Overwhelmed By World News? There's A Spiritual Practice For That

Written by Megan Devine

Photo by @ian.kacungira

At their root, most spiritual practices are meant to help you keep your heart open and your mind calm—no matter what life brings. But Western culture oftentimes takes this one step further and equates the use of spiritual practice with feeling "good." Meditating will make you happier. You’re only anxious because you’re not trusting a source larger than yourself. Visualizing a positive outcome will ensure your success. You’ll just feel better if you lean into your true nature.

Those ideas have their merits in some situations, but in times of real human emergency, leaning on spiritual ideals or beliefs in this way can have the opposite effect: You meditate as much as you can, and you still feel overwhelmed by the pain of the world. That sense of suffering can result in action-paralysis: You have the desire to do something, but you can’t actually take any action. You’re looking for peace inside yourself, but all your usual tools just aren’t working.

We can’t use spiritual tools to help us feel "good" when the reality around us is anything but good. A better way to think about spiritual practice is as a way to discern where you can be of most use, and to help you manage your feelings of helplessness, fear, and rage. It’s a slight shift but one that can make all the difference.

Here are four things to remember as you respond to pain in yourself and in the world, and some actionable tools to help you through it:

1. You cannot help everyone.

Given that it’s not an option to simply check out of the world, which practices will actually help you be of service and not lose your mind? To start, remember that you cannot help everyone. This isn’t a failure. It’s a physical reality. The idea here is to use your spiritual and personal development practices to help you discern which areas call to you most strongly, and focus your attention there.

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Here's your action plan:

Use whichever practice you prefer (breath work, chanting, prayer, meditation) to center and quiet your mind. From that space, review the many issues calling for attention and action. Look at each one of them briefly, and in turn. Notice the intensity of your response. Those that create the strongest response (whether that’s an increase in feelings or a change in your physical body such as increased respiration or heart rate) give you clues.

This practice of getting quiet and following your own clues will help you choose your top two or three issues. This kind of spiritual and personal discernment is important: Narrowing your choices gives you a much better chance of taking sustained, effective action.

2. Taking it moment by moment is the way to go.

The level of pain and suffering in the world is reaching epic proportions. Of course, for many communities and cultures, this suffering has been going on for a long time. Knowing how to respond to each horrific news cycle can feel overwhelming. These are big, complex, convoluted issues. Where do you even start?

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Here's your action plan:

One big benefit of honing a spiritual practice is finding an inner quiet, an inner stillness. That stillness allows you to ask yourself useful questions and to listen for a response. As you meditate or practice, call up the issue that is claiming your attention. Ask yourself: What do I want to do in response to this situation in front of me? Then ask, what’s the most effective way I might help that happen?

Remember that action is always the solution to feeling overwhelmed. For example, if you’ve chosen the immigration and family border crisis as your focus, ask, What do I want to do in response to this situation? Your response won’t likely be reasonable, orderly, or even achievable. In fact, it’s likely to be emotional: I want those kids returned to their parent. Now!

That’s when our second question is most helpful: What’s the most effective way I can help that happen? Relying on your practice to keep you centered and clear-minded, you might find that there are tangible actions that will get you closer to your goal. You might donate to organizations providing direct legal aid to help reunite families. You might offer your services as a translator. You might get involved in local voter registration campaigns.

3. Being overwhelmed doesn't help anyone.

Meditative stillness can give you a sense of your own limits. Knowing when you’re getting close to being overwhelmed is helpful. Stepping away in order to tend to your heart, body, and mind is necessary—since you can’t respond to the world from a state of utter collapse. Your spiritual practice can help you listen to your own body and mind within the context of creating an organism (mind, heart, physical form) that is able to respond effectively to the cries of the world.

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Here's your action plan:

Look back at those moments when you’ve been overwhelmed to the point of inaction. What else was going on? What were some early warning signs that you were getting burned out? Use your practice to check in with yourself as you research and educate yourself on the issues. When you feel those early warning signs crop up, that’s your cue to take a break and lean on your chosen practices that help you tune in to your heart. Give yourself the care and feeding you need in order to return to the fight when it’s time.

4. Emotional flooding leads to inaction.

Even with a great practice of checking in on yourself for signs of stress, it can be hard to look away from the news. It’s all so important, and you want to be informed. But there’s a difference between "being informed" and being flooded. Emotional flooding leads to inaction, and that state won’t help anyone.

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Here's your action plan:

Next time you're feeling emotionally flooded, sit, stand, or lie down. Imagine sending your breath down into your belly, then on through the bottom of your feet, and down through the floor. Imagine your breath and your heart connecting with whatever feels like an anchor to you, deep in the center of the earth. This might be an image or a feeling.

Imagine that you are part of a larger whole, branching out from that center. There are thousands of beings, seen and unseen, responding to the cries of the world. As many spiritual traditions teach, there is a force that bears witness to it all: Love exists even here, inside the mess of humanity. Use your practice to help you lean into that force. Let it create an anchor, a calm port in the middle of this giant storm we’re all in. It won’t make you stop feeling so much pain and sadness, but it will give your feelings a container—one big and wide enough to contain you, your heart, and the rest of the world.

Here are some more breath work tools to play around with.

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