Why It's So Hard To Practice Mindfulness In The Midst Of Terrorism

An edition of People magazine at the newsstand with the cover titled, “Faces of Orlando” caught my eye. Each victim was listed with a brief bio describing who they personally were. I teetered on wanting to know more about each of the victims and not wanting to know more about each of them. I was fearful that if I “knew” them, my pain would intensify and I would perseverate over each and every one of them. They would each have an identity I could refer to ― a name, a picture and a profound story. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to get that intimate, and as a result of that knowledge, I was concerned how that would emotionally impact me.

I learned that the youngest victim was eighteen and the eldest was fifty, with a majority of the victims being between twenty to forty years of age. I still can’t help but think of the mother that will never be there for her children, the aspiring athlete that won’t have the opportunity to use her scholarship to college and the thoughtful son who just bought a new house for his mother so she could “live somewhere nice.”

Then just as I was settling in on facing the atrocities in Orlando, I was met with more devastation with news about incidents in France, Turkey and Israel. Presently, terrorism seems to be something of a natural occurrence. I discovered that there have been many more terrorist attacks than I ever imagined or knew about. I learned that there had been thirty terrorist attacks from January 2016 to June 2016. With obviously more to follow.  

My patients and I seem to be caught up about thinking and judging ourselves as a result of our reaction to the string of recent terror attacks. The judgment is elicited by the way in which we cope with our thoughts and feelings relative to these atrocities. It tends to be a combination of being dismissive of our feelings, feeling profoundly saddened and mournful, and becoming considerably anxious about the possibility of terrorism directly impacting us, our families and those we know and love.

Practicing mindfulness and being in the present moment becomes increasingly more challenging when there’s a fluttery of negative thoughts and feelings that enter and exit our minds and when we feel personally threatened. In these instances, we are more inclined to dismiss or defend against these thoughts and feelings because of the intense level of discomfort. Also, the more negative and less favorable thoughts and feelings lead us to question and worry about who we truly are and what we’re all about.

Thoughts like, “I want the terrorists dead” or “I can imagine myself being the next victim” or “I can’t waste my time thinking about this because it’s too distressing” is fraught with very strong thoughts and feelings about how people view themselves. I have heard, “I have always thought of myself as a kind humanistic person, how could I wish someone dead?” or “What’s wrong with me that I can’t get this out of my mind and I continue to think of it?” or “Have I become so hardened and cold that I’m becoming immune to all of this?” These thoughts can be unsettling and can cause us to question our identity.

I find our understandably strong feelings are breeding concerns about our “meanness”, “weakness”, “insensitivity”, “aloofness”, etc. It’s challenging to practice mindfulness when all we want to do is run away from our mind, rather than lean in toward it. It’s becomes way too threatening and uncomfortable when we question who we fundamentally are. We do what we’re taught to do and what we naturally do as human beings, we dismiss, avoid, minimize and rationalize our thoughts and feelings because in these instances, they become too much to bear.

This is at a time that self-compassion and self-love is all the more warranted. We’re all personally traumatized, whether it’s because our perception about the world or about people in general has been challenged, whether we’re observing disturbing and distressing situations and feel rattled or whether we come face to face with our human vulnerability in regard to our fragility and mortality.

The mindfulness practice that can be beneficial is one where we are reminded of our strength, our kindness and our compassion toward ourselves and others. We are reassured that we can’t control thoughts and feelings but only the action we choose to take. Also, that we could think and experience “mean” or “unkind” thoughts and feelings and that it doesn’t equate to us being a mean or unkind person. We can still elect to practice being thoughtful and kind in our actions. When we zone into the present moment, we are reminded that we are okay, we are whole and the life we live is one in which we can develop, thrive and work to be our best self.

The way in which we can accomplish that is with mindfulness exercises that ground us and get us in touch with our bodies. Our body is a wonderful reminder of us being here right now.

Some exercises to help you get you in touch with your body include:

  • Crossing your hands over your chest and forming a butterfly and tapping your arm with your hands, one hand at a time, slowly, calmly and rhythmically.
  • Focusing on a given object like a candle or flower,
  • Mindfully smelling a pleasing scent,
  • Imagining a calming supportive person or environment,
  • Sitting and feeling your feet firmly planted on the ground,
  • Keenly paying attention to your breath, noting the inhalation and exhalation of your chest, and
  • Stretching a rubber band between your fingers.     

It’s natural that we would have a multitude of thoughts and feelings that get evoked and that we would vary in the way we cope in the midst of such atrocities. This naturally happens out of circumstances that evoke feelings of anger, sadness, hopelessness, worry and fear. Our mind will be compelled toward those feelings and will make relenting efforts to move away from the present moment into doubt, shame and worry.

The present moment is truly all that we can secure. We can assure ourselves opportunities where we value ourselves, our beloved relationships and the meaningful lives we are striving to create.          

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