Artwork by Surya Mellor
“We are all cells in the same body of humanity.” ~ Peace Pilgrim
Imagine if we understood our self and each human being to be like a little cell within a great body, the body of humanity. As part of this body, we would know that our body is sick, ill with the diseases of hatred, ill will, greed, anger, and fear. We would also know that restoring well-being to the entire body is only possible if each cell operates at full capacity – in other words, if each cell can repair itself by healing its own genetic disorders and mutations on an ongoing basis. They would repair themselves by cultivating generosity, compassion, gratitude, contentment, and understanding for themselves and others. By living these values, they would automatically be joining forces with other healthy cells to form an immune system of unconditional love capable of healing the body of humanity. The effect of this would be like the gesture of handing out millions of roses, allowing kindness and generosity to blossom in the world.
Today we see the plight of humanity through the lenses of our media. We see images of the thousands of refugees far away who find themselves without food or shelter. We see images of tremendous violence and terror projected on the screens of our computers and televisions. Simultaneously, facebook, instagram and other social media may give us greater insight into these processes or, more frequently, allow us to project images of how we want others to perceive our lives: these are usually images of beauty, abundance, and success. There is a false dichotomy and a sense of separation. We like to think that suffering happens over there, not here, not inside of me. But if we are honest with ourselves, we all know that there is also suffering right here within the permeable borders of this country and within our very own being. In truth, it is hard enough to bare our own suffering let alone that of humanity. Who does not know someone who has had a recent loss, or is struggling to pay the rent, or is experiencing the pain of physical or mental illness? Who does not at times experience disrupted relationships or feel alone? These things are happening all around and within us all the time.
The challenge is that if we truly open our hearts to this suffering (within and all around us) we may feel overwhelmed and paralyzed with anger and fear. We may think, “What can I possibly do that has any meaning or value?.” And if we think this, we have become affected by the illness. If we remember, on the other hand, that we are an important cell in the body, we know that what heals one cell supports the healing of the whole.
So the question arises, “How can we, as a cell in the body of the humanity, restore health and wholeness to ourselves so that we can be part of the immune system which restores wellness to the whole?”
Let us look at the process on a physiologic level to begin. When we experience a scary situation, (either personally or vicariously through media images and stories), there is a natural activation of our nervous system’s fight or flight response. Our body is pumped full of adrenalin, and cortisol levels rise as we experience the emotions of fear and/or anger. We become hyperaroused and the body’s natural inclination to protect itself is activated. If it is allowed to do this and/or the scary situation resolves, we are then able to return to a general feeling of safety and connection. We may pass through some other emotions such as relief, sadness, and gratitude. The body discharges these intense feelings and energy through shaking and eventually everything subsides and we return to a balance point where creative engagement and compassion are possible. This has been beautifully described by Dr. Peter Levine in, “In an Unspoken Voice” where he outlines the effects of trauma on the body and the process of healing trauma through the body.
If we have a previous history of trauma (either a single incident or repeated painful experiences in our young life such as neglect, verbal, physical, emotional or sexual abuse), we may exist in a constant state of pain and hyperarousal. To deal with the uncomfortable feelings and physical sensations in the body, we may find respite by intellectualizing and disconnecting from sensation in the body altogether. We may also find relief through the use of drugs (nicotine, caffeine, alcohol etc.), shopping, obsessive text messaging, overworking, facebook “like” counting, television watching, cleaning etc. We humans are infinitely creative in finding ways to avoid our suffering.
Conversely, if we have at times felt threatened often enough or to an extreme level, we may even drop into a state of complete dissociative paralysis, a kind of physical preparation for death. We can call this hypoarousal. You may have seen this with animals caught in the headlights of oncoming traffic, frozen in fear, unable to move.
While all of these reactions can be adaptive and may be completely out of our conscious control, they may also prevent us from responding effectively to our present moment situation. In either of these cases, when we are exposed to something distressing, we feel powerless to effect change and so we disconnect from our suffering and the suffering of others. We may even fear the physical sensation of fear and shutdown further, guarding defensively against our own inner experience and anything that we perceive may hurt us. The cell that is part of the body of humanity has become unwell. In this state, our cell can easily fall victim to “us” and “them” thinking, forgetting that all cells are part of the same body. Of course, there is no denying that this may be helpful to us in some ways at certain times, but it is also keeping us from truly, deeply connecting with our own experience AND the experiences of others.
So how does this relate to the world today? As we engage with the difficult circumstances of the planet, we can work on allowing these different emotions to pass through us in waves neither holding onto and reinforcing them, nor avoiding any of them. We may feel a clenching heat and rage at the atrocities we have experienced or which we see in the news, or we may feel tears of sadness and pain. Sometimes we may even experience the entire body shaking as it releases long held patterns of trauma. Instead of turning in guarded anger against these inner experiences and then against others, perhaps we can allow these emotions and sensations to pass through us so that we may experience the deep well of compassion within. Often we must do this in the presence of a skilled therapist or loved one. Sometimes we can do this through a meditation practice or through time spent in retreat.
When we open ourselves in this way, we can truly feel the suffering of those around us and throughout the world and open to the flow of emotion which arises from a place of caring. And if we truly open our hearts to what is happening in the world and within ourselves, we cannot help but feel tremendous compassion for those suffering and perpetrating violence. Even the perpetrators are disaffected members of humanity, people who themselves have likely felt shunned, isolated, and fearful. They may be sick cells, but they too form part of this body.
As we come back to peace within ourselves and resolve our inner conflicts, there is more peace in our homes. As we emanate that inner peace and decrease our inner reactivity, we support our families, friends and neighbours in resolving difficulties. As we reach out with open hearts to each person we encounter, there is more peace in the world. Each of us has the capacity to offer roses of compassion to our self and to our fellow living beings. As inspirational peace activist and mystic Peace Pilgrim said, “No one can find inner peace except by working, not in a self-centered way, but for the whole human family”.
Please join myself and our Muslim sisters this Sunday December 6th at Nathan Philips Square to hand out 1000 roses. As my dear friend Dr. Yusra Ahmad writes, “Recent global events threaten to tear us apart and grip us with fear and horror. What we urgently need now is the precise opposite –HEARTFELT CONNECTION, FEARLESS LOVE and BEAUTY. It is time for us to re-connect with our deepest selves and intentionally cultivate more respect, kindness and compassion…ONE ROSE AT A TIME”.