Have you ever been scrolling through your Facebook feed when you suddenly run across a violent news story, or sitting in a public place when you see on TV that people were killed in a bombing somewhere? What did you feel in that moment?
We often find ourselves suddenly witnessing something deeply disturbing in the media. And when we hear of violence, pain, and suffering in the world, it affects us—because we care. We care deeply.
Yet it can feel nearly impossible to find a healthy way of relating to this, to find an outlet for our care. Some people choose to avoid the news altogether, while others are deeply aware of world events yet are weighed down by the heaviness of it—or perhaps go numb to it.
Lately I’ve been inquiring into how to engage what’s happening in our world with open eyes and an open heart. How can spiritual practice support us? How can we be aligned with our deepest truth while witnessing the suffering of our planet?
I reached out to Chameli Ardagh, founder of Awakening Women Institute, to talk about how to bring more love to the everyday activity of engaging with media. Chameli is one of my teachers who is truly a pioneer of feminine spirituality. She is a woman who walks her talk and also knows the depth of human suffering. Before she became a spiritual teacher, she spent many years as a therapist, counseling teenagers who had been abused and wound up in prostitution, on drugs, or in prison. Chameli has seen suffering I can barely imagine, yet her practice is to keep her heart clear and to love in the face of all that arises.
Chameli, how can we practice to be more open and conscious as we engage with suffering and violence when we see it in the media?
The place of inquiry, the place in you that observes and asks the question of how to engage with an open heart—this is a place of awareness that pokes a hole in the trance of it all. This place is actually an open window into a resource.
This may sound abstract, but this is the foundation: to root ourselves in awareness when we engage with the world. That awareness is intelligence, that is creativity, that’s when we respond to the world not out of repetitions of the past or ready-made strategies.
I notice when I read the news, because of the nature of how it’s delivered, I can get absorbed and keep reading long after I’m actually present. When we notice “oh, I’m no longer here,” that’s when we begin to practice. When we begin to navigate and engage with the world fluidly, rooted in awareness, we gather strength.
So when we meet the moment from that place, and we encounter something very intense or painful happening in the world, we still have the experience of it, but we also have more strength—is that what you’re saying?
Yes, one of our core embodiment practices is to cultivate a capacity to have a more fluid relationship to our experience.
We experience our feelings and reactions as life energy that flows through. Sometimes it is uncomfortable; sometimes it is pleasurable. Our practice is to allow it to flow through so that we can meet the next moment fresh.
And yes, there’s a balance here because we are not superheroes. We have different body types, different personal histories, and inherited strengths and weaknesses when it comes to this. So there’s not a goal in our embodiment practices to receive and absorb everything in the world. Our goal is to stay present. It is up to each individual to take responsibility for the package you have and do what it takes for you to stay present.
Practicing to stay present does not always mean to breathe and stay in the fire. Sometimes it is to move away from it. Whatever it takes to stay present. To move away from an unhealthy situation is not always avoidance or denial; sometimes that’s just intelligence. That can allow you to stay present and available, and that’s how we can actually create change in the world.
Personally I’ve leaned more on the side of you’ve got to read the news, you’ve got to be engaged, you’ve got to see what life is. But I also see that stance that we are sensitive beings and sometimes we have to protect ourselves.
Like my mother will see the same news on TV three times a day. It’s part of your duty as a citizen to be informed and engaged, but the way that we absorb the news today isn’t really fulfilling that intention—it’s just numbing us out. It becomes entertainment.
On a practical day-to-day basis, what do you do in order to be engaged while also being rooted in awareness? Do you have any specific ritual or practice to bring presence to what you’re watching or reading?
When I am watching the news, I automatically say the Gayatri Mantra. This is a ritual for me. I say a prayer. When we see people in a huge catastrophic event, it’s so big it’s hard to take in.
When I see an event like this happening, I say the Gayatri Mantra as a prayer for those people, as well as for the part of me that is overwhelmed and can’t feel. It awakes me from the numbness.
It allows you to acknowledge it, but it doesn't make you feel like you have to push your way through it or force your heart to open. It’s an honoring, a prayer.
Can you help readers discover something like that for themselves, whether it’s the Gayatri or something else concrete they can do?
The Gayatri Mantra is a prayer to wake up to the one source. So you can translate that to whatever tradition you’re practicing in to find a short prayer, a short sentence to acknowledge “I see suffering and I see the source, and may these beings have loving kindness.”
You absorb the suffering and you contribute the light into the suffering. That must be the point of us absorbing it at all—to acknowledge that this is part of life.
In the Awakening Women embodiment practices, we work with the dark goddess [for example, Kali or Persephone]. She symbolizes the terrible, unbearable aspects of life. One of the ways we try to cope with her is to find meaning or purpose in the suffering. But deeper than that, the teaching of the dark goddess is the very fact that she IS. She exists. She is.
When you begin to absorb her is-ness [the very fact that she is, and that suffering is a part of reality], then you are in a different landscape than trying to find the positive. It is a radical reverence for the multifaceted expression of life that is so raw and brutal, beyond the tiny boxes of what we want life to be. It is so much more, so much wilder.
When we are willing to face that is-ness, in that naked encounter we are connected to the creative intelligence that is the source of both the dark and the light. Here we can consciously contribute with compassion.
Compassion is the biggest medicine for our times.
The medicine is to have compassion for ourselves, our numbness and overwhelm, and a prayer of compassion for those who are suffering. You’re silently spinning this thread of the bodhisattva; you’re guarding the light of compassion in the world.
One can think “oh, I should do more” or “that’s so little,” but some of us have been given the gift of connecting with that medicine of compassion or spirit. Part of that gift comes with a responsibility of just not taking it for granted and to keep bringing it into the situations we meet. We tend to undervalue the power of compassion and awareness.
Beautiful. Thank you for sharing this practice.
Yes, and it’s not for everybody, but one of my passions is that conscious women give voice, be engaged, be active in social activism and politics. Like Marianne Williamson did, she jumped in. It’s so powerful because we conscious people can be so good at analyzing ourselves and our feelings, and when we have a reaction toward something we begin to immediately analyze—“ok, this is my reaction”—and while we are busy doing that, the whole unconscious shadow is playing itself out very loudly and actively in our global arena. The greed, the power struggle, they have no issue speaking up and giving voice. So it is part of our practice, in small or bigger ways, to not take for granted the awareness, and to show up with it.
Sometimes we see something going on in the world and feel called to take action. There are SO many areas that need help, and we can’t do it all. This can lead to overwhelm. How can we practice discernment around our action?
When Awakening Women Institute started to grow, I realized the power of influence I was being shown. For a long time there was a confusion in me because I wanted to work with women in Africa, and younger women, etc. There were so many ways I saw I could contribute. Then I saw that’s exactly where so many of us get stuck—we see there’s so many places we can help and then we get overwhelmed and stuck.
What is important to realize is that we are part of a network of conscious people. The people who are involved in awakening work—we are tapping into our nature beyond the small personal self. We are tapping into a bigger source and then expressing it personally. We are part of a bigger movement. When we see it in that way, every single thing we do, even if it’s just lighting a candle, or saying a prayer, or focusing on raising our children in the best way we can—whatever we are doing or contributing with, it is part of a large puzzle that we have one little piece of.
The way I found my little piece was to acknowledge where my heart was beating the most, where I felt most alive, where I feel joy.
My teacher ShantiMayi quotes the shamans from the Andes Mountains. They say, “If you lose your joy, you lose your power.”
This is so powerful for us, especially for me, because in the [social activist] background I come from, joy is almost viewed as superficial. Like how can I be joyful in the face of all the cruelties of the world? And in spirituality we see a camp of the denial people who say negativity doesn’t exist if I don’t give it energy. But there are imbalances, there are cruelties.
The point is not to get stuck in any of these camps. It’s important to see that your joy is your power.
This brings us back to our responsibility—to do whatever it takes to be present. Then we choose what to do from there.
Yes, and this is where we get a little stuck. It’s almost like we think compassion will make us weak, and protection and contraction will make us strong.
My teacher says it’s actually your heart that protects you. When we are doing our work, when we connect with openness, with source, we are connected with pure intelligence. And that intelligence will make us move away from an unhealthy situation or will make us speak up or act. It’s not a passive state. Love is not passive. Surrender does not mean we are passive. It is to surrender into this pure creativity, and now we engage awake.
I love the way you articulated all of that, I’m so grateful.
Thank you. This is something that is really important. It’s on the edge of what embodiment practice is—it’s not just to feel yourself, it’s to engage and be in life.
Want to learn more? “An Awakening Woman is a spiritual rebellion engaged in a glowing and embodied, nothing-held-back love affair with the great mystery.” Click here to learn more about Awakening Women Institute and to try the embodiment practice "Feel Kiss Flow."
Recommended Practice: The Heart Meditation is a foundation for living with an open heart. You can download this guided meditation by Arjuna Ardagh here.
Photo credits: Feature image by Bibbie Friman; photo of Chameli by AWI