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An introspective mindfulness lesson I found helpful

This post is about compassion and looking inwards – call it mindfulness, self-help, or a spiritual lesson we all need at times, or call it whatever you wanna call it. However, this is more of a societal mindful approach to the situation that is 2020, rather than a simple mindfulness lesson. As we are living in an uncertain time and there is so much nuance in every multi-faceted situation, I don’t aim to oversimplify and say things in simple black and white terms. I am trying to explore a few ideas here that 2020 has brought to the surface. I think we are all starting to see that communication is not simply stating strong opinions at eachother; we must learn to understand our audience if we are to reach them or truly engage and find middle grounds. My addendums to this post do diverge and address some of the concerns over not enough ditital literacy skills being taught in the age of misinformation and manipulation. I briefly touch on the necessity of fact-checking, but I also talk about the other end of the spectrum and the worrisome part of “woke Cancel Culture”. I need to preface this by saying that this is not a political post – it is not meant to divide, attack, nor defend any “party”. My aim is not to argue against any side or party, but to present the nuance and the complexity of applying certain ideals to real life, as I feel I would be remiss to make overly simplistic statements. Life is messy and not black and white. And in 2020, I don’t think any mature person appreciates the platitudes of it being presented as such. Many situations are multi-factorial and deserve to be approached that way.

not my pic

I don’t believe any one short quote or story (told by one person or “guru”) nor speech has the capability of holding the universal truth for all people at all times. And strictly adhering to quotes or verses, using them as ammo for, or against something, to always live by – well, that’s trapping ourselves or others in a box. And that is not what quotes are for. However, I think quotes and analogies can give us nice inspiring lessons if we turn them inwards and let ourselves get quiet and humbled for a moment. So when I came across this, I appreciated this for what it can remind me.

I came across this lesson by Dr. Dyer by accident.

When you squeeze an orange very hard, what do you get?

Not lemon juice right?

You get orange juice.

It’s never vinegar, nor KoolAid, it’s always orange juice – because that is what is inside.

And the same metaphor is true of us, of me, of you. When we are squeezed hard or put under pressure, what comes out is what is inside (and sometimes what is inside can be a long-term thing, sometimes some acute stress). Our anger, our stress, our fears, our need for control, our judgement, our discrimination, our self-righteousness, our loudness, our limited or limiting beliefs, our bias, our dogmas. That is what can come out loud and clear. Or it can be our empathy and open-mindedness. Our need to seek a deeper understanding or further context. Our peace with ourselves and others. Our gentleness. Our love of our neighbour as ourselves- granting others the kind of understanding we give ourselves, having lived through our struggles long enough to understand the complexity and nuance in many of those life problems. Also, if we are in a bad place emotionally with ourselves, or if we let our ego go unchecked, we likely project criticism and judgement onto others too. So we need to guard our hearts and our thoughts and get quiet, and question ourselves from time to time. Even to acknowledge our own level of hypocrisy or judgement, however small. To let go what doesn’t serve us, nor others.

As I said this isn’t a blanket statement. It isn’t to be used against someone, though it can help us understand others partially. Of course, it may not apply in all scenarios, such as when people can’t tolerate the intolerable and when innocent people are getting hurt such as a victim of rape, abuse, etc. This isn’t for these types of extreme cases which undoubtedly can bring out different strong reactions, and where Fight or Flight mode are natural reactions for self-preservation. Nor is it to be used in victim-blaming or being indifferent to people’s struggles. This is mostly to be aimed inwards. Most spirituality is to be introspective, while gleaning some understanding of others. And it aims to also remind us that in 2020 most of us have been in Fight or Flight mode (aka. the Sympathetic nervous system which we are only supposed to be in for short bursts) for too long, and it is causing everyone to be very reactive even in situations that don’t warrant it.

So it doesn’t mean staying in an unhealthy or abusive relationship, or not standing up for yourself or vulnerable people. It doesn’t mean being indifferent to injustice. In fact, when a building, for example, has structural integrity, it isn’t something that sways every which way. We don’t need to be a pushover, nor to feign positivity, when real issues are at hand. We can stand for something – but is the way we stand for it possibly hurting innocent people, even if through our judgements, assumptions and words?

I think the orange metaphor just means if someone (be it on social media or in real life or in a relationship) is getting reactive and then overwhelming you or applying pressure to you with loud, offensive remarks (be they aimed at you or another person or group of people), you have the chance to speak softer, to pause and clear your thoughts, ask questions, and to seek context, evidence, and a deeper understanding, instead of just getting overwhelmed by someone’s machine-gun remarks and feeling the need to immediately reply to them all, or to become defensive or reactive. “When they go low, you go high”. In fact, if we are looking to get closer to the truth and to get it right, rather than being right, then usually further questions and evidence are needed (which may not always be available during a debate, especially during a heated debate where someone is firing 10 different attacking ideas at once and neither party is a specialist in the field). Often, as society, we trust the person with all the answers from the start. But if there is anything that getting older has taught me, it’s to sooner trust the person who hesitates, tries to weigh different sides, seeks context, and fills in the cracks with empathy. The kind of person who can admit they are not an expert in a certain field and says it is may be best to refer to credible expert opinion, or who says they need to research further on that particular topic, more so than the person who is pushing something with 100% certainty and aggression, especially with something that not even an expert can be certain in. In a scientific context, Doctor Mike points out the danger of IKA (I-know-all) experts who have all the answers (often with agenda tied in) when the rest of the scientific community has questions. (Aside, Conspiracy theorists are the 2020 example of people who from day one have had all the answers, when there wasn’t even enough data or evidence on this novel virus and situation for the scientific and medical communities to have much difinitive answers. And unfortunately, the scientific community’s form of responsible, educated hesitation to speak, say about masks, etc. when they didn’t have enough evidence at first to back it up, was seen as weakness or confusion for some.) Doctor Mike’s TED talk video and work helps us understand why evidence-driven people hesitate before they state something. In the words of Neil deGrasse Tyson, “a proper skeptic, questions what they are unsure of, but is open to changing their mind when valid evidence is presented.”

Unfortunately, however, sometimes people want to be self-righteous and don’t allow room to change their mind if it is about something that runs contradictory to what they already believe. In which case, sometimes with time, after having tried to engage in reasonable dialogue, we may learn that nothing we, nor any specialist in the field (who would be equipped with evidence, and whose work can often be found with research into credible sources) could say that would change their idea on that subject because of a dogma or pre-conceived idea that they have set their mind on – so our energy could be better spent.

Yet we can still retain our compassion in how we speak to otherwise good people, who perhaps view things differently based on their experiences and/or the pieces of info they understand about the subject. Especially in this time of people being inundated with negative news and life stresses, when most people are just trying to survive or live their lives, each of us may only hold a piece of information on a subject (and no one can know everything on all subjects or all injustices in this world after all). We sometimes have to bring our pieces of the puzzle together where open dialogue is possible. We have to understand most people are probably good people who are just trying to make the most with what they have in this very uncertain time. Many times, people on different sides of an argument have some valid concerns that need to be addressed, rather than shut down entirely. A valid counter argument doesn’t have to threaten an argument; it can sharpen it. We all come from different walks of life. It is possible for two people to argue heatedly about a complex matter and for both of them to be right – at least in some way that seems true to their reality. Not everything is mutually exclusive. And sometimes there is a way to question and shift another’s view a little to one of compassion without totally uprooting all their fundamental principles or beliefs of all that they hold true, nor belittling them (which usually just puts people on the defensive and doesn’t sway anyone). And we, as observers, who read or hear these debates – we don’t always have to take sides (of either extreme). We can understand nuance and gray matter and this can be quite freeing. There are usually more than two views or arguments than what we read or hear at any one time and many times more gray matter than what is obvious at first. And there is no obligation to pick sides in most cases – though we may feel pressured or even manipulated into doing so (and even in elections though we may have to pick the better of two evils, we don’t have to be appologists for either, nor worship false idols).

As far as debates or dialogues go, be it in person or on social media, I believe that the person who speaks gently and empathetically of, and towards, their audience and those who they speak of, will usually be better received and heard by others who reason at that level (and probably they will be able to think clearer rather than getting reactive). Most of us don’t want to be loudest guy/gal in the room, nor the person who speaks divisively or degradingly. In fact, though many people like the idea of “dominating a debate”, realistically if we cannot have a dialogue in a non-reactive, non-controlling, respectful, and reasonable way that seeks context and clearer understanding, and wants to reason with people (aha! the meaning of being reasonable is the ability to be reasoned with afterall!) then that is our weakness, and it afflicts us and those close to us. The way in which we present our beliefs often works the opposite way that we want it to. And it is often blatantly visible to others, in spite of what words we are saying. As my mom would tell me when I was a kid, “it’s not what you say, but how you say it.” She would also say that rather than trusting the mean or rude things people would say about others- to remember that in many cases, those words were a bigger reflection of the character, education level, or state of the person saying them, than the person that they supposedly were about. It is what comes out of their own mouth, and the way it’s said that speaks more volumes of the speaker than the words themselves and who they’re describing. It is what comes out of the orange when it is pressed afterall. Of course, people can misspeak when pressed for a quick reply and immediately regret it, so their approach and the overall context is key. Villifying and crucifying people over what is potentially a single misspoken or regretted word or phrase, especially if taken out of context, or criticizing people for simply questioning something or bringing different concerns to the table or risking being wrong in order to learn and sharpen one’s ideas (without stating things in a way that is beyond a doubt rooted in actual hateful intention), isn’t going to make us any better as people at the end of the day. That may just be swinging from one extreme to another.

We have to make sure we don’t, out of narrow-vision, in some way, become like what we so dislike in others, for example, by becoming hurtful to others for the mere fact that they don’t always say things that we, or the masses, agree with, or because they question, or play devil’s advocate to calrify an idea. In fact, sometimes the same person in two different personal debates can be wrongly assumed to be on either opposite “side”, when in reality their approach may change based on the extremity of who and what they are dealing with, or based on how comfortable they feel airing their doubts in the given environment, so that they can sharpen their ideas and try to understand different sides. We live in a messy world afterall. For instance, one may not be an anti-vaxxer and yet when at the doctor they may ask about the safety of vaccines. Surely they would not be able to air these doubts with an anti-vaxxer as they know their doubts or fears will probably be blown out of proportion or even manipulated. In an anti-vaxxing debate they may take a different side because they are too busy refuting extreme conspiracy theory ideas that they know are dexontextualized, or without credible scientific roots, etc. (ex. the idea of chips in vaccines). This is usually the same issue with any controversial topic and some may end up feeling that they need, in order to keep the peace, to just keep their ideas to themselves rather than testing and sharpening them in a nuanced dialogue. Yet healthy dialogue with reasonable questioning on both sides is necessary for growth and to better understand the gray areas of complex matters. We cannot make people afraid to even brouch a concern, as this doesn’t give us the space to learn and better understand eachother.

With that said, although there are often healthy middle grounds to be found, I would be remiss to not add that the assumption that the truth must be equally in between two currently present arguments is an overly simplistic one. We may be good people, but we are all susceptible to manipulation if we aren’t aware of it. If one currently visible side is far more extreme than another (ex. QAnon) to simply settle the truth as being a compromise in between the two sides, is far too simplistic and unquestioning. Of course, certain things such as hate-speech and death threats are unacceptable – and one must really question if the parties that one sides with encourage that. Fact checking online has an important place because scientifically and historically incorrect information can be dangerous propaganda used to fuel hate and fear, and politicians or other groups with agendas may use the media as a way of manipulating and brainwashing people, particularly those with lower levels of education who feel disenfranchised. Politicians and parties know that nothing spreads faster than fear, outrage, and conspiracy theories. We need to be at least a little aware of these divisive tactics that intend to divert attention away from other things that politicians and other parties with questionable agendas are doing. There are also, of course, hateful and dangerous people who try to spread their information on Facebook, such as the “opinion” that “the Holocaust was not real”, despite all the historical evidence of this genocide. Undoubtedly, the people who began spreading such misinformation had a reprehensible agenda that needs to be stopped. In the face of manipulation through social media, the first thing we can do as the public is to be mindful. Here George Monbiot gives a great example of how Digital Literacy is taught in Finland in the fight against misinformation and fake news. Of course, most politicians will not advocate for Digital Literacy as it is a conflict of their interest. So people need to become aware and push for it at the municipal level. Teaching these critical thinking skills is even more useful than censorship alone. Politicians need to be fact checked themselves, so they cannot be trusted to become the fact checkers. But no matter who does control the media, we have to be questioning of our sources and the info bombarding us, be they online in algorithm-manipulated feeds or on the cable news or in the statements made by politicians. And to consider counterarguments and even counterarguments of counterarguments. And we need look outside the given box that is created by politicians and parties that aim to limit our discussions and overfocus on certain topics more than others. Many ultimately aim to divide people. Another thing George Monbiot mentioned, is not leaving behind the marginalized and impoverished groups in society – desperation can drive many negative trends including voting trends that otherwise seem incomprehensible. I also would add that teaching more about empathy, psychology, health, wellness and healthy relationships (and recognizing unhealthy relationships) at a highschool level, could greatly help people recognize signs of unhealthy trends, manipulation and abuse both in personal lives and on a wider scale. Many of the dangerous and unhealthy trends we hear about start at a grass-roots level. Many marginalized people could have been helped best at that level. We also need to seek outside non-partisan sources of info. Particularly in a pandemic, seeking non-partisan, scientifically and medically credible information outside of even conventional cable news media, can be very helpful. Google Scholar is an easily-accessible source for finding scientific studies. Personally, I also follow a few non-partisan sources of medical info from YouTube doctors and specialists whose approach to fact-checking, I feel, is ethical and trust-worthy.

To de-escalate from these loaded subjects a little — we have to channel our outrage in the right way at the right people with the right nuance and keeping the right context, so we don’t inadvertently hurt innocent people, or inadvertently turn people away from our cause. It is different to factually know what a certain party stands for: that it’s criminal and dangerous, and that it must be opposed to save innocent lives (ex. we know Fascism is wrong) than to be so easily triggered that one attacks the wrong people (who are completely innocent) or simply assumes ill intent in possibly innocent or nuanced people and to go after them for expressing an opinion because it presented one side of concerns (ex. as it tends to happen in woke Cancel Culture when the masses try to “cancel” anyone who thinks different than them). As Ayishat Akanbi pointed out, “we need to be able to discern between things that are uncomfortable and things that are hateful…Not all disagreement is rooted in nefarious intention.” As long as we as people and the masses keep the intellectual acuity that it takes to recognize true extremism, and as long as we seek credible sources out and stay critical thinking, then ultimately nuance, context and empathy seem like a key ideas to bear in mind in 2020 and in the debates and dialogues that 2020 opens up for society. When it comes to complex subjects that don’t have just one scientific or objective answer or truth, the masses reprimanding any of their Facebook friends or “cancelling” those who are likely innocent people who try to approach things from another vantage point – well, it’s just not a constructive approach, nor a realistic one. We have to understand that many of the things we state are indeed double-edged swords. Each opposing party is looking at the other and thinking that the other party and their ideas are the indoctrinated, harmful ones. It’s hard in the moment to see the paradox in one’s own thinking. And sadly, the worse that a particular group treats them, the more it may be drive them to one side rather than a place closer to the middle.

Unchanneled anger and outrage is like a fire that consumes everything in its path.

In a very good book by Jeffrey Archer, Kane and Abel (not at all religious, it’s a fiction novel about two men), there is a time when a university debate is scheduled and the representatives are partnered up. When the actual debate takes place, the partner of one of the main characters started speaking in an extreme, dogmatic, and hateful way. At that point the main character became ashamed for his own party and delivered a statement that I still remember a decade later. He stated that the extremity of his party is what ultimately undermined his own party. He felt it was his extreme partner, not his opponent, who sank the ship for his party and his cause, because of the dogma and hateful approach. That can be incredibly hard to admit, because people usually welcome anyone agreeing with, defending, or supporting them, and sometimes they will take it wherever they can get it, even if the person or politician completely misrepresents their cause. Of course, this could be extrapolated and become a whole other discussion on how extremes of any kind are unhealthy; how sadly historically and even currently, religions have been abused and power hungry people have deterred more good people from religion than they have converted because of the way they represented the religion, letting their need for control dominate; or how extremes can actually be seen as a horseshoe rather than a linear spectrum, and that people at polar opposite extremes can actually be closer to eachother than they think, by the personality trait or unhealthy mental state that brings extremism, fanaticism, and the want of control over others. Extremism also creates a lot of room for hypocrisy. And it is often lost on the person, but visible to others. So we have to be careful to not end up being that way ourselves.

“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.” –Friedrich Nietzsche. Yes, this quote is a bit dramatic, but with all the divisiveness online in 2020, and in a time of Cancel Culture, this idea of unchanneled anger, judgement, controllingness, fear, and/or hate being more circular then we presume it to be (and I say, “and/or hate” as most people are not inherently hateful or evil and don’t identify with that extreme kind of word. They just do hurtful things because of their judgemental tendencies, unchanneled anger regarding their hurt, and because of the dogma they hold that makes them believe they are right and others are wrong and therefore those others must be condemned and that those opposing ideas and concerns must be shut down. So if we simply call things evil or hateful – words most of us can’t identify with and therefore dismiss as being separate from us, then we don’t have to take any personal responsibility for being capable of being hurtful towards other people – of even possibly fathoming that we may have at some point inflicted unneccessary stress or even pain onto other possibly innocent people, or that we didn’t show enough compassion for someone in need – though we of course are not bad people. And, I mean, have we ever seen a bad or evil person that regarded themselves to be bad or evil? Surely even some of those people did love their children in some way? Or struggled with mental health issues they could not get the best of? Or experienced trauma that made them capable of doing things we wouldn’t? Having this understanding, of course, doesn’t mean to just let criminals off easy, as I don’t think that actually helps them and it endangers innocent people. But it is a thought to help us realize and be mindful of the fact that we also have some potential to be hurtful without actually being aware of it. These negative or even draconian traits that we so quickly hate in others, may present in us in some degree or form if we create a harbour of judgement in our mind or in our online spaces for them. These days, we may not see mob mentality through crucifixions, witch hunts and pitch forks anymore – but one has to wonder if some of the pitchforks haven’t simply been replaced by USB-chargeable devices. Given our progressive upbringing in North America, if some areas of the Twittersphere can be so unforgiving (I don’t truly know as I don’t use Twitter, I just hear of the outrages and Cancel Culture in the news feed) and where doctors are receiving death threats – possibly because their health policies restrict certain business income, or simply because there is some war on science happening – well then, are we that far removed from the dark ages as society as we thought? I sometimes wondered when I was younger, if we were raised hundreds of years ago, if we wouldn’t think and act in similar ways to the people and masses who we read about in history books and whose behaviour we were appalled with. And in 2020, I realize that though overall our global consciousness has progressed, there are still remnants lurking in the shadows and beliefs under the surface that we couldn’t imagine anyone holding these days and it’s something we have to wrap our heads around as we watch the news. (Sadly though, there will always be extremists and crazy people in this world who we can’t help and one would hope that there is enough mental health support available for those who want it, especially in times of crisis.) But at the end of the day, the only person we can really control is ourselves – and our reactions to others and the world as it stands today. And I hope this musing on the human condition didn’t come across as that good people need to regard their innately imperfect nature with some kind of self-flagellation approach, but rather to understand our human condition so we can be a little more forgiving of ourselves and therefore of others. It is helpful to remember that we live in a world full of inherently good, yet imperfect people, and that though this world has its share of evil, ultimately, good and empathy does prevail – and remembering this can boost our spirits and thoughts about others and ourselves even in the face of constantly negative news.

There is always room for us as individuals and society to expand and deepen our empathy and understanding even of those different than us who have different struggles than our own to juggle.

So, let’s be honest with ourselves. Is there any possibility that when we spoke passionately about a belief we hold (and even amidst a few of our own choir agreeing with us- preaching to our own choir is no feat after all, many of them may already have the bias to receive what we said irregardless of how we said it) that to some other reasonable people, what we said was purely polarizing, divisive, or reactive? Are we sinking our own ship? Can we question the root of our own thinking and beliefs and its effects on us and those around us?

And are we becoming the change we want to see in the world? Even if that is simply in a humble, quiet, and kind way on the middle path, where we don’t hurt anybody through judgemental assumptions and where we stand up for those who can’t for themselves when we are able to? Or instead, did we get blindsided in trying to “win” and be self-righteous? (or in simply adding to Twitter echo chambers?)

Our reaction is something that we have to catch ourselves on, in the same way as catching ourselves when we are thinking in a judgemental way or jumping to assumptions. What thoughts we allow, especially what thoughts we allow to dominate, is a choice. And how we channel our emotions is another choice. Thoughts and feelings are important, not just our words, because they shape our reality and character, and often when squeezed hard enough by life, what is on the inside all along comes out. Of course I, like everyone else, have my weaknesses and I hope a lifetime will be enough to grow out of them, rather than become set in them; to expand my empathy in sustainable ways so I can be the best and healthiest version of me long term. Afterall, “a man who views the world the same at fifty as he did at twenty, has wasted thirty years of his life.” (Muhammad Ali.)

So if/when someone questions or squeezes us, what usually comes out? And would we be OK with everybody seeing that? Is it healthy? Is it necessary? Is it reactive or responsive? Are we giving the benefit of any doubt? Or are we simply condemning others and their concerns or questions? Are we expecting others to be perfect in everything they ever say and do – or that they say things the way we see fit in a way that we understand it? Would we be able to live under such scrutiny as we put onto others, knowing that we inherently are imperfect and sinful ourselves? Ultimately, whatever we say, do, or judge – is it truly constructive or is it destructive?

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” (Martin Luther King, Jr.)

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Recent addendum: For those who like to hear or read nuanced, deep thoughts and dialogue, I highly reccommend listening to Ayishat Akanbi who I’ve come across recently – trust me, you will not regret the time you take to listen to her. She is empathetic and digs deep so she can better understand the motives and psychology of others, and she expresses her profound, complex ideas so eloquently, and in such an unusually nuanced way for 2020 that it is nourishing for the soul. She has been described as a philosopher while on her interview with Triggernometry, but I would say that she is not only a philosopher, but someone who seems in touch with reality and who genuinely seems to seek deep understanding of others when formulating her thoughts on any complex subject. She also seems pretty non-partisan which makes people on “opposing” sides interested in her thoughts.

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