Since 9/11 the world has felt like a different place. A recent exhibit of Hung Liu's work (at the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City) reminded me of that. Her deeply psychological and sociological art explores both ancient China and the modern world. Immediately after 9/11, she painted a picture entitled "Chinese bride with bird flying into her head." This elaborate painting signified that the airplanes hijacked by terrorists not only crashed into the World Trade Center, they flew into our brains and colonized our physiological systems.
Daily we are bombarded with horrific information. In the last few months, we have seen the rise of Isis with its beheadings and attempted genocide of the Yezidi people. In December, 136 schoolchildren were shot in Peshawar. Recently, terrorists have killed staff members of Charlie Hebdo and other Parisians and, this month, Boko Haram has slaughtered at least 2000 people in Baga. Indeed, the news of late has been so alarming that the voices of journalists have cracked as they reported it.
In addition to the constant messages we receive that the world is filled with evil, danger and unpredictability, we also know that our planet is endangered. Global climate change with its consequent effects on food, water, animals and plants has so many tragic implications that we can hardly bear to face it. We feel primal panic and shut down emotionally.
Humans are not built to deal with this level of information flow. We evolved in small communities equipped to deal with proximal stimulation. This was nearby friends and foe, animals, plants, water and weather. We had no distal information. Tibetan villagers preoccupations were family, food supply and Buddhism. Irish peasants needed only to concern themselves with peat, potatoes and pubs. Homesteaders' primary news was who had a baby, who was hailed out, or who bought a new wagon. Now, thanks to our global communication system, there is no distal information. Everything that happens in the world feels proximal to us.
The news we receive frightens us and triggers our arousal system to do what it has always done in dangerous situations-- flee, fight or freeze. Unfortunately, we can neither fight most of these problems nor can we flee. What we do instead is freeze. We find no actionable intelligence in the news of the day, only a paralyzing sense that the world is an overwhelming place. Psychologists call this response "learned helplessness."
Our core phenomenological state is overwhelmedness. We are bombarded by too much information, too many choices and too much complexity. We have mammalian arousal systems, Neolithic brains, Medieval institutions and 21st century technology and communications. Our biorhythms have become entrained with machines. We operate in nanosecond time. We struggle with slowing down, staying calm and relaxing.
In our individualistic culture, we tend to view our distress as personal, but when we all feel much the same way, and it's very different from how people felt 50 years ago, we know that, we are dealing with a cultural problem. Our culture is making us all a little crazy.
How are we humans reacting to this? We are vulnerable to addictions, compulsions, lethargy and anxiety attacks. We leave a great deal of our experience unprocessed and unspoken. We withdraw from the world, we compartmentalize, we deny and we experience psychic numbing.
(My dentist told me that a much larger percentage of her patients are grinding their teeth now than in the past. We are more fearful. Alex Bentley analyzed the emotional content of all printed words over the last century. One hundred years ago, Americans used more emotional words than they do now, with one exception. Since the 1970's, words that suggest fear have steadily increased. In 2008, the last year of the study, we utilized more fearful words than ever before.)
It is difficult ever to feel quite present because the information we receive comes from everywhere. Scholar Homi Bhabha put it well. "Inbetweeness is the fundamental condition of our times." We find it almost impossible to be integrated, vibrant people. (Indeed, psychically, we resemble the broken and segmented humans that artists such as Picasso and Miro painted early in the 20th century.)
How can we be both healthy and awake? We can do some gating of information, balancing our desire to be informed with our need for self-protection. We can find wholesome ways to slow ourselves down, such as yoga, music, reading, meditation and time in the natural world.
We can stay deeply engaged with the world that is touchable. We can savor the homemade stew, laugh with our friends, hug our children and feel the sun, wind, or rain on our faces. We can work to be grounded in deep time and place. Deep time is geological, solar, seasonal and animal time. Horses, dogs and cats move at the same pace today that they have always moved and that is one reason they are so comforting to be around. We can entrain our biorhythms with theirs and slow down.
Place, by definition, is geographical. A real place is filled with stories and sensation, possibilities for action and engagement and opportunities for contemplation and bliss. Life has always been difficult but this present moment is difficult in entirely new ways. The craziness is in the culture, but each of us must find our own answers for how to be as happy and whole as possible. The place to begin is by being present where you are. Breathe deeply, look around your surroundings, touch something, and make something good happen in the place where you are.