The world is in the middle of chaotic change. We all feel it.
The normative concepts we have lived inside for over a century are breaking down, and we are less and less willing to twist ourselves into pretzels to make them fit. “Have it your way” might have started with food toppings or our smartphones, but in principle it now applies to everything: From gender pronouns to news feeds; from custom clothing ordered online to your music app.
The “ideal body.” Average intelligence. He and she. Fitting people to jobs instead of jobs to people. Going along to get along. Doing what authorities tell you to do. “Normal.”
All are collapsing before our eyes.
That trend is positive in many ways, but it is profoundly disorienting and the technological change that is at the root of it does not stop with your ability to “keep being you” as a popular commercial says. Technology is giving us the capacity to be our unique selves and to be interconnected everywhere, always, with everyone. Our minds are spreading out across time, place, and person as a result. The modern world is routinely asking levels of awareness of us that only monks might have had before.
As we contemplate that afternoon Zoom meeting, we may now also intuitively know it is scheduled then because evening in Europe for some attendees and early the next day in Australia for others, as if we are carrying the whole world continuously in our heads. That same technological expansion invites us to live inside awareness of the overwhelmed hospitals in India, the melting of ice in Greenland, or the suffering of displaced peoples in the Middle East.
Positive in many ways. Also disorienting. And challenging.
Our minds reel out amidst this booming monody of change. It seems we have lost center as we stretch our awareness across time, place, and person. There is barely any downtime. Even sleep is no respite. After the last year we’ve all been through who among us does not sense that mental and behavioral health is not just about the 1 out of 5 of us with a so-called “mental disorder” – it is about 5 out of 5 of us, 24/7, who have our mental resilience being constantly challenged.
What are you going to do about that? How can you find or regain your own center of balance?
That very question is a reflection of the problem we all face.
The “you” that’s being talked about in “what are you going to do” is the part of you that is aware of, interested in, and deliberately elaborating planful thought. But your body and brain are not restricted to the symbolically thinking “you.” Your learning systems, history, and underlying biophysiology have been along for this ride too and they tap into processes that are a thousand times older evolutionarily speaking than the cognitive skills inside the modern expansion of time, place, and person that is so disorienting to us all.
For many years I have signed emails with this simple closing line: “peace, love, and life”. These words hang in hand crafted signs on the wall of my home. I’ve never said why I sign things that way – but I will do that now because it seems very relevant to this moment of rapid world wide change. I think those three words provide a guide for what to do.
Peace of mind is planted by openness to experience and the wholeness of awareness itself. You get to practice that in your waking day – but as you calm your mind and release your grasping you train the more ancient parts of you to see your current situation as psychologically safe. The alarm systems are quieted. Needless brain activity and interconnectivity that emerges from excessive attempts at verbal regulation or defense of a narrative “self” all begin to fade. The parts of your nervous system that turn down arousal kick in. You are less busy while asleep. Your body begins to reflect the peace of mind you’ve learned to produce.
You do not control this process the way you control which section of the morning paper to read first. Your influence is by focusing on the ability you have to respond while awake. You take “response – ability” for your life in the areas you are able to respond.
Love is about purpose. It’s who and how you want to be in the world – with yourself and with others. It’s a choice, not so much a feeling. It’s your values in action – the commitments you make to create positive, healthy, caring habits, instead of indulging yourself in cynicism, judgement, resentment, hopelessness, anger, and victimhood as your daily diet. When you feed your whole self – your whole body, heart, and mind – a diet of loving purpose that you choose, you are also programming your more ancient neurobiological systems to be prepared for a positive challenge. It’s going to be a great day the next day. Even if that day is filled with chaos and things you do not like, you can love the challenge of being the best you – that person who can love and care for others (and yourself) even amidst a chaotic and challenging world.
And life is the process of putting all of that together and creating your problems on purpose, just as a game – as a puzzle to play with. You already have won the game – the first two steps make that a certainty, regardless of the situation. But now you get to change situations, not as a “fix” (meant either as a repair or as a grasping attempt to hold positive feelings in place) but as an expression of a life worth living. You can decide to create that business; or start that contemplative practice; or to read that book; or to learn that guitar piece; or to call that sick friend; or to try to create the good trouble that may meet that human need or solve that injustice or change that unfair situation you see in the world. That whole process is called “life.”
We often say “such is life” with an air of benign sadness about how the arc of life contains the pain of destroyed dreams. It’s true – it does. Always. Other than through leaps of faith (and those cannot be dictated or forced) in the end it’s a big ice ball and you are going to die – and everyone and everything you care about will do the same.
But if you inhale all of that and surround all of that with peace and loving purpose you can say that old cliche in a new way, as the bold, courageous, silly, awesome creatures we are – the ones who know how to spit into the eye of the mental dinosaur and say “I’m not giving up. Not now. Not in this moment. In this moment you get to see this!”
Such. Is. Life!
Mental and behavioral resilience is 5 out of 5, 24/7. It is not distressing that it is so. It means you are not alone and you have all the time you need to learn how to be centered amidst the chaos of rapid change.
Peace, love, and life.