I have been thinking a lot about the divisiveness that we see so often these days all around the world. As I begin to write this, I have no idea what exactly I want to say, nor do I know if any of my thoughts are unique, but it does seem vital, now more than ever, that we remain aware of the consequences of our divisive words and actions.
What does it mean to be divisive? As I understand it, it entails words or actions that cause real separation or feelings of separation. This often can lead to hostility. It is a ‘me versus you’ attitude or an ‘us against them’ mindset. My guess is that it originates with the ego, which is to say the identity that we’ve created for ourselves that insists on being right, or smarter, or better, etc. The ego depends a lot on one’s upbringing, family values, culture, etc., and is how we’ve aligned our views to make sense of the world. The ego’s voice feels like truth. It feels so truthful, so factual, that we are willing to argue, fight, belittle, demean, insult and degrade others in order to defend it. The problem is, not only is it is impossible for everyone to have an ego that speaks the truth, but in reality the ego isn’t actually all that interested in truth. It’s more into being right, looking competent, protecting one’s identity, not being embarrassed or ashamed, etc. It is a very defensive posturing, so that instead of listening to someone with the intent to come to an understanding (even if only to agree to disagree), it’s nature is to defend, lash out, protect, confirm our own beliefs, etc. Essentially, it is the fight or flight mode.
When we are in fight or flight, our sympathetic nervous system is anticipating danger (real or imagined), and our body then gears up for the appropriate reaction to this danger. However, because of our conditioning (family, culture, media, etc), the danger often isn’t real. I often liken this to the smoke detector in our apartment that goes off when we burn toast in the toaster. The alarm doesn’t know that there isn’t any real danger, it just detects the smoke and goes off. Similarly, the amygdala in our brain acts like that smoke detector. It doesn’t know what’s real or what’s not–it’s job is to send you a signal to flee or fight. So, when this happens, our body is releasing stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline which amps us up for the argument (or fight).
There are ways to counter the fight or flight mode (actual steps we can take so that our body enters rest and digest, the parasympathetic nervous system). But first, I think we need to reflect on our own intentions. Is it important to me to be less divisive? Is divisiveness really of benefit to me, my family, my community, etc? In my opinion, divisiveness is the very thing that is tearing down our communities and countries. When we are unwilling to learn, unwilling to listen, and unwilling to be wrong, we just increase this massive gulf of ‘me versus you’ and ‘us against them’ and the end result is our societies are being run by ego and defensiveness instead of compassion and understanding. I also believe that little steps go a long way. One person can model a ego-less approach to conflict and others pick up on that and go on to model it for someone else. Just like ego, a compassionate, ego-less approach is also contagious. So, if you ask yourself, do I want to take this on as one of my growth mindset practices? If the answer is yes, here are some simple things you can do:
- Begin to notice your body’s cues that signal the beginning of fight or flight mode, or the beginning of feeling defensive (you need to defend your view and protect yourself from looking wrong or vulnerable). Often these cues are a tightening of the jaw, or the shoulder muscles. Maybe the fists become clenched, or the heart starts beating faster. The palms might sweat or the inside of the mouth might get dry. Everyone is different. Simply noticing these physical locations of tension (and then trying to soften that tension) is the first step toward reducing the fight or flight reaction.
- Get grounded. Notice gravity (the weight of your butt on the chair, your feet touching the ground, the sensations of your shirt touching your skin). Notice sounds (birds chirping, traffic noise, the sound of the air conditioner humming). Become aware of your breath. Am I inhaling or exhaling right now? How about now? Getting grounded helps to reduce the bandwidth in our mind in order to get us out of our head and into our body a little bit. This is very helpful in getting into rest/digest, and out of fight/flight. To take it to the next level, really exaggerate your exhales. Breathe deeply on the inhale but at least match it or go longer with the exhale. This tricks the amygdala into thinking everything is ok.. because who breathes like that if everything is not ok?
- Practice wise speech. Wise speech is skillful, honest, timely (sometimes it may be honest, but not the right time), and compassionate. Ask yourself if it’s really necessary for me to be right, or correct, or superior in this moment? Or is there something maybe I can learn from this interaction? How can I engage with this person so we both walk away feeling like we are both part of this big crazy world, instead of enemies defending our territory? Is it ok for me to be wrong? Or vulnerable? Often vulnerability is exactly what leads to understanding and connecting on a deeper level.
I think getting familiar with the habits of our ego is one of the best things we can do for ourselves, and for those around us. I hope somehow some of this was helpful. We’re all in this together man!
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