Keeping sane in times of crisis

Life confronts us with challenges. And in times of crisis, like the recent earthquakes in Turkey and the war in Ukraine, these often seem overwhelming. It is natural for us to feel disoriented, with low mood, low energy and struggle to feel ok during the day and night. The nervous system has in-built resilience to experience these phases of tension, difficulty and suffering. Over the past several hundred million years, we’ve developed an incredibly sensitive and intelligent capacity to remain alive and engage in the world, despite all these difficulties. One heart quality, in particular present for mammals such as us, has made a big difference: compassion.

Compassion is the ability to identify suffering, understand it, feel into it as well as the motivation to alleviate it. Compassion, for me, has been among the most difficult heart-qualities to develop. In my meditation practice and in my life, I have been very strong and committed on goal-achievement, and the cultivation of equanimity (equality of mind) and joy. But compassion is an entirely different posture, a new relationship to the dark side of our lives and minds. It requires a lot of patience, a lot of self- and other-oriented empathy, a deep quality of listening the quivering of the heart.

Being vulnerable, open disclosing a sense of suffering is often perceived socially as being weak or inadequate. We are often faced with a willingness to help but feeling powerless. I remember working with a client at one point, they were faced with chronic pains in the body due to the many operations they suffered. They said they stopped talking about their pain because everyone around them did not have the capacity to hear how much pain she was going through, did not have the required compassion, and therefore held that burden to herself. She did not expect people to find solutions to her pain, just that they could make some space hear her, be understood and welcomed. Because this did not happen, she was holding a second load of suffering, on top of the physical pain: the pain of being misunderstood, the pain of disconnection, the pain of exclusion.

In meditation we can develop this internal compassion, this posture of deep listening and caring for our own grief, pains and suffering. We can learn to hold ourselves dearly, softly, as a loving caretake would hold their baby. In times of crisis, there is so much suffering within us and around us that compassion can make an enormous difference to how we hold ourselves and others. Not expecting change, not expecting ease, not expecting for the suffering to go away, but instead being willing to make space for it. And paradoxically, when we bring ourselves to welcome difficulty, it becomes lighter! Ease and deeper breathing can emerge, a sense of softness and a larger heartbeat can be felt. Evolutionarily, compassion is a very recent but extremely powerful process of integrating our shadows, our suffering and challenges.

Finally, there is a time to celebrate our efforts in the development of compassion. Recently I worked with some individuals who were holding spaces for victims of the Earthquake in Turkey, and they were acknowledging how much more able they were able to stay present in the face of extreme pain. They were really growing their compassion to a whole new level, and even though this was a real challenge and not easy, they were able to see these steps forward. Celebrating these little steps together made a huge difference: we were able to rest a little bit, breathe some more. We were able to joke and enjoy one another’s company, appreciate our time together. It gave us a break from focusing on what was painful, and allowed more ease to be felt in the space and our bodies. It also gave us strength to go deeper, and take further steps for the development of this compassion. We all need to feel strong sometimes, and celebrating our little successes and moments of ease and joy are essential for that.

May compassion be present in us, for the benefit of all beings.

We are offering a online meditation retreat on April 28 – 30, on the topic of “Meditation in Times of Crisis”. Apart of a registration fee of CHF 5,00 it’s completely donation based. Learn more about it and register here.

A nervous system approach to meditation

One of the main insights from evolutionary theory is that as it unfolds, life becomes more complex, more intelligent and more skilled. In fact, this increase in capacity is a necessary condition due to the process of natural selection: the survival of the fittest. One of the great developments in living beings over the course of evolution is the emergence of the nervous system: a central intelligence which helps organize and coordinate resources, energy usage and interactions with the environment. Hundreds of millions of years ago, complex life increased its chances of survival by going into a freeze state: like the possum who fakes being dead in order to be able to trick the fox that he’s already dead and not worth eating. Later, we learned to flight and fight, further enabling us to remain alive in the face of threats. The fact that these nervous system responses evolved over time is very significant because it means that they are increasingly intelligent and complex. It also means our nervous system operates hierarchically: when faced with a threat, we will first evaluate the possibility of fight, then flight, then freeze.  These principles have big implications for the meaning of meditation and how to practice it! I’ll share a few insights here from my own practice.

First off, since I was a child, whenever I was confronted by something difficult I’ve had the tendency to go into freeze as my go-to threat response. And it served me well! I was able not to get into much of harm’s way and have a mostly happy childhood. However, when I started meditation, because I couldn’t tell the signals of freeze, often when I came across a difficulty I would leap into freeze right away. Due to my lack of awareness of the nervous system and how to regulate it – I didn’t even know about this state of freeze – I sometimes would do a very unhelpful thing: (pathologically) strengthen that pattern of going into freeze.

These trends did not help my live a more meaningful and regulated life, on the contrary. Meditation started to have some perverse effects in the way I was interacting in relationships and my engagement with the world. For example, whenever I was experiencing difficult emotions with other people, I would favour states of ‘calm and equanimity,’ considering these to be higher states than states of fight or flight. Because the nervous system operates hierarchically, if we experience freeze, this means we’ve exhausted our ability to fight and flee the environment, and use our last resort solution to survive. In a way freeze is a higher state, but it also impacts the system more powerfully and destructively if accessed to often! So over time, I learned the importance of experiencing fear for instance (which would often get me in a state of flight), or frustration/anger (which would often get me in a state of fight).

That way, I’ve been learning to experience a broader range of emotions and states, more adaptively. And that word to adapt is really the key one: connecting to the experience that we are facing with the appropriate/adaptive response. There is a growing consensus that the essential skill of regulation is cognitive flexibility, which also means adaptive responsiveness. So instead of going into a disconnected, distancing and ‘calm’ state of freeze whenever I remember being criticized sharply and I’d been upset about it, I’ve been encouraging myself to explore emotions of anger, resentment, sadness, etc. Paradoxically, it now consumes for me less energy to feel a strong emotion like anger than to go into a state of ‘calm’ because once it’s felt, then the sympathetic arousal that was ignited through the criticism is discharged (rather than being stuck in the body as it does when going straight into freeze).

The key point, from a nervous system perspective on meditation, is that all emotions are actually essential to be experienced. Embodying the full range of emotions in meditation helps build a more resilient nervous system that is less dysregulated and has less energy stuck in the body system. Come and join us at the next Dharma Gathering to practice these skills!

3 Reasons to meditate

What is the purpose of meditation? Shapiro (1) studied that question empirically with meditators in California, and found that participants’ answers fitted into at least one of three categories:

  • Self-regulation: achieving a sense of wellbeing
  • Self-exploration: knowing oneself
  • Self-actualization: embodying and developing the fullness of one’s character

A closer look at the early Buddhist teachings (the Pali canon) offers a similar goal for meditation, albeit in different terms: “freedom from stress.” While this may seem at first that being free from distress only relates to being regulated (the first category above), both knowing oneself and developing qualities are also essential to this task. Looking at my own experience, I went through a deep depression in my early twenties because I could not understand my place and purpose in life. I had just separated from my girlfriend, with whom I thought I would be “happy ever after,” and did not see a future for myself in the business and economics degree I was completing at university. I had all the ingredients to feel good: sufficient resources to cater for my basic needs (and much more), plenty of friends and a very active social life, a loving family, great physical health, and a bright future ahead in the line of my professional career. Yet, I fell into depression.

My mental health was affected not just by all the factors named above, but also by a need for a deeply satisfying sense-making framework of who I was and what my place was in the world. That was missing, and it felt like I was living an increasingly darker nightmare as my desperation increased by the day. That’s when I decided to go to Thailand and start an period of meditation in Buddhist monasteries.

I practiced intensive meditation in Thailand for about six months, and a lot happened. I’ll explain more details about that in another blog post, but what I’d like to share now is that my study and practice of the early Buddhist teachings offered a conceptual framework and a systemic set of teachings to relate to my experience that was inspiring and meaningful. Finally, I could start to understand more clearly, and validate a growing intuition, that there was more to me, who I was, the world I was living in and how I experienced others than the story I had been told of a Newtonian, objectified, separate and materialistic existence.

At the core of it, my main insights centered around

  • the need to cultivate a perceptual capacity in order to have more moments of harmony inside myself and with others and the world
  • the importance of working towards a transcendent goal (nirvana) because the quality of every one of my present moment states are directly impacted by it

I could quite easily fit both of these goals into the latter two categories in Shapiro’s study: understanding myself, how I perceive myself as well as the development of new ways of being amount to self-exploration and self-actualization. What was missing though? Self-regulation! I was very intent of understanding, expanding and transcending myself, but brought no importance to being grounded and feeling good. Instead, I practiced a lot of (sometimes extreme) asceticism, in order to intensify exploratory and transcendental experiences, which eventually got me into a lot of trouble, and why I turned very seriously to a nervous-system centered approach to meditation. What is that and how does it work? That’ll be the topic of next month’s blog post.


(1) Shapiro, D. H. (1992). A preliminary study of long term meditators: Goals, effects, religious orientation, cognitions. Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 24(1), 23-39.

*Systemics: the need to include my place in society, and how society affects me

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