What do you do when the bottom falls out?
It takes heart to live in even ordinary times.
By “taking heart,” I mean several related things:
- Sensing your heart and chest
- Finding encouragement in what is good both around you and inside you
- Resting in your own warmth, compassion, and kindness; resting in the caring for you from others; love flowing in and love flowing out
- Being courageous, whole-hearted and strong-hearted – going forward wisely even when anxious, knowing your own truth and as you can speaking it
When you take heart, you’re more able to deal with challenges like aging, illness, trauma, or conflicts with others. You’re also more able to take advantage of opportunities with confidence and grit.
Additionally, it takes heart to live in, live with, and live beyond times that are really hard. Your personal hard time might be bad news about your health, the death of a parent, or betrayal by others. Or it could be related to changes in your country and world, and your concerns about their effects on others and yourself; I’ve written about the importance of finding and facing facts at the level of society (feel free to skip it if you don’t want my take on politics).
There are so many examples of honorable people facing great difficulty with dignity, principle, and courage. They did it. We can, too.
Start by riding out the storm. When big things happen at any scale – in your child’s schoolyard or in a refugee camp on the other side of the world – it is completely natural and normal to be shocked and disturbed by them.
As best you can, stay with the raw experience, the body sensations, the deep feelings, the stirred up fears and anger and perhaps paralysis. Whatever it is, it is your experience; some may be upset about a big event while others may be glad about it; I am definitely not trying to talk you out of your experience. Be mindful of whatever is passing through the big open space of awareness, observing it without being flooded by it. Painful and counter-intuitive as it may be, this is the foundation of releasing really hard experiences and replacing them gradually and authentically with thoughts and feelings that are helpful, wholesome, wise, and even happy.
Do things that help you come back to center and find your footing. Personally, I prioritize exercise, sleep, and meditation; I try to feel the truth of being basically alright right now, in this moment, moment after moment (alongside and deeper than pain or sorrow); I do the dishes and make the bed. Walk the dog, call a friend, eat something, look at trees and sky, get a cup of tea and stare into space. Take good care of your body.
Guard and guide your attention. It’s one thing to find facts and form the best plans you can. It’s another thing to get distracted or upset by news or other people that do not add any useful value.
Take heart in the good that is real. Outside you, there is the kindness in others, the beauty of a single leaf, the stars that still shine no matter what hides them. Right now as you read, all over the world children are laughing in delight, families are sitting down to a meal, babies are being born, and loving arms are holding people who are dying. Inside you, there is your compassion, sincere efforts, sweet memories, capabilities – and much more. Take heart with others, sharing worries, support, and friendship.
Do the things you can. The more that events are turbulent, alarming, and beyond your influence, the more important it is to grow stability, safety, and agency inside you and around you.
Have courage. At all human scales, strong forces have always tried to confuse and frighten others. Whatever outward action is necessary, you can preserve an inner freedom, never cowed or bowed in your core.
Last, I’ve found it really helps to have perspective. Without minimizing one bit of whatever is awful, it is also true that humans like you and I have been walking this earth for nearly 200,000 years. I see the trees, the land, the ocean – all of it here before me and lasting long after me. Empires rise and fall. Sometimes the center does not hold – in a body, marriage, or nation – and still. And still people love each other, go out of their way for a stranger, and marvel at a rainbow. Nothing, nothing at all can change this. We keep putting one foot in front of the other one, lifting each other up along the way.
Rick Hanson, Ph.D., is a psychologist, Senior Fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley, and New York Times best-selling author. His books are available in 26 languages and include Hardwiring Happiness, Buddha’s Brain, Just One Thing, and Mother Nurture. He edits the Wise Brain Bulletin and has numerous audio programs. A summa cum laude graduate of UCLA and founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom, he’s been an invited speaker at NASA, Oxford, Stanford, Harvard, and other major universities, and taught in meditation centers worldwide. His work has been featured on the BBC, CBS, and NPR, and he offers the free Just One Thing newsletter with over 120,000 subscribers, plus the online Foundations of Well-Being program in positive neuroplasticity that anyone with financial need can do for free.