I feel incredibly lucky to have started this year on retreat in a remote and very beautiful spot in the pyrenees mountains. No phone, no internet instead confining my attention and senses largely to the area around and the people with me.
But returning to life at home felt all the more strange as I came back into the technologically connected world, and to the news of killings and violence in Paris and genocide in Baga Nigeria. Undoubtedly there were many other incidents of violence happening around the same time that didn’t even make it onto the media (and therefore my) radar.
Faced with these frightening and horrific stories, there are a number of common responses:
- Turn away from it and dismiss it as something unimportant / unrelated to us
- Do nothing but feel anxious, concerned and powerless to comprehend it
- Do something – whether that’s ranting about it, cartooning to show solidarity with the team from Charlie Hebdo, organising a vigil or taking action against those perceived to be the offenders (on an individual, or more often, on a group level).
But somehow these often feel inadequate. Not enough to make a difference. Not enough to protect ourselves, our friends or our families. Some commentators have even warned that mass action could backfire and have the opposite effect. Violence is not the only serious challenge humans face in the world today. These feelings can equally be applied to say the rich-poor divide and inequality or the dramatic impact of environmental change.
One Buddhist concept we looked at a lot on retreat was equanimity. Google defines this as ‘calmness and composure, especially in a difficult situation’. Guhyapati, the founder of Eco Dharma describes it as “deep imperturbability, which like the depths of the ocean maintains a profound calm, even as the waves on its surface swell and crash”. Seems like a good tool to have up your sleeve but what does it mean to really embody and practice equanimity? It’s worth listening to Guhyapati’s full podcast on the subject where he describes how sometimes in attempting to move towards equanimity we instead slip into the false friend of apathy – effectively taking the first option of looking away.
So what if we did something that makes an impact, even if it doesn’t change the world dramatically, and the impact doesn’t happen instantly? I found Matthieu Ricard’s TED talk on altruism an inspiring place to start. He talks about how even young children can be taught to be more kind to others and less discriminating.
We can begin with ourselves, finding ways to be resourced to deal with these difficult situations – whether that’s support of the community around you, dedicating that time to yoga or meditation, or looking after yourself (e.g. getting more sleep). From there it appears that there is a dynamic two way relationship when we become more altruistic there is a positive impact on both the receiver of that act and ourselves, as the giver (check out this NYT piece on it).
I’m not saying this approach will prevent those tough situations occurring. It won’t. But just maybe, inch by inch, we can use it as a starting point to make a difference in an authentic and sustained manner. In our fast paced world sometimes we neglect to notice how even the smallest action can create a positive ripple effect. I have really noticed how smiling at more people, whether I know them or not, seems to make the world brighter. We will never be able to fully understand what is going through the mind of those who commit atrocious acts of violence. But more people who feel like they are connected to their community, where people look out for them and give them love, can only be a good thing.