A common complaints among my (and probably your) friends and colleagues is overwhelm. So, I wanted to speak a bit to this very scary feeling that might be tantamount to the feeling of physically drowning.
In fact, people experiencing overwhelm might even say, “I feel like I’m drowning.” That suggests a combination of feeling exhausted, hopeless and engulfed. The feeling of ease and comfort seem like remote figments within our memory.
I attended a Buddhist meditation class last week hoping for 30 minutes of quite and gentle breathing. But our monk had a different agenda. We were allowed only 15 minutes of peace before her lesson about how overwhelm and other experiences of emotional pain derive from an obsessive focus on ourselves. She called it “self-cherishing” which she distinguished from “self-care.” Self cherishing, she said is when we think that our getting to work on time is more important than the person riding next to us or when we think our car is the most important car in the parking lot. We almost habitually see ourselves – and what we see as extensions of ourselves whether they be people or objects – as more important than others.
Her suggestion is that we start considering other people’s lives and extensions as important (or insignificant) as our own. This kind of equalizing thought, Buddhism believes will help reduce human suffering.
The next few days, I did start seeing her point. Though realizing my own selfishness only made me more self-focused. What really helps me break out from overwhelm or anxiety caused by self-absorption is wonder.
Wonder, to me, means looking around and saying ,”Hey, that’s fascinating.” Wonder, like compassion may need to be cultivated if rusty. Those with a practiced sense of awe are some of my favorite companions.
Kids & Wonder
Of course kids usually have no problem with this one. They run around the zoo pressing their faces right up to the glass screaming with glee, “look! Look!” Adults will start giving information like, “it says here that’s a red panda. It feeds on blah blah…” But the kind thinks, “who cares, that thing is just cool.” The parent may not really ever see the panda, walking away from the zoo just having learned more about where the bear lives and what it eats.
I don’t have kids so I have to cultivate my own sense of wonder. I have some friends who do this with me. Washington D.C. is filled with opportunities but any place has enough. There are always enough people, books or nature to throw us back into awe.
3-D IMAX movies or planetarium shows about space—dark matter, black holes, and galaxies far far away provide terrific--and relatively easy--access to wonder These films help me get perspective…100 million stars and 100 million galaxies? We take ourselves so tragically seriously.
I sometimes start my conflict resolution 101 lectures with an image of the universe and the famous “tiny blue dot”—planet earth. We need some perspective before we dive in.
Wonder this weekend
This weekend a friend and I popped over to the Folger’s Library to see an exhibit on 17th and 18th century sailing navigation tools. Incredible! Apparently there was a contest in Europe for the modern equivalent of $33 million dollars if you could figure out how to calculate your longitude at sea.
The exhibit was filled with Captain Cooks navigation tools, compasses, and clocks. We were actually ecstatic. (FYI, if you’re reading Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book the Signature of All Things and live in D.C. please go see this. They have items from the ships she writes about.)
Then we roamed down to the botanical gardens and looked for the most peculiar plants, talked about their medicinal properties and what we would like to grow.
Sarah Federman, PhD
Enjoy these short blogs and videos designed to bring you a little cheer.
My other blog Language of Conflict addresses the importance of word choice and narration in conflict.
Finish and Flourish supports writers struggling to complete projects.