Holding Hands Together: From Helplessness to Empowerment

Since the presidential election, no matter who your chosen candidate was, you will probably agree that we are entering uncharted territory as a new administration, with no prior experience in government, is about to run the most powerful country on the planet.

There are many thrilled at the possible change of direction. But there are also many more who are filled with anxiety, despair and other negative emotions. Given the culture of “othering” so prevalent these days this is especially true for those so often marginalized: immigrants, People of Color, LGBT and other non-white, non-mainstream groups. For them this has been a traumatic experience, a seismic shakeup of reality.

We’ve moved from “the audacity of hope” to a philosophy of fear and hatred. Whatever one’s party affiliation or non-affiliation, high-level appointments are cause for apprehension: an “alt-right hero” as chief strategist, a climate change denier as possible head of the EPA, a top advisor on immigration policy who says registering Muslims has a precedent with internment of Japanese citizens during WW II. We’re warned to be wary of anyone who appears different because they are out to get us or threaten our way of life. This mindset says get the other guy before he gets you. No wonder appointments like these have created an atmosphere of grief and despair in the hearts and minds of so many.

With Danger Comes Opportunity

What is wise engagement? I often hear people saying, “I want to do something but I don’t know where to begin.” I believe the secret to turning despair into rewarding action is feeling aligned with others and working together for a common cause. “Action absorbs anxiety,” as the wisdom teacher Angeles Arrien has said. Knowing we’re not alone and being part of a skillful response lets us experience what has been called the “multiplicity of courage.” Studies have shown that just holding someone’s hand increases our capacity to endure physiological and emotional pain. Our collective holding of our pain turns fear into inspiration.

Recently, over 30 teachers came together at Spirit Rock Meditation Center in northern California, where we teach to discuss how the new reality has affected each of us and our teaching As Buddhist teachers a central principle is to teach how to reduce suffering for ourselves and others. We wanted to explore what the most skillful responses might be as people look for guidance in navigating their fear and anxiety.

We started the morning as thirty individuals quite shaken and not knowing what our collective response might be. Then the gifted teacher and deep ecologist, Joanna Macy, led us through a powerful ritual giving us an opportunity to express our fear, our sadness, our anger and our helplessness as well as our vision of possibility. We then broke into small groups to discuss with each other how we already have spoken to or might in the future include the new events into our teaching in a way that supports students looking to respond most consciously to this post-election reality. Finally, we came back together to share our ideas with each other and what our next steps individually and collectively might be.

What was most striking to me was that by the time we left that gathering, in addition to all the inspiring ideas, there was a spirit of determination, energy and enthusiasm that had not been there when we began. It had been created through our coming together, hearing each other and connecting in our hearts and minds. There was consensus that this was just the beginning of an on-going group conversation. Steps to organize the next gathering were put in place and people left buoyed by what had taken place. We had transformed our fear and anxiety into inspiration and commitment.

A Time to Come Together

This is a time for people to come together and feel part of something bigger than themselves. After the election our usually well-attended Monday weekly class led by Jack Kornfield swelled from 300 to 460 with another 120 people watching online. These days all who are concerned about these recent events are hungry to connect.

We need to find ways to harness all the caring and concern we individually possess into committed collective wise actions. The actual expression of that action is less important than the feeling that you’re part of a group of people that care.

Dan Rather wrote recently in a moving piece:

“Now is a time when none of us can afford to remain seated or silent. We must all stand up to be counted. History will demand to know which side were you on. But as I stand I do not despair, because I believe the vast majority of Americans stand with me...Your voices must be heard. To all of you I say, stay vigilant. The great Martin Luther King, Jr. knew that even as a minority, there was strength in numbers in fighting tyranny. Holding hands and marching forward, raising your voice above the din of complacency can move mountains.

This is a time to get involved, work with others and be part of something bigger than our own personal self-interest. And as we come together collectively responding to fear and hatred with wisdom and compassion, we turn our despair into empowerment, our helplessness into engagement, our sorrow into joy.

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James Baraz is a co-founding teacher of Spirit Rock Meditation Center in northern California and co-author of Awakening Joy and Awakening Joy for Kids. Registration is now open for James’ popular 5-month Awakening Joy: 10 Steps to a Happier Life course (starting end of January) to help you access the innate well-being within you. You can participate live or online and can find out more here.

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