Conspirituality – the wellness community meets the far-right

An interesting theme of the last few years has been the increasing connection between parts of the wellness community and far-right conspiracy theory, conspirituality. For some people it has become almost cult-like, as seen with the QAnon movement, with its belief that Trump is the true leader battling a satanic movement within the “Deep state” of paedophiles at the highest levels.

For years the “alternative” movement has been associated with a distrust of mainstream medicine, preferring alternative medical practices, and with the pharmaceutical industry to whom were attributed sinister and conspiratorial tendencies. This has often been linked with a distrust of government who are in many cases funders of healthcare and medical practitioners, and of experts and specialists. Evidence-based rationality is supplanted by belief, very often ill-supported by evidence.

Democratic society is based ultimately on consent. When distrust gets so high, consent can be withdrawn, and authoritarianism can take its place. Arguably this trend is already observable across the globe.

The fertile ground of the pandemic

The pandemic, where an unseen virus terrorises populations across the world, is proving to be fertile territory to heighten this tendency and link it with far-right politics. The latter has long been a breeding ground of perceived sinister plots, often associating governmental actions with a “hidden” group of people with plans to take over and rule in their own purposes. Such a tendency was especially seen in Nazism, with its belief in an international Jewish-Marxist plot to rule the world. Today we are seeing a renewed upsurge in such far-right activity. QAnon has an anti-Semitic side to it, for example.

Thus we’re seeing at present a whole range of conspiracy theories, such as anti-vaxxers, or the idea that Bill Gates has put microchips in the vaccine to control us, or that we are at risk from 5G mobile technology.

As with other political movements, a strong facet is the power of belief, especially where it links with a community of fellow-believers. “Alternative” people are typically highly individualistic, what the American philosopher Ken Wilber in “A theory of Everything” describes as “Boomeritis”: “I’ll do my thing; you do your’s”. He finds this tendency amongst the Boomer generation, what he calls the “Green meme”, narcissistic, obsessively self-absorbed and convinced of its self-importance at the expense of others, and he is sceptical of the extent of its ability to develop into higher levels of spirituality, regarding it as stuck in this stage of evolution. This is where I’d suggest that the current Conspirituality are stuck. Faced with deeply unsettling change that, in the case of climate change, is potentially existential, a whole part of society is looking to revert to old belief systems with a modern twist.

An Ego defence against change

Some political scientists suggest that the Far Right upsurge is a defensive reaction, particularly amongst an older, less educated but property owning generation against change. The forces increasingly aligned to tackle climate change and the needs of the impoverished masses in this increasingly unequal world are more about what unites us and brings us together, what protects and nourishes us. They are seen as a threat, like a Marxist plot. Herein lies a great divide.

I’m struck by how the alternative movement, if movement is an appropriate word to use, has got diverted into “Conspirituality”, ie a conspiracy-theory dominated world view of spirituality. Indeed there is a whole trend in society that is anti-government, highly distrustful of authority and institutions, but needing reassurance, safety and stability. The tragedy here though is that so much about this “movement” risks being lost in the process.

An adversarial perspective

The Far Right specialises in a “Them-Us” dichotomy, or a “friend-foe” adversarial perspective. There is a hidden enemy with sinister intentions. Very often it is racist, regarding certain ethnic minorities as the danger to be eliminated. One example is the widely-held view that there is a Great Replacement taking place, where Muslims plan to dilute and weaken the white race. There is also a strong authoritarian feature, where “we’ll tell you what is right and what is wrong”. We’re seeing this tendency in White Supremacism in the US.

This is, to me, where Conspirituality has lost its way and is being caught up in a version of Ego defence where narcissism reigns supreme, and well-financed “strong men” are using the vulnerabilities of democracy to undermine it. What is missing, arguably, is a perspective that is inclusive, respectful, and tolerant of different positions. To many, across many spiritual traditions, spirituality is about love, forgiveness, compassion and connectedness. In this arena, widely seen in mystical traditions, one does not have enemies but instead one has people who might have differences but at a higher level are all One.

To read more

An article on conspirituality and the far right

Meditation is allowing yourself to simply be

“Meditation is what happens when you sit with the intention to meditate”

What’s your image of meditation? What words does it conjure up for you? How might you feel? Many might imagine someone sitting on a rock with a background of a calm sea, with their legs crossed and arms extended and resting on their knees with each index finger and thumb touching. Or on a yoga course after a yoga work-out. Or do you get the idea that’s difficult and only for terribly spiritual or flaky people? You might have tried it and given up, with all those thoughts and no calm, peace and serenity.

Man meditating in lotus pose
Yoga meditation in lotus pose by man in silhouette.

People often have very high standards by which they judge meditation, and often they are standards by which they then consider themselves to have failed. Thus, those words quoted above were very liberating for us. This is what we were told when my wife and I attended a meditation course. It might not be what you expect. However a key part of meditation is letting go, and one thing to let go of is our judgements about meditation, as indeed judgements about just about anything. It’s here that we can get into a space of acceptance, including accepting all that can come up in meditation, including our judgements.

There are of course lots of schools of meditation, lots of prescriptions about what it should be acccording to those schools. I don’t want to get into all that, because they can fit with various people’s belief systems that they like and feel attached to. I’ll just focus on what a simple meditation can be like and how we can make it happen.

Sitting

First you will probably sit, although people do do other forms, like walking meditations. Personally I’d recommend sitting for at least 20 minutes, with practice, and ideally then extend that to whatever works for you, half an hour, 40 minutes or an hour. Busy people might not be able to given themselves much time, but then we live in a time-constrained world and there’s an argument for creating the time and then finding we have the time.

So you’ll be sitting a while, and so it pays to have a comfortable, but not too comfortable, seat which supports your back. You might get rather aware of discomfort and then that can be part of “what happens”. It can become something to let go of. In time you may well not notice it.

It’s good to have an upright posture, and hence a small cushion at your back can help. You might want something warm to put over you if it’s cold or you get cold. Shawls are useful.

Hands are often placed on the lap, resting lightly. Some people place their hands one on top of the other, each facing upwards. Or you can have your hands resting on your thighs, and you might even do the finger/thumb placing mentioned above, with your hands still resting on your thighs.

You could sit on the floor, cross-legged. You will probably want a cushion, with at least a mat beneath. I prefer a chair, but then I’m a Westerner and my hips don’t do crossed-legs postures.

Comfortable arm-chairs can be used. However, I’d caution against too much comfort. It might help send you off to sleep and you might not want that. Some meditations can feel like sleep, and a useful test is if you “come to” at the alloted time feeling reasonably awake, or very sleepy. The first might feel like a kind of meditation, the second like sleep.

So, part of what happens in your meditation can be just sitting there for a while. Nothing inherently “wrong” with that. You at least sat with the intention to meditate.

Or you can get all your thoughts, opinions and views about that, which may serve you, and they may not. From a meditation point of view, they are just thoughts.

Thoughts, breathing and a mantra

What very many people will say about meditation is that what they get is a whole lot of thoughts. You might spend yur whole allocated time thinking about some issue, and come away frustrated. “That wasn’t a meditation”, you might think. More thoughts.

Thoughts can be like that. We sometimes call this kind of meditation a “shopping list” meditation. You could run through your schedule for the day like this! They can happen a lot. The trick is to not be attached to them but learn to accept them when they happen and find a way to let them go or at least become unattached to them. Thus meditation teachers often say that one can learn to regard them as white clouds in the blue sky that float across your awareness and dissolve. What can happen here is that you can learn to be aware of thoughts, to observe them, but not be caught up in them. After a while they can go on in the background, but in a sense they aren’t “you”. You can discover that you are more than your thoughts.

A classic tool in meditation is to use the breath, to feel the sensations of the breath, breathing in and breathing out, and really noticing and observing your breath. When you get caught up in thoughts, you can return your awareness to your breath. And keep doing that.

You can use your breath for various things. One can be to breathe in to any tension or anxiety and then breathe out and release the tension or anxiety – or any other stuff you’d like to let go of. Including any judgments you might have about meditation. You are so much more than your judgements and and not-so-helpful feelings.

It is often good to start your meditation with a little deep breathing, down into the diaphragm,  and breathing out long, and then settling into a pattern of regular breathing as suits you.

Many people also use a mantra, often from various spiritual traditions, both Western and Eastern. There are masses. They’re not obligatory. One can repeat the mantra on the in-breath and out-breath, or across both in- and out-breaths. Again it can both help to motivate you, as you might get inspiration from the mantra, and it can help manage thoughts. As with observing the breath, once you notice yourself engaged in thoughts, you can simply return your awareness to your breath and your mantra. Again, keep doing that.

Meditation at sunrise
Meditation at Sunrise

The intention to meditate

I’d suggest that one key is to sit with the intention to meditate, allowing what happens but with the intention to continue the kind of procedure I’ve outlined here.

I’ve avoided trying to define meditation. More head stuff, when the idea is to let go of all this intellectualising. However, this guy on this link has a good approach, although personally I think he talks too much! I like the space created by silence. But you might like it – a lot of people do.

Intention is a powerful tool. It is the focused direction of the mind on a purpose, employing the will. It is creative. When we intend, we harness the forces of the universe behind our intention, to bring it into reality, but not being attached to it. Instead we allow it to happen, trusting in the creative process. We might take action according to the intention, but we’re not engaged in fear or anxiety about it, but trusting that it will happen. This too is a thought, but it’s a powerful one.

So, one sits with the intention. Lots may get in the way, like life. Interruptions, noise, cats, children, the phone, someone at the door. Do we allow ourselves to get caught up in that, or let it go. It’s good to make arrangements so that these things don’t interrupt you in practical terms. Then all you have are your thoughts about them, and your feelings. Like guilt, worry, anger, and the rest. A bit like life.

You can get your whole life going on as you meditate. And then you can just notice it – and return to your practice. It’s superb way to learn to be more calm, unattached, accepting, and aware.

Practice it

I think it is important to practice it. Every day, on a regular basis. Keep doing it. Yes, really, every day, even when lots seem to get in the way. That too can be part of the mediation, and what needs to be let go of. That’s when people start to get the benefit. Regular, sustained practice.

It changed my life.

What do personal responsibility and narcissism have in common?

To say that we are each personally responsible for our lives and how we lead them is an attractive notion which makes sense and can enable people to take charge of their lives and make changes that make a difference. The term personal responsibility was and is a useful term in personal and professional development since it encourages a sense of ownership. It is a way out of dysfunctionality. Yet today the word has crept into the worlds of politics and business, which for some is a puzzle when they experience their leaders as very far from being personally responsible. Some such leaders are often described as narcissistic, self-obsessed and failing to lead for the common good. One might experience the narcissist in one’s personal life, as for example inauthentic and false, maybe a pathological liar and potentially dominating one’s world in a harmful way. It might be useful therefore to ask what is the link between these two traits, responsibility and narcissism?

To fight the pandemic, we are now being enjoined to “take responsibility”. It is said, for example, that it is down to everyone to be aware and act responsibly as restrictions are lifted. The use of the term “personal responsibility” in social policy is not new, one example being that people need to take responsibility to manage their affairs to avoid falling into or being stuck in unemployment or poverty. Yet originally the term was used in quite a different situation, that of personal growth.

Personal responsibility as a tool of “third force” psychology

The “third force” psychology, that emerged in the 1960’s as a challenge to psychoanalytic and behavioural theory, such as humanistic, existential and transpersonal psychology, used as a key tool the idea that we are each responsible for our lives and needed to consciously use this responsibility to become aware of what was going on in our lives and choose to make changes. It has had a profound impact and is widely used today, particularly in the English-speaking world.

As pandemic restrictions are being lifted today however, the emphasis on personal responsibility as a tool of public policy to fight the pandemic is an interesting one. To Johnson’s libertarian tendency, and responding to pressure from his own right wing, it is a matter of saying that each person is responsible for their behaviour in how they manage their conduct. The difficulty with this approach, now widely used amongst certain politicians and leaders, is that it ignores the behaviour of others who might be less enlightened and more selfish, and the mediating role of government.

It ignores the idea that in a society, the existence of which was denied by Mrs Thatcher, an earlier Prime Minister in the 1980s much admired on the Right, there is also another person at almost every step, the “you”, and there is also the group or a “we”. The approach denies the possibility that we are all connected at some level, much though many seek to deny it. People are impacted by others and impact others. This can be observed on a daily basis in how people interact, such as the infectious power of laughter.

To hand over responsibility for managing the pandemic, an ideological decision, leaving it as “everyone for him/herself”, may work, and it may cause a lot of suffering amongst those least able to help themselves. Experts in behavioural psychology for example have been questioning this approach, arguing that people also have a responsibility to others as well as ourselves. This is natural. There is a function in humans, for example, of care and compassion. Thus we often feel motivated to help others, or come to their assistance when they are in difficulty. Fritz Perls, the founder of the humanistic-existential therapy Gestalt, spoke of “response-ability” to emphasise the term. It’s like we respond to our inner candle flame and the prompts within that urge us to rise above the “sweaty little ego” and reach for our altruistic self. We are therefore both responsible to ourselves as in individual responsibility but there is also social responsibility. “No man”, wrote John Donne in the 17th Century, “is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main”.

Unless of course you are a self-obsessed narcissist

Narcissism and boomeritis

Many observers suggest that in social terms narcissism is widespread, the “me, me, me”, self-absorption. But what is a narcissist?

In psychology it is often described as an excessive interest in or admiration of oneself and one’s physical appearance. Words to describe a narcissist include self-centred, selfishness, self-importance, having a sense of entitlement, a lack of empathy or compassion, a need for admiration, vanity, conceit, egotism. Psychologists can use the term as a disorder, where in personal growth terms the self has been unable to develop beyond being psychologically like a small child and acquire an awareness of others and care and concern for them.

Such characteristics have become quite widespread in the era since the 1960s, and some suggest it is to be particularly found in the “boomer” generation that emerged in the protest movement of that era. A US philosopher Ken Wilber uses the term “boomeritis” to describe the powerful individualism of these people, the “I do my thing, you do yours”, or “nobody tells me what to do”. Such people have a strong rebellious and reformist tendency, the “fight the system” outlook, them against the world, a resistance to rules and roles. Wilber says that there is a powerful streak of narcissism here, often concealed from awareness and, while often espousing high ideals of one form or another, really belongs in development terms to an earlier stage of growth which supports an egocentric stance and denies anything universal or the responsibilities inherent in personal growth. Such people can retain an intense subjectivism which for them is a stuck phase, almost impossible to let go of.

What’s the link with personal responsibility?

So what is the link between narcissism and personal responsibility? Essentially it is something being urged on another, the “it is your problem”, but not taken for oneself since one does not accept rules and boundaries for oneself. Real personal responsibility is where someone takes ownership of an issue and basically says, “yes this is my stuff and I accept that I need to deal with it and will do so or am doing so”. A dysfunctional use of the term is where someone urges another to “take responsibility” as a deflection from ownership of an issue themselves. Contained in this is an inauthenticity. In relationship issues, one partner will blame the other, “it’s your problem”, and fail or refuse to accept that the issue is co-created. Indeed they may deflect the issue or project it on to the other. In organisations, it’s where someone is blamed where in fact it is a group matter. It can mean an abdication of responsibility.

The narcissist is an excessive inflation of the self where there is a refusal to take real ownership. To accept that they have an issue would threaten the false self that they exert great energy to try to preserve. That is why when the narcissist finally has a reckoning, if they ever do, it can be a huge crisis and they may feel everything is falling apart. Thus instead one may observe chaos around them.

Today’s world is in part an outgrowth of this tendency and arguably one should see that the attribution of personal responsibility can at times be a false attribution that does not serve people.

 

You can read more about the lack of accountability in narcissists on this link.

Hold to your values when others are missing theirs

Honesty and integrity are central to effective human relationships and their weakness or absence can be fatally destructive. It’s arguably become a trend to devalue such values in public and business life, in favour of self-interest. Thus selfishness and narcissism has become more prominent amongst leaders. Yet examining our personal compass can be a healthy activity, even as it is so palpably missing in our leaders.

Professional values

In training to become counsellors, therapists or coaches, to name three helping professions where ethical guidelines are core to their work, attention is devoted to professional ethics. Thus one learns the importance of such values as confidentiality, respect and valuing the person, commitment to the client, client safety, and so on. Professional associations support such values. Often central to these values is honesty and integrity. Following professional values helps build trust and an effective working relationship upon which good work can be done. If such values are broken, trust is destroyed and usually the relationship will be terminated.

The therapist will often follow the practice of self-evaluation in various forms. They may cultivate self-awareness, the ability so much described in this blog of being able to observe what happens for the practitioner concerned and what isn’t serving them that might need to be modified. They may use an experienced fellow practitioner as a supervisor to help this process and strengthen their work.

The weakness of values in the public sphere

Many might say today that in the public sphere, in politics, government and business, such values are seriously lacking. A spectacular recent couple of cases has been the suspected failure of the Prime Minister’s (PM) senior advisor Dominic Cummings to adhere to the public health rules during the pandemic and then the Health Secretary Matt Hancock, who has been insisting on such adherence, being caught breaching the rules. Hancock was supported by the PM but shortly after resigned, leaving a question mark over the ethics of the PM, one which many believe to be already seriously tainted. The observer is left with the thought that “it’s one rule for you and another for us”.

Such moral inconsistency is deeply destructive of trust, already seriously in question for a number of years. Many people discount politicians’ values as typical of the breed. Yet non-observance of these values undermines government since people cease to comply when voluntary observance is crucial to the success of operations. That way lies either breakdown in policy or coercion.

Such weakness in leaders is not limited to politicians. Already certain professions are distrusted as being “like that”, such as estate agents or financial advisors. However there have been some spectacular failures in senior business management. A few years ago, the Royal Bank of Scotland led by Fred Godwin almost collapsed after the 2008 crash revealed major miscalculations in how the business was run. During the pandemic the retail business of Philip Green collapsed after a long run of dubious business practices. A book published in 2018 called “Reckless Opportunists” describes the rise of a whole generation of business and political leaders for whom a moral compass and sound leadership in the public good was less important than profit and personal gain. Indeed such characteristics seem commensurate with a heady increase in executive pay.

A moral compass

When society is struggling and leaders are failing to lead, it is arguably incumbent for people to look to themselves. In one sense what is happening “out there” is a reflection of a part of ourselves. This is Jung’s concept of the Shadow. In certain branches of psychology, the shadow contains a disowned part of the self. It is experienced outside us but not owned by us. It might leak out and affect our dealings with others, and others might detect a moral inconsistency in such dealings. We can sometimes detect this in things that keep occurring. It’s like the universe is trying to draw our attention to it. Thus the importance of self-enquiry and self-awareness.

We might not like what is occurring in the world right now, but that doesn’t stop us doing our best to clean up our own act, to maintain the integrity of our moral compass, to hold to principles, and to encourage, and campaign where appropriate, for others to do the same. Heaven knows, the world needs it.

Awareness gives us hope of another possibility

To say that the world is in a mess right now can seem like an understatement. Most of the globe is struggling with a second wave of the pandemic and many worry about the capacity of government to manage the situation. Many in the UK and elsewhere feel pessimistic about the future, both personally and for others and their country. Many are losing loved ones to the disease and/or losing their jobs. There are warnings that it is likely to get worse before it gets better. It can feel like this is the only possibility. In this situation it is easy to lose hope and to despair.

Losing hope, depression, despair – these things are a cycle that once we get locked into can be hard to get out of. We might give up on what can change for the better. Yet, hard though it can be to imagine, things do move on, and things can change. Nothing stays the same. Impermanance. All is in movement, often indiscernible, small, subtle shifts, or big changes. They can start to appear dimly on the horizon, like the beginnings of the dawn after a long, dark night, or they might be flashes of light, as the sun rises on a new day, and all can suddenly seem different. Despair is replaced by hope. We see things differently now.

Now we see but a poor reflection, then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part, then I shall fully know, even as I am fully known, wrote Paul to the Corinthians. He went on to say,  And now these three remain, faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. (Bible, 1, Corinthians, 13)

There is another possibility

Hard though it can be to see through the gloom, there is another possibility. There is always another possibility, where the light shines and we feel hopeful once again. We might not just see it at the moment. To get there, we need faith and hope, but our underlying driving force is love.

When caught up in despair, we are disconnected from faith, hope and love.

What’s important for the mindful self-aware is to notice when we are caught up. This is the crucial first step, to become aware. To get it. We might still feel caught up, but we know what we’re doing, and there’s probably a part of us that knows it doesn’t serve us.

Then we need to step back from being caught up. This is the act of will, a choice, to get off it, to let go of what “caught-upness” we’re into.

So, breathe deeply, breathe out long, and then breathe in deeply again, as it were down to the diaphragm, breathing down into your stomach, where the fears can dwell, and feel the release of tension and upset as we breathe out long and let go of all that stuff. Let it all go. Breathe it out and blow it away.

You might need to repeat that.

That’s when you can no longer be attached to being “caught up”, but instead be aware of that state as if you are the observer of it, that in a sense it is “not you” but just a state you got into. You’re now the witness of it.

Now you can rest as the witness, in the relaxed, released state of Being, knowing, as you are fully known.

Being fully aware

When we become aware, step back and become the witness, we are in the moment, rather than “in a state”. We can be present with our selves. Then we very likely can connect with love, our state of Being.

This is real freedom, what we have inside us, the “other possibility” that we’d lost touch with while “in a state”.

Then we are better able to support ourselves and then also better able to support others through this crisis. This is a far stronger state, when we are grounded and anchored in our Being, not getting attached, caught up and fearful, and very importantly not letting our buttons be pushed by others around us who aren’t so aligned.

Stay strong, everybody, and take great care.

Beyond the suffering mind lies love

In the last post, I quoted the following, “I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments” (From The Invitation, Oriah Mountain Dreamer). It can be scary, those empty moments. We can fill the day with all sorts of distractions, but it is often in the empty moments, like after sleeping or on awakening in the middle of the night, or in a walk by oneself, or while waiting, or at countless other moments, when a small voice inside almost like one’s conscience reminds us of that which troubles us. At the moment, for many, it is things around the threat from pandemic illness, but it might be something else. We might, despite all we know and all our best efforts, find ourselves descending into the familiar pit of our suffering. We might scramble to get out, but the sides keep falling in and there we are, stuck with our pain. That can be when one despairs.

These times come to test us. They can keep coming until we find a way to manage them. For some it can offer a way through to greater peace, but for others it just keeps coming. There can be many reasons. It might be our own personal process that we are working through but it might also be circumstances outside of us. In troubled times in the world we may also feel the pain of others and it can seem as if it is our own pain, when in fact we’re taking on others’ suffering. Now can be such a time.

Using awareness of suffering

This is where self awareness is important, to be able to enquire within as to what it’s about, and to be able to discriminate between our own pain and that of others.

I’ve suggested before that these “dark nights of the soul” can be very scary, but they can also be instructive. It can depend whether we are willing to embrace the situation and see it through to the important understanding that it can offer.

It is also be useful to be able to have ways to release ourselves from that which is troubling us, and each might find their own way to learn what the pain is about and how to release ourselves.

Understanding the mind

The Buddha said that Pain is certain. Suffering is optional. Humans suffer, unless or until they gain a mastery over it. Then they can be the observer of pain but not caught up in it. This is where understanding the mind is important.

Left to its own devices, the mind can take us all over the place. It’s very powerful. We can go to the heights of elation and the depths of despair. We can make up all sorts of things, about other people, ourselves, what’s going on. You name it. If we let it.

The mind is very creative. What we we think, we are. What we focus on, we draw to us. It’s the law of attraction, like a magnet. So, if you or I keep focusing on something, it’s more likely to happen. If we let it. Hence we have choice. It’s an option.

Use mindfulness to manage the mind

So, it’s important to stop. Use the skills of mindfulness

  1. So notice what you are paying attention to. Become mindful of it. Notice you are thinking a certain thing. Become aware of it.
  2. Step back from it. Put distance between the thought and you. This is where the will is important.
  3. Notice it, like you are now the observer of it. As we say, witness it. Be the witness of your ego at work, but not caught up in it.

You are not your thoughts. You, and I, are so much more than our thoughts, the “sweaty ego”.

When we step back and witness our thoughts, we have true power.

The other side of fear is love. That’s who we are, in whatever understanding you have of that.

When we step back and become the observer, we let can love in.

This is why these dark nights of the soul are so important, to know the space beyond suffering.

Then rest in the witness. Rest in the awareness that you are love.

How illness holds within it an opportunity for awakening

Pandemic outbreaks of highly infectious disease like the Plague, Cholera, Influenza and now Coronavirus, sweep through human consciousness like a hurricane. They are like auguries of awakening, not always welcome ones, as the disease and suffering is not welcome, but they have a way to get us to address that from which we have been hithertoo averting our gaze. At the political level they have so often in the past heralded, accompanied or driven major change. At the personal level we might think we can after a while get back to life as normal but so often this is not so: such shocks to our sense of wellbeing can be lasting and profound. Our collective and individual cage has had a violent and unsettling shake. It is our choice whether or not we have an awakening and choose to pay attention and learn the lessons that beckon.

Powerfully existential

In one way, such an event impacts our very survival. The disease could kill us, or our loved ones. It thus directs us to reflect, if we can allow ourself, on the prospect of dying. It might flit tangentially on our awareness, and then we may look directly at the possibility. Many avoid it, not surprisingly, given the core human driver to survive.

I wonder how many of you have been making wills, or discussing with others the practical aspects of your departure. It’s an uncomfortable subject, one that many avoid entirely. In the UK around 54% of people don’t have wills. Also many don’t make practical arrangements for what they would want to happen if they were incapacitated, like a living will. It can be a useful, if unsettling, question to ask oneself: what if I die?

There’s not surprisingly an emotional side to this, to contemplate leaving the earth plane and what that might mean. It can be very scary. Some say that such existential dread underlies the human condition, and explains a lot about human behaviour. There are those who’ve nearly been there, who’ve had Near Death Experiences (NDE’s), or who have had to cope with and come through an event that threatened their survival. There are those who have done this who now have no fear of death. I have before in these pages recommended the work of Steve Taylor who has researched people who have had these or related experiences, and the bliss, joy and contentment that they have found as a result. See for example Out of the Darkness. At some point, many of his subjects broke through to another level of awareness.

Existentialists say that death is a “given”, something we will all face sooner or later. Our challenge is how we do that. We each find, or don’t find, our strategies for coping. It might for example be religion, spirituality, philosophy, or rationality. We might adopt a spiritual or mental practice. Then again, addiction, media and other stimuli can provide substitutes.

Perhaps this pandemic is one of those invitations for us to reconcile ourselves with our ending.

Alone in a lockdown, it’s hard to use others to help us avoid these issues. We’re in danger of being left alone with ourselves. As Oriah Mountain Dreamer says at the end of her poem The Invitation,

“I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments”

Fear and anxiety are a wake-up call

A lot of us in today’s world live in various states of fear and anxiety. It’s endemic in modern living. Existential anxiety is often linked with other reasons for us to feel anxious, like our job, our relationship or financial issues. Thus, while we might focus on the content of the anxiety, like what we fear might happen and the disaster scenarios that churn around in our minds, we might also use such occurrences as a reminder of what’s really behind this seeming regular visitation from the angel of fear. What has this fear to teach us, probaby one we’re resisting?

Thus visitations of fear and anxiety may also have something useful, much though it can be highly unpleasant to experience. We can use it to learn what positive potential might lie behind the fear. After all, as said in a recent post, fear is simply False Evidence Appearing Real. It’s an illusion.

I have often taught people to use fear in meditation, or simply when we wake up afraid, or encounter it during the day. This is to use it as a tool. What?, you might think, are you crazy?! We’re all crazy in this world! It’s a perception.

Breathe!

In this practice, we use the breath.

With fear you can breathe into it, let go of the thoughts, be present with the fear, focus on the feeling, feel it, and let it dissolve. It’s just an energy. Let it go. Then do this.

Breathe!

Sit if possible, and you could stand if need be. Focusing on your breath, take a deep breath and breathe in deeply, down as it were into your belly, such that you move your belly out, expand it, using the diaphragm. You breathe as it were “into” the stomach, where feelings are often felt. Then breathe out long. Then do it again several times. Not too often as you can get dizzy. As you breathe out, let go and relax. In fact you could say to yourself as you do this

Breathe in (breathe in deep)…(Slight pause)….Breathe out (Now breathe out long)…Let go (and relax)

(Very slight pause)

Breathe in (breathe in deep again)…(Slight pause)…Breathe out (Now breathe out long)…(and when you’ve breathed out and relaxed) And I am good.

Be present with with the understanding that you are good.

Then breathe naturally and in a relaxed state for a few minutes.

Thus in this practice, you focus on your breath and breathing, come into the present moment and simply be aware of your breath. You intentionally leave each end breath with a positive affirmation.

Focusing on the breath is a mindfulness practice, explained on this website. You can practice using breathing as a tool to let go of anxiety and have a positive focus.

Meditators use tools like the breath and they also use a mantra. Often mantras contain some positive element. So’ham or Hamsa (I am That) is a well-known one. If you look at the pages on this site on various mindfulness practices, you can practice using the breath and a mantra. Practice is essential. The benefits come in time.

It’s hard to intentionally focus on the breath and be anxious. Anxiety is a mental process. It is thoughts we don’t need and can let go of. Conscious breathing is a great tool. We do it all the time! So why not be aware that we doing it!

Opportunity

It might be hard to see this pandemic as an opportunity for an awakening and humans, being humans, might not use it as such. My take is that it offers us a painful way but a great way to see through how we are living on this planet and make real, lasting positive changes for all of us. One way is to experience consciousness and aliveness differently, for ourselves, for our planet, for our wellbeing, and for our relationships. As Lao Tzu said,  If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.

Need, expectation and jealousy are the three love destroyers

The three love-killers need, expectation and jealousy are a powerful trio which both singlely and all together can wreck relationships with others. Sometimes they are obvious, at other times subtle and insiduous, and we may not consciously know that we have shifted into one or more of these states. The challenge in self awareness is to recognise when they are present and “get off it” and let them go.

It can be sometimes very difficult to disentangle need, expectation and jealousy from love but they can cut across the clear, simple, unconditional caring for another and poison it entirely.

Need and neediness

Need can include wanting from another as if one’s happiness and even survival depends on it. “I must have this in order to feel OK”. So it brings in things like deficit need, an unsatisfied emotional need that festers inside and won’t go away despite what others might do. In fact whatever they might do is “not enough” and there is this sense of there “not being enough”. Need can get very clingy, or others might feel they are being sucked dry emotionally. People might want to push a needy person away. Need might show itself as “What I want” in a forceful or underhand way rather than a clear self-expression without attachment. Another way is to be very focused on getting one’s own needs met, often without much regard for others except as to manipulate to get the desired result.

Expectation

Expectation can be similar, as all three of these are variations on egoic desire. So, to expect things of others is to place conditions or standards on their behaviour, another person’s standards rather than their own. It’s rife in business of course, but we’re looking at emotional expectation here. There’s an expectation that people will show up in a particular way, and meet another’s needs. Again there’s a dependence on another’s behaviour for one to feel OK. If you are at the receiving end, you might feel you are always dancing to another’s tune, and your needs aren’t getting much of a look in.

Jealousy

Jealousy can be more of an angry emotion, if emotion is the right word. For example they might have what you want. There’s perhaps the sense you don’t match up to them and you resent it. You might think they are “better” than you, or have more than you, or have higher status, or are more successful, or are more beautiful, or have the “better” partner, or are richer, etc. It is aimed at the other person and can get very nasty. Love jealousy of course is a particularly strong example, when someone you fancy fancies another, or you think they do. The classic story of love jealousy is Shakespeare’s Othello, where the successful general Othello is poisoned by his so-called faithful servant Iago into believing that his innocent and beloved Desdemona is unfaithful: “Beware the green-eyed monster, that doth mock the meat it feeds on”, Iago cynically warned.

Love is absent, though we may not know it

With all three, need, expectation and jealousy, love has got distorted, even to the extent that love might be entirely missing. One might think it is about love, but these feelings are quite different. They can of course destroy relationships.

It can be usefull to reflect on what we can take responsibility for, what we are creating, and what we can potentially choose to let go, so as to connect once again with the pure simplicity of love for its own sake. And to remember, you and another are One.

Being attuned to others

Talking with people in organisations, beneath the surface of the everyday activities that go on, I frequently hear how tough today’s work environment is for them. In the public sector it is the cutbacks and the consequences for people’s jobs, in the private sector it is the consumer slow-down in spending and the faltering world economy. Personally people are feeling financially very under pressure and squeezed. Optimism is less common. One businessman said to me on Friday that he felt people have become very self-centred and survival-oriented, a kind of emphasised “me-first” attitude.

In this environment, it is tempting to discount others and to treat others with less than they deserve. Yet it is those others who are maybe struggling a bit and need help. If we’re closed off to others, help is less likely to occur.

This is where being emotionally available and empathic is so important, although lacking in very many at work, often dismissed as being “touchy-feely”. Daniel Goleman speaks of “social radar”, that crucial aspect of emotional intelligence where we are attuned to others, can sense the undercurrents, can pick up on what might be going on, and can thus respond appropriately and potentially more aligned to another’s perspective.

The ability to get what might be going on for somebody

To have empathy is to be able to metaphorically sit alongside someone and see as much as we can what it is like from another person’s perspective. We can’t “know how they feel”, as we aren’t them, although people often mistakenly think they can, but we can attempt as far as humanly possible to find out their perspective. It involves listening non-judgementally, pure listening, and not going through the motions but really hearing another. It involves being observant and noticing what’s going on. Also we need to notice the subtleties, like changes in the atmosphere, in facial expression, body language, skin colour and so on. It also involves noticing how we ourselves are feeling, and our ability to be sensitive to ourselves. How we are feeling can be clues to another’s, as people often resonate with one another.

This skill, if that is the right word, can be developed if one chooses to develop it. For many of us though, we’re closed off to others through our life experience, the codes of work behaviour, our own social fears and discomforts, and in other ways. We become desensitised and disconnected, both from our own life force and being attuned to others. This is where developing self awareness can be so useful. When we’re more self aware we are more able to pick up on the clues inside us to what might be going on for others. When we’re better attuned to ourselves, we are more likely to know what’s really going on for us and what therefore might be going on for others. We can then be more attuned to others and get what it might be like for them, to be more empathetic.

Arguably, this skill or attribute of empathy is now sorely needed, where people are self-focused, narcissistic, suspicious if not hostile to others, especially those different from themslves, separate and divided. “A house divided against itself cannot stand”, Lincoln said. We need to reach out and empathise with others’ pain.

Choosing not to be consumed by fear

Is it feeling like the world’s gone crazy – a new virus, recession, climate change, Brexit, you name it – it’s all happening at once? The barriers are coming down and people are shutting off. Everywhere there’s a sense of doom and fear. How do we cope inside with all this?

Let’s look at some strategies for managing the situation for us ourselves inside. I don’t mean the practicals of living at present, and many of us are probably feeling stretched on that count alone. I’m thinking of how we are responding inside. How could the self aware, mindful person cope in a way that serves her or him, that gives empowered choices?

Being consumed by fear

The predominant emotion for many is likely to be fear, fear of what might happen, of how we’ll cope, of what harm we might come to, or might become of our loved ones.

Fear can be disabling. It can take over, cutting off the rational part of the brain, what Daniel Goleman in his book Emotional Intelligence called “the amygdala hijack“. It’s the stress reaction, triggering the release of hormones which, while important in managing a real threat, can become habitual and harm our immune system, and thus our ability to fight off infection. This is how people suffering prolonged stress get sick. Thus it’s really important at a physical level to manage our stress levels.

Fear, worry and anxiety can take us over. We can get consumed by it, on and on, minute by minute. It can also be subtle, a background experience, lurking in the shadows, springing out every now and again, and, for some, paroxysms of trembling, gut-churning, shaking, pure, unadulturated fear. Or it can just hang on in there. “No, I’m perfectly rational and in control,” the rational part of us says, nose in the air, while actually deep inside, fear is active, perhaps exerting influences like being doubtful, a reluctance to act, a questioning, a hesitation, cynicism even. We can even live in a constant state of this low-level anxiety, outside of awareness but present. We might not know it consciously, but it’s there, eating away at our self-belief, our confidence, our faith, our certainty.

If I write these words, how do you react. “Everything will be OK”?

Did you believe it or not?

It’s a useful test.

The bottom-line negative emotion is fear

Fear is a fundamental emotion, what I call a bottom-line one, which is ironic in current circumstances. It’s what keeps us from inner contentment, from what some might call union with the One. At one level it’s there to look after us, to keep us safe, but in the ego’s grip it often becomes self-defeating. It can also lead us to make poor decisions, and take us where we don’t really want to go. Fear can take over our lives.

So, it’s really important to challenge fear. From a self awareness perspective, it’s where we need to get it, get that we’re doing this, running this number. No matter that you’ve been doing it all your life. This minute is the next moment of your life and time to make a shift.

So, I suggest challenging fear each time it arises. As with most of these practices, you might quickly forget this, but when you next spot it’s happening, challenge it again. Say “stop!”

What’s happening is that one is firstly becoming aware that it’s going on, that your (or my) mind is doing this, and secondly, it is to breathe and to step back and notice it, become mindful of it. This is where the practice of mindfulness is so useful. We literally teach ourselves to step back and be aware. Here you become the observer, the Witness. Thus you are no longer caught up in the mind’s stuff, which is where fear dwells. Thus we can get that fear is really F.E.A.R., False Evidence Appearing Real. It’s not who we are.

Engage the will

Here you can engage the rational part of the mind, in this case the will. Here you can exercise choice, and chose a different strategy. There are many.

You could instead, for example, set an intention. Whatever you are fearful of could be turned around into an intention for a positive outcome. Let’s say you are worried that you will lose money. You could could instead create an intention for the positive creation of what you need for your health, happiness, wealth, wellbeing and wisdom.

There is a further step. Once you are as the Witness, allow your self to be really present as the witness, in the moment, aware, still, at peace. This is where we get truly that fear is not us.

Fear dissolves. It just goes. It’s ephemeral, something that passes, along with all those negative thoughts. We are so much more than all that stuff.

So, know the space beyond fear.

Now is really an important time to meditate, and practice being mindful.

For further practice

I’ve put some links up for those of you who want to practice using meditation. There a practice meditation session, a meditation using the breath, one using a mantra and finally one using body awareness.