To be human is to belong, and care is both the expression and the gift of our connectedness. Heart-felt care motivates us to make our best contributions in life. And expressing care not only feels good but is actually good for us, having been shown to strengthen the immune system!
The environmental movement is made up of millions of people who dedicate their lives to caring for every conceivable facet of life on Earth. In responding to the ‘call of the world’, we envisage a better future, characterised by values of sustainability, wholeness, beauty, peace and respect. Living into that vision gives our lives meaning.
For some of us, though, the caring path leads to a place of disillusionment that feels very different from the vision of wholeness that first inspired us. Issues loom ever larger, and our impact feels insignificant. We can end up burned out, even cynical, feeling that our efforts have been in vain.
Care or over-care?
Doc Childre, the founder of the Institute of HeartMath® [http://www.heartmath.org], explains that it is not care, but rather ‘over-care’ that leads us to this dark place. Over-care happens when care becomes laced with worry and anxiety, and when we over-identify with our particular vision of how the world should be.
Over-care feels to me like the cause of a condition that is well recognised in the healthcare sector, namely ‘compassion fatigue’. Many people working with trauma victims experience a reduction in the feeling of compassion over time. They experience stress and anxiety, emotional numbness, and feelings of hopelessness and negativity. People who are particularly conscientious, perfectionist and self-giving are most at risk of developing compassion fatigue and experiencing the negative impacts of the resultant chronic stress.
Environmentalists have much in common with healthcare workers. Both face daily reminders of trauma and loss – whether to people or the planet. And much of this trauma and loss could be avoided if only we behaved differently. Perhaps it’s time that we who care for the Earth learn from our healthcare colleagues about recognising the signs of over-care, so that we too can avoid falling prey to compassion fatigue.
One feature of over-care is over-identification with the object of our concern, and fixation on a particular outcome. We live in an outcomes-based world, where it is common practice to set a goal, work hard to achieve it, and then evaluate how closely we have come to realising that goal. This linear thinking may be helpful when developing an operational plan, but in everyday life many outcomes are beyond our control. It can be devastating to hold ourselves personally responsible for achieving goals like ensuring the happiness of a partner, the longevity of a patient, or the survival of a species. While the caring response motivates us to do all we can for the good of another, it is over-care that demands that our intentions for the other are fully realised. Being attached to a particular outcome sets us up not only to fail, but also to be blind to the wisdom and possibility inherent in an unintended outcome.
The other feature of over-care is that it is tainted with anxiety and worry. Of course we are affected emotionally when we observe suffering and loss. But dwelling in this state will actually undermine our ability to continue caring. In order to address over-care so that we can again care with resilience, determination and compassion, we need to make time for self-care. In addition to looking after our physical bodies and having a social support system, one of the most effective things we can do to become more resilient is to acknowledge our feelings (or our lack of them), and to commit to a regular centring practice.
In this regard, HeartMath offers one of the simplest practices of all, called ‘Neutral’. It is a process of ‘heart-focused breathing’, which takes only a few minutes, can be done anywhere, and consists of just two steps:
Heart focus: if you find yourself getting irritated or angry, or ruminating about some environmental issue, take a few minutes to turn your attention to the centre of your chest, to the area of your heart.
Heart-focused breathing: once your attention is focused in your heart area, start breathing deeply, regularly and evenly. Imagine that the breath is entering and leaving your body through your heart. The ideal rhythm for heart-focused breathing is to breathe in for five seconds and out for five seconds, but find a rhythm that feels easy for you. Continue with heart-focused breathing for three to five minutes, and then check how you feel.
This simple technique helps us to shift our attention away from our busy, anxious, judgmental thoughts and towards the heart – that place in the body that we recognise as the seat of love, wisdom and courage. As we continue to practise, we become ever more familiar with the peace, security and non-judgmental nature of the present – and can escape the trap of past regrets and future fears.
On a physiological level, Neutral helps to activate the parasympathetic nervous system (the body’s relaxation response) and to regulate our heart rhythms. A regular heart rhythm pattern informs the brain and body that it is not under threat, and this decreases the production of stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol, resulting in an increased sense of calm (did you experience this?). When the system is calm, the thinking and creative centres of the brain can operate more effectively, making us more likely to come up with wise, innovative solutions.
The rhythm of conscious love
It is interesting to understand the impact of Neutral on the body, but the practice of regular, heart-focused breathing may be even more valuable as a model of how to care. Breath is the essence of our earthly life: our first and last breaths bracket our experience of life. Between them lies the constant ebb and flow of out-breath and in-breath. Like the interplay of yin and yang, each requires the other for completeness. Observing our breath we learn how to shift from over-care to resilient care.
breathe in … feel the pain of those who suffer … breathe out … release the pain …
breathe in … make your plans … breathe out … relinquish control …
breathe in … take action …breathe out … be still …
breathe in … take time to care for yourself … breathe out … take time to care for others …
The path of Conscious Love (Agape) described by Cynthia Bourgeault [www.contemplative.org] follows this rhythm too, being the product of both passion and longing (Eros), and non-clinging relinquishment (Kenosis).
And so may our love and care for the Earth grow ever more conscious and resilient, as we learn to dance between our determined desires for the planet, and open-hearted acceptance of a deeper and unexpected wisdom.