The 2016 presidential election triggered an unexpected and nearly unbearable trauma for over half of the American people. For many, it felt like the death of a loved one, or the assassinations of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy, or the nightmare of 9/11. It felt like a wrecking ball shattering our nation’s fragile architecture of decent human values, urgent climate plans, and steadily expanding civil rights. Like many, I shared my distress wherever I went – in my men’s group, spirituality group, conscious aging circle, and conversations with loved ones, and knew that this threat to our way of life was magnitudes worse for vulnerable peoples – immigrants, religious and racial minorities, and the poor. We discussed protests, marches, political action and civil disobedience. I imagine that many of you had similar conversations in your communities as disbelief, shock, grief, tears, fear, insomnia, and horror fragmented psyches all across our land.
What can we do in traumatic times like these? How do we cope? How can we respond? As a psychologist, interfaith minister, mystic and writer on conscious aging, I see this crisis in four dimensions: psychological, spiritual, mystical, and the wisdom of the Sage. Let’s spend some time in each of these dimensions and then see where we end up. Also, as you proceed through this piece, go slowly, consciously consider each idea and suggestion, notice where and how you respond, and let yourself be changed. This paper is a call for profound personal growth and real awakening.
This pain hurts. It cuts deep. Its scale is traumatizing. At times like these, we are tempted to explode in rage, run away, or go numb, responses consistent with our deepest animal instincts of fight, flight, or freeze. We might add a fourth emotional response – collapse. However none of these responses will solve our problem. We are too raw, and the realities we face too complex, to fix things with such reactively. We need to process our pain instead, to work on it until we have a clearer and more stable sense of who we are and what the problem really is.
Here are some suggestions for working in the psychological dimension:
- What we need most in the beginning is to support each other with compassion and understanding, to hold our shattered hearts until some basic healing begins. We are too broken and traumatized to act constructively.
- Feel your feelings. Let yourself experience the full range of emotion. Feelings are not reality but they need to be processed if we are to act effectively. Don’t be impatient or critical with yourself or others; we are all struggling, we are doing the best we know how at this moment.
- While reactive behavior toward perceived enemies can vent emotion, it is often premature and counterproductive in crisis circumstances, causing recurring cycles of reactivity on all sides. When all the acting out is done, you’ll still have to deal with the underlying pain.
- Remember that anything you feel changes as you feel it. That’s what working through means. More importantly, you’ll see the situation more clearly as painful emotions heal and release their energy for constructive planning.
- Working through also involves seeking new insights into oneself and others. What does your emotional reaction say about your values, assumptions and beliefs, and what else what may be going inside you and in the country that is important but not obvious? New insights catalyze new ways of thinking that can move us beyond reactivity into greater psychological understanding.
- Stay in community, don’t isolate. We need each other more than ever. Divided, we cower, together we can be an amazing force of healing, creativity and commitment.
- Working though trauma at the personal and community levels inevitably takes time – in this case, it will take weeks, months, even years. Stay with it. Our lives and our community will grow as we process this struggle together.
- Continually assess reality. What’s happening right now? How are things changing? Which issues are fading and which growing? Reality is evolving too. When the time comes, action needs to be grounded in an objective awareness of actual circumstances.
Each of us creates a personal spirituality – beliefs about the divine, the ultimate significance of life and death, and what it means to be human – based on our religious background, individual experiences, and thoughtful reflections. No two people have the same spirituality even in the same religion. One of the gifts of spirituality, however, is that it can provide a framework of hope and values to support us in times of crisis.
Here are some ideas for working in the spiritual dimension:
- Ask yourself big questions like “What are my ultimate spiritual beliefs about why things happen?” “What is the spiritual significance of all this?” “What might our shared traumatization and polarized relationships suggest about humanity’s spiritual evolution?”
- Take some time to wonder what the world’s great religious teachers would tell us about this situation and how we should respond to it.
- Return to your spiritual practices, like prayer, meditation, and yoga. Your inner stability will be restored as the mind settles and you ground yourself once again in your spiritual values.
- Let your beliefs and practices awaken the love, compassion and courage inherent in your spirituality. Realize that this struggle now engages your spiritual practice.
- Ask yourself “What is my spiritual purpose or work here?” Write at least ten responses and then see which ones feel the most valid.
Mysticism refers to first hand experiences of the divine – moments when we feel touched or surrounded by a safe and loving consciousness that many call the Presence. We can come into God’s Presence in countless ways, through spiritual practices like prayer, meditation or tai chi; time spent in nature; inspired reading; the experience of awe in the night sky, great cathedrals or natural wonders; extraordinary moments like childbirth, sudden danger, or the death of a loved one; and even the zone of athletic endurance. In the experience of Presence, time stops, the mind ceases its chatter, and we feel one with the living divine universe, safe and loved in a world that is infinitely beautiful, precious and sacred. In the Presence, our lives are far different than we think and so full of love.
Here are some ideas for working in the mystical dimension:
- Reflect on when and where you sense the divine Presence. Spend time quieting the mind and experiencing God’s consciousness in or around you. What does it feel like?
- The direct experience of Presence heals us. Upsets and reactions are softened, violent emotions melt away, and calmness gradually restores. We discover again that reactivity breeds reactivity but Presence brings peace.
- Spending time in the Presence also changes us as people, making us more like the Presence itself. We become more centered, serene, patient, loving and kind, more aware of the beauty and value of everyday life and all living things. We become better people. We learn to stand in the fires of change without losing ourselves.
- Time in the Presence doesn’t fix problems, but it profoundly changes our perception of them. From this deep sense of peace, we see behind others’ masks of hatred and blame into their vulnerability and woundedness. We experience compassion.
- Consciousness filled with Presence is the source of all genuine and spiritually enlightened action. Spend time in the Presence before considering any action and always ask for its guidance. Then try to stay in the Presence as you act in the world.
- Discover the power of love. Mystical unity means that we are the One and that in oneness our sincere intentions can effect the entire field of being.
The Sage’s Wisdom
Conscious elders are everyday people who decide to approach aging with clarity and intention. For them, growing old emphasizes the growing. Conscious elders seek to understand the meaning of their life stories, heal old emotional wounds and put their affairs in order. They explore their hopes and fears, face their mortality, and deepen their spirituality and relationship with the divine. They create a personal legacy to leave for others and continue to express the unfolding self. In this process, and drawing from decades of experience, conscious elders acquire enormous wisdom about themselves, human history and the purpose of life. From this wisdom, they find the authority of the transpersonal voice, a voice that speaks for humanity, all sentient beings, and the future we create for coming generations. Depending on one’s Sagely talents, the conscious elder may be a wisdomkeeper, historian, healer, mentor, teacher, mystic, prophet, or protector of ultimate values. Which are you?
Here are some ideas for working in the Sage’s dimension:
- Review all you have learned about conscious aging in books, classes and workshops. Use these insights to become your best and most mature self. This is the self that evolves into the Sage, the self that can act maturely in the world.
- Enter the awakened consciousness of the Sage. Here’s one way to do that: Stop thinking for a moment, heighten sensory awareness, and open your capacity for awe. In this state of radical awe, sense the Presence all around you. As your consciousness expands, trust your own knowing – the wisdom, love, joy and compassion that arise in this mystical experience. Notice how differently the world its problems appear in this state.
- Find your own voice but speak for all beings. Speak clearly, calmly, consciously. Speak with a moral voice. Stand behind your words.
- Apply the unique gifts and talents that make up your True Self to the challenges we now face. Find out what brings you alive and do that for the world.
- Use the savvy acquired in sixty or seventy years of life to approach problems from a higher perspective. This is not your first rodeo. You’ve seen this before. Be present more than action-oriented in the beginning, skillful more than confronting, and let your doing come from deep being.
- If you’re not an elder, use the life experience you have acquired so far and act from the best and highest self you can muster. Wisdom is not limited only to conscious elders.
- Use non-adversarial communication and deep listening. Don’t talk at or over people, listen with your heart and ask deep and sincere questions. Let everyone participate in creating solutions.
- Build loving community with all people, friends, strangers and adversaries alike.
- Grow into a Divine Human filled with love. Be unafraid to stand for love.
How to Live on Four Levels
I hope you are beginning to see the immense resources available to all of us from these four dimensions of experience. We are neither helpless nor alone. In fact, every thought and action now becomes sacred, every possibility filled with divine potential for healing and transformation.
Here are some final ideas for working in all four dimensions:
- Use the resources available in each dimension to address your experience of trauma. What are you learning? How are you changing?
- Try not to use one dimension to avoid another (for example, thinking that the Presence will fix things without your involvement or that being a sage means you won’t hurt any more); that never works for long. Conversely don’t ignore any dimension for each contributes something incredibly valuable for coping with trauma.
- With each new development in this national drama, move again through the four dimensions, returning to the work of feelings, spiritual meaning, mystical awareness and Sagely wisdom.
- Distrust simple and reactive answers. We are multifaceted beings in a multidimensional world – simple and impulsive answers are nearly always suspect.
- Work in all dimensions concurrently to evolve a plan for mature action. Eventually they will blend into one. Then you’re ready. Then you know who you really are and what you must do.
- Stay in community. Share your feelings. Support others. Love the world and assist the whole human family in solving its problems. We will only succeed if we all succeed.
We elders have been here before. We were here during the Civil Rights Movement and the assassinations of John Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and Robert Kennedy. We were here during the Viet Nam War. We were here following 9/11 and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We will be here again. This is not the end; it is another call to grow in consciousness, love, courage, goodness and wisdom. We are in this for the long run. Though we cannot know what will happen, we can act from our deepest knowing and our greatest love, for these are the fundamental ingredients of constructive and long lasting change.
Now go back over your responses to the ideas and suggestions presented in each dimension. Identify two or three “aha’s” that really moved you. These personal responses begin your path through this trauma. See where it leads. As I said at the start, this paper is a call for profound personal growth and real awakening. Maybe that’s the ultimate purpose of our struggle.
John Robinson is a psychologist with a second doctorate in ministry, an ordained interfaith minister, and the author of nine books on the psychology, spirituality, mysticism of the New Aging. Recent books on aging include The Three Secrets of Aging, Bedtime Stories for Elders, What Aging Men Want, Breakthrough, and The Divine Human. Learn more about his work at www.johnrobinson.org.