The Mindful Life™ Blog “What do we do when it feels like the world is falling apart?” Mindfulness practices to increase compassion. “This summer has been a particularly difficult one for our global community. With every new instance of gut-wrenching news, many of us are beginning to feel helpless, hopeless and scared. But what do we do when even after all of that it feels like everything is still falling apart?…”

What do we do when it feels like the world is falling apart

This summer has been a particularly difficult one for our global community. The frequency that our fellow citizens are experiencing violence is such that while we are still mourning one horrific event, we scroll through our social feeds only to find that another awful tragedy has occurred.

We grieve for those who are hurting right now. We can all picture ourselves or our loved ones as being one of the victims, one of the people dancing harmlessly at a nightclub, snuggled up to watch fireworks with our kids, driving with a broken tail light, or protecting citizens at a protest.

Our hearts ache with each new instance of innocent lives lost, wishing, hoping, praying that tomorrow’s news will be better. Yet, with every new instance of gut-wrenching news, many of us are beginning to feel helpless, hopeless and scared.

At the beginning of the summer, a lot of these tragedies opened up important dialogues and community conversations. People wrote letters to politicians, showed solidarity in positive ways for the groups of people being attacked around the globe, talked reasonably about these circumstances with friends. Prayers and love were offered for all who were being senselessly attacked.

But what do we do when even after all of that it feels like everything is still falling apart?

Compassion fatigue is a term used within caregiving environments to explain what happens when people passionate about helping others, such as nurses, doctors or social workers, are no longer able to do their jobs well because of constantly being in the thick of heart wrenching situations. Compassion fatigue symptoms usually set in when those generous people no longer feel like they can affect positive change amidst all of the suffering they witness.

We have been so inundated with tragedy and strife over the past several years, and, in particular, this summer, I worry that some level of compassion fatigue might happen to us all.

Wisdom traditions and dedicated mindfulness practitioners have known for a long time that compassion is the key to our ultimate well being both as individuals and as a society.

Now scientific research studies are beginning to further explore this topic. Stanford University has an entire research center dedicated to the study of compassion, altruism and empathy. It was inspired by discussions between Stanford University and the Dalai Lama, then founded and funded by neurosurgeon and philanthropist, James Doty.

What they have found at Stanford is that meditation increases compassion in individuals, making them more likely to help strangers, donate money to those in need and have areas of their brains (responsible for caring for others) highly activated: Because as wisdom traditions have told us all along, mindfulness without heartfulness isn’t actually mindfulness. They are inextricably intertwined.

The Stanford researchers have also found that being compassionate is not just good for others, it’s good for us. When we show our care and support for others, we switch on our parasympathetic nervous system which decreases our blood pressure, brings stress hormones back to baseline, boosts our immune system and increases our longevity. blog by Dr. Kristen Race: "What do we do when it feels like the world is falling apart"

Here are some ways to use the practices of mindfulness (and heartfulness) this summer to increase compassion (and stave off compassion fatigue) in yourself and those around you:

Do a body scan after hearing about something upsetting

Notice and name the sensations you feel when processing tragic events. You can say, “I notice that my stomach is clenched and if feels like there’s pressure on my chest.” Breathe into these physical sensations. Notice the narrative your mind might be creating. Are you adding emotional pain to the physical pain? If you are, that can unnecessarily increase your stress level. Instead, bring yourself back into the present moment by just describing the sensations of what you’re feeling.

Say “I have” instead of “I am”

In English we tend to use, “I am” to express our feelings which gives them a sense of permanence. But feelings aren’t permanent. In French, for example, if you want to say, “I am afraid”, you say, “J’ai peur”, which literally translates to “I HAVE fear” indicating a more temporary state. Play around with your choice of words and see how they change your feelings in the moment. Say “I have fear right now”, instead of a more blanket statement like, “I am afraid”.

Three breath hug

This is a big favorite in our family. When you notice you are feeling scared, stressed or upset, give someone you love a 3-breath hug. Breathe deeply and slowly for three full breaths before letting go. It’s actually a lot longer than it sounds and can engage the parasympathetic nervous systems for both parties.

Loving kindness meditation

This is a traditional mindfulness meditation where you first offer loving kindness to yourself, next offer loving kindness to someone with whom you have difficulties or someone you know to be suffering, third offer loving kindness to the world as a whole. The exact verbiage of this meditation varies from discipline to discipline, but, essentially is:

May I be filled with loving kindness
May I be peaceful and at ease
May I be happy
May I be free from suffering

Then repeat this two more times replacing “I” with “you” in the second repetition and “you” with “we” in the third. Renowned meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg likes to do this practice while walking up and down the streets of Manhattan offering loving kindness meditations silently to strangers.

Three good things

Practice noticing 3 good things in your day. A smile from the barista at the coffee shop, your child telling you about something fun from their day, a compliment from a client, a laugh with a co-worker. We already have a negativity bias hardwired inside of us, so spend some time intentionally noticing what’s good in your life. Duke University found that just two weeks of this practice is a natural antidepressant and sleep aid.

Look for the helpers

This is Fred Rogers’ timeless wisdom. In every tragedy, there are stories of beautiful helpers, amazing souls who risked their own lives to help others. Their stories are much less prevalent in the mainstream media, but they are out there. Focus on the good that is coming out of a situation. Look for the helpers.

Be a helper

Find a way to help in your community. Whether it’s donating time or money to organizations you believe in or just lending a helping hand to your neighbor, find a way to connect to those in your community. This doesn’t have to be a grand effort, small acts of kindness go a long way.

I hope these tips will not only increase our collective compassion, but also help us manage our own internal stress levels. Because as we continue to hear unthinkable stories about the suffering of others, it’s important to remember to be compassionate with ourselves. Take a break from the news when you need one. Be informed, but also nourish yourself in positive ways. We are much less altruistic when we are mired in our own stress, and it’s awfully hard to give from an empty cup.


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