Author: Kimberlyn David

A Call for Wellbeing

Stress, burnout, anxiety. These are the epidemics of our time—yes, epidemics: like infectious diseases, states of unease can be highly contagious.

But unlike their viral counterparts, these contemporary epidemics are the result of a fairy tale that isn’t serving us so well. That tale is this: material wealth is everything, compassion for all of life is worthless.

We’re in this story together. So if you at times feel tapped out, lonely, and unsure about your place in the world, I’m right there with you. This system we live in drives many of us to exhaustion, and it increasingly denies us the means to fully explore and actualize our human potential. It’s not my intent to spread gloom—this is our reality, and avoiding it only prevents change. The way out of it, our path to wellbeing, is to wholeheartedly confront the issues before us, and to treat ourselves and others with as much patience and love as possible.

Real wellbeing is not about coping, as coping is about minimizing and tolerating. Should we tolerate habits/situations that drain us? Should we cope with and tolerate a system that exploits and alienates us? No way.

I used to scoff at statements like “change begins within.” I’d think: Get real. The world is going bonkers—and we need to do something about it! It’s true that we must do something about the violences and injustices in the world. Yet it’s illogical to expect collective cooperation if we as individuals lack peace in our own lives. We can’t effectively work with others if we’re caught up in and/or creating discord. Recognizing and unpacking our internal baggage is doing something—it’s a way of acting as the change, by being the sanity we wish to see in the world.

Real wellbeing is about transformation. It’s not something we can buy in a “lifestyle” or find in self-help “gurus.” Rather, it’s in what we can give—our courage to say what isn’t working, in our lives and around us, is a huge step forward. Sometimes that requires changing the inner dialogue, as when we experience feelings of worthlessness. At other times we must take a public stand, risking marginalization and ridicule for challenging orthodoxies.

Above all: Wellbeing is a state of compassion. We need strong compassion for ourselves to stay grounded and energized. The stability and resilience we gain from that is our means to act wisely in the world. Wise actions are loving actions, and loving actions are the roots of true social change.

Wellbeing is a practice—it’s an ongoing effort, because our personal and societal circumstances are constantly shifting.

I’m not claiming to have the answers :). I’m just aiming for my slice of truth—and hoping I can make positive contributions toward a happier, more peaceful humanity.

What’s your truth? If you’re up for sharing it, please leave a comment below. Conversation is a powerful way to escape the box of isolation. We’re social creatures. We need one another.

On Rest

The Netherlands is not known for an abundance of warm sunny days. So when such days arrive, you really appreciate them—especially during the summer months, when it stays light til quite late. As the sun started going down on a recent summer night, I hopped on my fiets and headed for the nearest bike lane, with no particular destination in mind. I simply wanted to enjoy the feel of fresh air on my face. In truth, I also wanted to break my inclination to overwork. Off I pedaled, thinking: You deserve this. That’s right, you deserve this.

Many of us have trouble giving ourselves a break. But I can’t—there’s so much work to do! Such nagging thoughts want us to believe that if we rest, let alone enjoy ourselves (How selfish of me!), the world will crumble—and it’ll be our fault. Sometimes, we buy into thoughts that we’re not good enough until/unless we receive acclaim for our paid work (if we’re lucky enough to have paid work; if not, thoughts about self-worth can turn quite nasty). You know what I’m talking about, right?

As an American, I’ve struggled with beliefs about rest and worthiness my entire working life. Part of that is a carryover from growing up in the ugly grip of poverty and then as an adult being tossed back into poverty through layoffs and underpaid work. I can pin a lot of it to an American belief system: If you’re poor or without a job, it must be your fault. Even as I know this belief is ridiculous, the sagging feeling is there, because it is a conditioned “norm.” An embarrassing truth: I have repeatedly worked myself to the point of illness and utter exhaustion because I’ve wanted to be “seen” and valued by society.

At present, the dominant concept of value is defined on economic terms, because that’s what the so-called “free market” dictates. If you’re a Hollywood celebrity who earns $20 million per picture, you must be valuable because your face sells a lot of movie tickets, generating wealth for the studio system. If you’re an undocumented farm worker, you supposedly don’t count for much, even as you provide the invaluable contribution of feeding people. If you work for a nonprofit and can barely afford to cover your basic necessities, well how noble of you to sacrifice a livable wage for making the world a better place.

We’re adored if we make the “right” amount of money or make the “right” amount of sacrifice. A lot of the way I’ve worked in activism has been replicated from the hardline corporate work “ethic”—because that’s the economic, social, and political conditioning of the times. Is working without leisure or adequate sleep doing us or our causes any good? Are we gaining ground by delaying and denying joy and well-being?

An extraordinarily effective activist friend of mine nearly lost her husband to divorce, because she worked too much, piling multiple campaigns on top of her full-time job. His threat to divorce her snapped her out of it, though she admits that she experienced withdrawal-like symptoms. She came to realize how much she ignored the toll of exhaustion on her body, from a temporary loss of mobility in one wrist to arm numbness.

Work can be a harmful addiction, even activism/do-good work, and it would serve us well to address the symptoms and causes. Let’s admit it: they’re brought on by “norms” established by corporate economics, and we’re not immune to them, even if we’ve never stepped inside an office tower. Real heroism challenges our burnout culture by slowing down and remembering that we can’t be awesome at everything—and by remembering that we are worthy human beings, regardless of our titles or pay scales.

Insecurity

When an old culture is dying, the new culture is created by those people who are not afraid to be insecure. – Rudolph Bahro

It’s not uncommon to regard insecurity as a form of negativity/weakness that must be banished from our lives. Unchecked, feelings of insecurity can paralyze our potential to do amazing things. But looked at through the lens of Bahro, insecurity takes on a liberating, powerful quality. I see it as a motivating call-to-action: Let’s rein in this freaky energy and re-purpose it into courageous efforts for the greater good.

Those who push the boundaries on what is considered fair and worthwhile are essentially courageous practitioners of insecurity—they take risks. When feelings of doubt and fear arise for me, these past and present risk-takers light my lamp:

Frederick Douglass, former slave and fierce abolitionist. After escaping slavery he became a celebrated speaker, plus he founded and ran a top-selling abolitionist paper in the US. His book My Bondage and My Freedom is a moving lesson on tenacity and perseverance.

Harriet Tubman, former slave who saved many slaves through her work with the Underground Railroad. It’s difficult to find accurate history about her life and abolitionist work, as Syracuse University scholars point out. Despite the mythology surrounding her, it’s not disputed that she took on a risky mission to save others.

Victoria Woodhull, the first woman who ran for president in the US—50 years before women could legally vote there. She was a real firebrand, to say the least.

James Baldwin, author and social critic who was a prominent voice in the 1960s civil rights movement. You can get a sense of his flair in the highly acclaimed documentary I am Not Your Negro.

Frans de Waal, scientist and author of Are We Smart Enough to Know How Smart Animals Are?. His Ted talk on the moral behavior of animals challenges the notion that humans hold a monopoly on justice and compassion. In doing so, he takes scientific orthodoxy to task too.

Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, whistleblowers. It takes real guts to blow the lid off the opaque machinery of US surveillance.

Laura Poitras, truth-telling artist/journalist. Her documentary CITIZENFOUR, about Snowden’s revelations and his subsequent hiding in Hong Kong? Dang.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Zen master. His book The Art of Power turns conventional understandings of power upside down, where they can be examined with a new perspective. I appreciate his plays with language. For instance, he coined the term “interbeing” to describe the intentional practice of remaining aware of interconnectedness and living with a small footprint. To practice interbeing is to practice climate protection.

Who inspires you to step into the zone of insecurity/courageousness?

Genius Bacteria

In her TED talk about bacteria, Bonnie Bessler wove a compelling story about the ways in which bacteria communicate with “chemical words.” Referring to bacteria that generate bioluminescence, she noted that the light created is formed by collective power—the light shines only when the bacteria gather in a group and “vote,” through quorum sensing, to act in unison.

Besser’s presentation could be seen as an example of inner science—the science of understanding ourselves and our dynamic relationships with others and the rest of life around us (even life that’s invisible to us without a microscope!). It therefore offers us parallels to consider in our human ability to consciously create the harmonious conditions needed to manifest lasting happiness and peace—the freedom we’re all seeking.

Just as bacteria communicate through chemical “words,” we influence one another through our nervous systems, by mirroring our emotions and behaviors. Without having come across any science confirming so, we would know this to be true: we’ve all experienced how our moods can change in the presence of others. Someone walks into the room and without them saying a word, we can register that person’s emotional state. We might even be able to feel it in our own bodies.

Through our own ways of being and acting in the world—through the determined and courageous transformation of our less-than-desirable conditioning—we create the healthy soils in which the seeds of beautiful changes sprout. Through the conscious work of nurturing compassion and empathy, we make it safe for others to drop their fears and to find their faith in humanity. This work, however small or big a scale, is really important: Fear and distrust interfere with us coming together, like bacteria, and realizing our positive powers.

What if we simply acted like bacteria, setting aside our surface-level differences and wholeheartedly recognizing our inner similarities?

Dislodging Stones

I’ve been practicing meditation for 6 years, and I come to this realization each and every time I sit: Meditation meets us where we’re at in life, opening and strengthening our hearts and minds where they most need to be.

Meditation can’t be understood from an intellectual standpoint only; it’s through our practice that we develop the calm and wisdom needed to move through life with grace and ease, to bring greater peace into the world.

None of us is born enlightened—we all have a context that shapes who we are and become. Childhood poverty and rape deposited stones in my heart, hardening me in ways I couldn’t see or feel until I began meditating at the age of 39. Through my practice sessions, I regularly confront and dislodge these stones. Each extraction leads me to a fresh sense of freedom.

With each stone-plucking, I also gain a more profound compassion for others: it’s by seeing and feeling the contours of my own stonework that I can truly comprehend the ways in which life bestows difficulties upon everyone. Compassion means to suffer with. The word evolved from the Latin roots of com, or with, and patī, to suffer. In these terms, suffering connotes the basic ups and downs all of us go through just by the nature of being alive.

Meditation is not evasion; it is a serene encounter with reality.
– Thich Nhat Hanh

None of us escapes pain, upsets, or failures. They’re factors of life. But some of us are so saddled by emotional burdens that we can’t feel a deeper love for ourselves or others. As a society, it would behoove us to provide everyone accessible, supportive ways to confront and transform our life wounds. Societal harmony depends on wide-scale healing and compassion, the very masonry of cooperation.

I’ve heard from people who don’t meditate that I’ve got my head in the clouds—all that sitting accomplishes nothing but self-absorption, they say. My response? Meditation isn’t about creating our own private bliss bubbles. It’s about ameliorating our suffering and making spiritual leaps so that we can fearlessly serve humanity in our own loving ways.

For some of us that might mean being more present with our children or life partners; for others of us that could look like speaking truth to power, committing civil disobedience, building economic alternatives. No matter how small or large the role, each contribution matters. As poet Clarissa Pinkola Estes writes:

Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small, calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely. It is not given to us to know which acts or by whom, will cause the critical mass to tip toward an enduring good.

Time and again, it’s the meditation that reminds me to strengthen my capacity for compassion and love—and to forgive myself when I slip and reenact ingrained patterns. It also helps me remember that the smallest actions can serve others in the most heart-inspired ways. On any given day, our greatest contribution in life could be bringing a smile to a stranger’s face. We never know: one smile could be the action that tips us toward enduring good, the peace we’re all looking for.