try to empathize with both the opposing party and how very human it is for us to have grievances. I may consider how others have experienced this emotion, noting the physical sensation of emotional response in my body. I may use my breath, awareness, and practices to prevent a sensation from rising up to identify itself as anger or self-righteousness and attempt to overthrow the calm selfhood that observes this.
This is a practice all adults do, and one we’ve been trained to do from a young age. When a 3 year old takes a toy from a fellow 3 year old, a battle ensues. There may be blows, there may be tears, there may be harsh words. As we age, we develop more civilized methods of dealing with others. We learn to control our impulses toward taking what we want, overpowering others so that our desires are exclusively met, and using violence to maintain our wishes. This practice continues as we age, growing in subtlety and nuance. At 16, we no longer push someone over and take their car keys as we would when toddlers. We may still belittle, bully, or socially ostracize others in a show of power, however. As adults, we may want to buck authority in a lengthy office meeting, but we don’t begin yelling and shove the person controlling the Powerpoint presentation. We learn to acknowledge that our emotional response is an internal, personal process, and that our external actions do not have to be informed or controlled by our emotions or thoughts.
Holding the center is simply a continuation of that practice: Digging deep within one’s self to create a stable ground for those around me, even if I disagree with them, while stretching upward and outward to provide a shade cover for them to protect them from the harsh burn that can come with an Icarian striving toward enlightenment. However, it requires significant recharge time. Anyone who has ever been in a position of service toward others, whether a high school teacher, hospital administrator, or fast food cashier, knows that humanity in pain or under stress has a significant imprint on others.
The Imbalance of Human Nature: Attachment, Order, Aversion, and Other
When a crisis occurs, people have two immediate responses: to pull and to push. We pull by trying to connect: we find things we have in common with the circumstance, perhaps a time we were in that place, or a way we are similar to a victim. We talk about friends who’ve had similar experiences, or newspaper accounts we’ve read. When we are pulling too hard, we pass empathy into a mild self-absorption, focusing more on the things in us than the connection itself. Then we push, which often comes in some combination of trying to exert order, an aversion, or Othering.
Think, for instance, of a minor fender bender you read about on social media or a local news site. You recall a friend telling you that they’d once been rear ended at that corner. You think of a time you’ve been rear-ended and what a pain it can be to deal with the hassles of insurance and body shops. You feel the emotion of irritation rise up. You think that Whoever Is In Charge There should put up a Sign. Perhaps a local, state, or federal government, you think. You think about the possibility of getting rear-ended, or worse, of being a pedestrian and getting hit there. Of course, you’ve never gotten in an accident at that corner, after all, you’re a more defensive driver than your friend,
These are all natural, human responses. You see the outcome in the comments on any news story. First we pull, then we order, then we push away or Other. There is nothing innately wrong with this cognitive process, and in fact reveals a survival instinct. In order to avoid the discomfort of fear and the uncertainty of harmful accidents, we list reasons we might reasonably never have to face a similar circumstance. These reasons are sometimes absurd or ridiculous, depending on how emotionally we want to push the trauma away. Sometimes we are so desperate to avoid a horrific trauma, such as a very violent tragedy or one that hits especially close to home, that we’ll accept bad reasons, completely irrational arguments or self-absorbed perspectives. These are innate responses we’ve had since childhood. Think back to our fighting toddlers: If you ask the children why they fought, they will each say the other is mean, wasn’t sharing, etc. As an adult, you know the real reason they fought was an inability to communicate and regulate their emotional responses.
As we grow older, we become more sophisticated in both of these skills. We are better able to articulate our emotional reactions to ourselves and others, and we are better able to recognize that emotions are fleeting and that we shouldn’t act on thoughts that are tainted with an emotional perspective. However, at times when we are under great stress, our physiology kicks in, stress response takes over, and our higher levels of cognition shut down. Our reptilian brain takes over, and we instinctively react. The function of being an adult, in any culture, is learning how to overcome this weakness of humanity and rise above the rest of the animals.
When we are forced, by duty or circumstance, to face the darkest places of our humanity, we have to psychologically protect ourselves, and those who must function on the forefront of our human battles– the police, military personnel, EMTs, ER staff, prison staff– often need to compartmentalize the human from the job in order to continue working for greater social good. Sometimes this compartmentalizing can go wrong.
This becomes a problem in the case of extreme Othering. Othering refers to the process by which we establish that other people are Not Like Ourselves. When we feel our language shifting from us to them, we are Othering. “We all live in nice houses, but THEY live in hovels.” Sometimes it’s “We live sensibly, but THEY [spend too much on trivial things, behave in ways that are too loud, don’t behave in ways we want].” In very bad cases it’s “They aren’t even human” or “They’re animals.”
Throughout history, this type of labeling has led people to be able to make horrible, horrible decisions that deeply harmed not only individuals, but our species as a whole. It is this dehumanization that allowed some of the worst genocides to occur, as well as internment camps, military and police beatings, mass kidnappings & torture.
We like to think this instinct is only present in the evil, the inhumane, and the inhuman. In fact, we all have the capacity to become cruel when given power over another, or to do harm when we feel we aren’t responsible. Anger, although able to provide a lot of short term fuel, is a flimsy bandage trying to protect a deep wound of sorrow. Frustration is a bandage disguising that our ability to control the world around us is a lie, and we may only attempt to influence it at best. Generalization is an attempt to simplify incredibly complicated, mind-boggling, overwhelming problems. Hate is the extreme revulsion we feel when we simply cannot understand or connect to another and any attempt to shape our heart or mind to do so makes us frantic or ill. When we find people engaged in these behaviors, it is like coming upon someone who has just clawed his or her way out of the smoking wreckage of the vehicle and climbed back up the ravine: This is not a good time to criticize his or her driving.
What can I do to help?
As we reflect in thus tumultuous time, seeing the potential of expanding war again, we can take a narrow view, seeing only what is right in front of us. We may feel powerless to do anything, or feel the only way to defend ourselves is to take an offensive stance, perhaps even leading to vigilantism. Quite simply, it is more productive to be a fellow human and citizen. In order to prevent this natural temptation toward hate & anger, allow me to give you a list of ways you can productively help combat them:
Take the time to research your statements. Check multiple sources, even opposing ones, and examine not only the statements but the source itself. Aim for the least biased sources.
Notice when your internal, emotional response may be clouding your judgment. Take time to continually check-in with yourself. Observe the sensations of pushing and pulling so you will feel them arise in your chest, belly, and throat. A meditation practice can help you recognize the sensations of thought. It is human nature to tell other people how to clean their houses before we check to see if we’ve cleaned our own as thoroughly as possible. Take care of your own inner state and find your center before rushing off to herd others.
Be an active member of your community:
When you notice yourself or others constructing their opponents as less than human or Other, take a moment to see if there is perhaps a connection between you that has been overlooked and remind everyone involved that we are both connected as humans, and individuals who cannot be stereotyped or generalized. Notice when you use “they” instead of “we.” When you sense you are pushing, see if there is a common connection you can use to “pull” you back to the middle.
Hospice, hospital, hospitality, and hostile all come from the same place: hostis (enemy, stranger), which eventually merged with potis (potential, capability) to form hospes. THIS IS IMPORTANT! A stranger has the potential to be a friend when treated as a guest in our home! A stranger becomes hostile when treated as an enemy. The world of social media makes it challenging to create and observe these safe spaces: Don’t say anything under the guise of social media that you wouldn’t say to a person’s face if you were both dinner guests in someone’s home.
You may recall reading To Kill a Mockingbird. Although Atticus Finch may have changed as a character for people who’ve read the recent sequel, I always think of Scout as the real force for good. There is a moment that the small town is gathering in mutual fear, based on misunderstood rumor and “facts” they intentionally manufactured to allow them to feel good planning murder. They intend to storm the jail and kill the untried man who will ultimately be convicted despite his obvious innocence. The mob isn’t really stopped by Atticus, or any authority figure. It’s stopped by the young girl narrating the story, Scout, and she has no idea that it’s happened. How does she do it? She calls people by their name, looks them in the eye, and reminds them how they are connected to her and to each other.
This is how we combat hatred at home. When we see ignorance, we do not attack someone who is in pain and trying to survive. We offer solace and knowledge. When we see people becoming a thoughtless mass, we remind each person who they are and that we are connected. When we see someone treating another as less than human, we recognize that this is a fearful instinct similar to a trapped badger, and approach slowly and with compassion. We do not shame them for reacting with a survival instinct, but rather point out the mutual connections of humanity you all share, like Scout, reminding each person how she knew them and who they were. We hold the center.
In short, we have to return to a sense of humanity. When we are online, we have to remember that (at least SOME) of the accounts are operated by real humans. When we approach people we don’t know, we should approach them as though they are worthy of our respect, instead of as though they have to prove something first. When we recognize that we are using “they” or expecting people to conform to our understanding of the world, to the point of sensing frustration or anger in our bellies and chests, we should take a moment to breath, find a spot on the floor to focus on for a few moments, recite a mantra or affirmation, or redirect our attention until we can treat people as we want to be treated.