Managing Your ‘Sensitivity’ in a Turbulent World
by Rob Brookler
If you are drawn to meditation and spiritual growth, you are no doubt “sensitive.” And as we pursue these paths and practices, our sensitivity will certainly grow: sensitivity to our own feelings and “energy” ... and sensitivity to the world around us.
This sensitivity is of course a strength, as we need it for our compassion and for connecting with ourselves and others. It is also a great power, as we cannot hope to properly address a thing (internally or externally) until we become aware of it.
But as with any power, sensitivity requires a degree of balance. Without this balance, our growing sensitivity can become a burden to us and a source of distress -- particularly in our rather turbulent world. Fortunately, finding this balance and moving comfortably with our sensitivity requires just a few simple skills ... and a better understanding of what our sensitivity is and is "not" for.
Sensitivity to distress around us
Certainly, we’ve all had the experience of watching “the news” and feeling overwhelmed and saddened by the pain and tragedy we see recounted in the day’s events throughout the world. And the solution to this experience is certainly not to feel “hardened” toward the world. But, at the same time, being sensitive to the world’s distress does not require that we actually carry it with us. We individually are not meant to “process” the collective pain of our world. Indeed, to do so would only exhaust us, make us feel powerless, and consequently undermine our ability to be of assistance to the world.
Likewise, though we may “feel” for another’s difficulties, we need not “experience” or “take in” their distress in order to have compassion for them and in order to act upon that compassion. Feeling sadness or worry for another is quite different from feeling love and support for them. “Sharing another’s pain” is rather an unfortunate expression. If a friend had pneumonia, you would hardly be of any help to him or her if you contracted it and suffered alongside them.
In fact, the “larger” balance of the world depends on your health when your friend is ill, on your lightness and love when another is burdened with heaviness and fear. This “larger” balance is often difficult to see because we (and “the news”) tend to focus on the tragic side of the equation. We see the world through these painful snapshots, watching isolated moments and pieces of a much larger and unfolding scene. And the danger is that by focusing on these tragic moments, we tend to give the pain and tragedy more life and more duration than they were intended to have. So instead of providing relief and counterbalance, we add weight to the painful side of what should be a balanced scale.
Sensitivity to our own wounding
And so it is also with our own personal distress. Indeed, much of the burden of sensitivity is that we are most “sensitized” to that which is distressing, painful, and out-of-balance within us. And we run the same risk. By being so focused on our “wounding” and pain we can give these more life and intensity … and begin to feel that we and our lives are defined by our wounding and our imbalances.
The truth is that, as within the world, there will always be some areas within us that call to us (sometimes quite loudly) for attention. Just as there will always be some parts of the world in conflict and in need, there will always be some aspects of ourselves and our lives that are striving for greater balance: parts of our body, aspects of our nature, elements of our lives that require our healing, peace, and greater understanding.
But to address our “areas in need” effectively, we must recognize that these areas are indeed just a part of who we are. We cannot “become” our wounding. In fact, we must be to ourselves that healthy person assisting our ill friend. We must exercise a degree of separation even from our own distress … and an understanding that though the pain seems to dominate our experience, it is in actuality just a small part. And that unbalanced part depends on our overall wholeness to recover its balance. (For more on this, also read “Meditations2Go Article: Your First Responsibility is Your Balance.”)
Shifting our sensitivity to our strength
So, how do we make our sensitivity work for us? As mentioned at the outset, we must sense our imbalances and wounding before we can address them. This awareness is a powerful and necessary first step. But having become aware of our “weak” areas, we must then shift our sensitivity to our strength.
Refocusing our sensitivity on our strength and balance will take a bit of practice, because (being human) our attention and focus is drawn to our discomfort. Moreover, it’s our habit (and that of our culture) to become immersed in our “troubles” and to fixate on “what’s wrong.” Again, our tendency will be to identify with our pain or difficulty, to judge ourselves (and our lives) for it, and to focus on its injustice. But while this reaction is understandable, it is in fact the opposite of what this pain is alerting us to do.
The painful or unbalanced area is calling to us for attention … but what it’s calling for is our greater balance, our understanding, our compassion, and our strength. Indeed, this area wants to share in our greater strength. (For more on this see "Meditatons2Go Article: What Our Pain Tells Us.")
So when we feel “drawn” into our pain or difficulty, this should be our signal to step back and create that bit of healthy separation. See the pain or difficulty as the small part, rather than the whole. Indeed, as you take a step back, let the "weakness" highlight by contrast your strength. And let your sensitivity move deeply into that strength.
Again, this will take some conscious practice, but as we redirect our sensitivity to our strength, we will with time see our innate strength and balance more clearly, easily, and profoundly. And when we can remain in our strength, in the face of imbalance and pain, we become a powerful healing force both for ourselves and for the world.
For those who feel ‘oversensitive’ …
As a side-note to those of us who were “born” particularly sensitive, we have an additional challenge. Having “entered” this life with this extreme sensitivity and empathy, there’s a good chance we felt a bit overwhelmed and threatened by our early surroundings and our reactions to them, instilling in us a general sense of “unsafety” in the world. This can manifest as an instinct to try to “monitor” and “balance” everyone and everything around us (so that we “feel” safe).
As we soon learn, this only leads to exhaustion. And the same solution applies here. We must practice shifting that refined sensitivity to our own strength and to our natural, personal sense of safety. Instead of trying to balance and fix the “threat” by extending our energy and sensitivity outward, we must try pulling back (separation) and gently redirecting our sensitivity and awareness to our own body, energy, and strength.
And remember that “empathy” for others’ feelings does not obligate us to fix or balance them. To counter this habit, we may need to make it a very conscious “practice” to let others be responsible for their own balance and feelings. Doing so does not make us insensitive. Again, we may sense a need in another through our empathy, but we help them only by remaining in our own strength. The good news is that this “extreme” sensitivity, once redirected, will give us a particularly keen sense of our own innate strength and balance.
As with any power, there is always the risk that our sensitivity may fuel our fears and our critical nature. Be compassionate with yourself and watch for this. We are all works in progress (... as is our world). And where we sense distress is not where we are broken, but simply where we need to support our growth. Your sensitivity is your gift. Let it not so much reveal the “flaws” but rather the great beauty, richness, and strength … both within you and around you.
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