Praying for Ukraine

Jay Michaelson
March 10, 2022

With the horrifying scenes of war coming out of Ukraine right now, many Ten Percent Happier folks have asked us for support. Can meditation help us to work through despair, anger, and anxiety while keeping us engaged with the world around us?  And if so, how?

By way of response, I want to talk about three qualities of mind and heart: heartbreak, resilience, and compassion.

1. Heartbreak

First, there’s a misconception about meditation (familiar to readers of Ten Percent Weekly, since we point it out all the time!) that the point of meditating is to just chill out, zone out, and find your Zen. 

Now, at times, this can actually be very important: if you’re experiencing panic, anxiety, or fear.  And it does work. But at other times, using meditation in this way can be a narcotic that dulls us both to the suffering of the world and to our own feelings.  And while we may get some temporary relief, we don’t grow wiser when we just “Zen out” (which, incidentally, has absolutely nothing to do with actual Zen Buddhism). We just calm down for a little while, then get stressed again, then calm down, then get stressed. It’s a dispiriting cycle.

But the deeper benefit of meditation is not calming down, but learning how to be okay with being not-calm.  Over time, it’s possible to train the mind to notice what we’re feeling, add some compassion to the mix, and not let those feelings “drive the bus” of our words and actions. So, if you’re feeling sadness or anxiety (including “nuclear anxiety”) or any other difficult feeling, see if you can simply allow it, rather than try to repress it or make it go away.  Let it be what it is. “Okay,” you might say, “right now, it feels like this; I don’t have to make it go away, or make it worse.”

After all, it’s okay to let your heart break a little over Ukraine.  More than okay – it’s the human thing to do.  Feel your feelings.  Notice, with compassion, when you’re feeling concerned, angry, worried, or, for that matter, hopeful, determined, and supportive.  The point of meditation isn’t to make “bad” feelings go away.  It’s to have a mind and heart spacious enough to feel what you feel.

2. Resilience

At the same time, getting debilitated by sadness, rage, or anxiety doesn’t help anyone.  Fortunately, the same mindful process of recognizing and accepting your feelings, and making some space for them, also helps to move through them so you can be of help to yourself and others.

It's a bit of a paradox, really.  Repressing feelings makes them stronger, but accepting them allows them to come and go more gently. So, yes, here’s grief or fear or rage, and also, here’s me taking care of my family, here’s a joyful moment, and, perhaps, here’s me doing things that might help a little: donating money, raising awareness, protesting, reaching out to friends with families who might be impacted by the conflict, contacting your elected leaders, and so on. 

Obviously, in a complex geopolitical conflict taking place thousands of miles away, solutions are complicated and there are limits to how much we can personally do.  Almost certainly, more tragedy lies ahead.  But mindfulness can be a powerful ally in holding both the tragedy of the situation on the one hand, and the rest of life on the other. 

Most of us are not called, in this moment, to show the kind of resilience and courage that everyday Ukrainians are displaying right now.  But in much smaller ways, we can perhaps take them as inspiration.

3. Compassion

Finally, it’s good to feel your feelings because feeling them leads to compassion, and compassion is really, really important.  Honestly, at this moment in human history, it might be the most important.  We are, societally and perhaps globally, suffering from a massive compassion deficit.  The capacity of human beings to ‘other’ those different from us is as destructive as ever – most importantly among those with power and privilege, but it’s found in all of us. And as soon as I fail to remember that everyone loves like I do, suffers like I do, and is human as I am, it’s easy to blow off their suffering, minimize it, or pretend it doesn’t exist.

But if we allow our hearts to break, we can grow as human beings by cultivating compassion. This is how we might understand “praying for Ukraine” – not as begging for divine intervention, but as feeling profound compassion for the suffering that is taking place, and keeping it in our hearts.  You can try this in your meditation, especially with the guided meditations on compassion in the app. Again, it’s good to let your heart break.

That’s especially true because our compassion can then expand to include everyone: the refugee, the immigrant, the ones whose wars are not covered on national television, the ones suffering from poverty or systemic racism or oppression or state violence, the ones who I consciously or unconsciously ignore.  And if we’re paying attention, that compassion should have direct political consequences.

We are all mortal, vulnerable creatures.  Our time here is short, and we are interdependent with one another and with the Earth.  However “touchy-feely” that may seem, actually these are the cold, hard facts of our existence.  To whatever extent this senseless war reminds us of our own precarity, and helps us to see that of others, then it can be the soil in which wisdom and compassion grow.

Dr. Jay Michaelson has been teaching meditation for fifteen years in secular, Buddhist, and Jewish communities. Jay is a journalist on CNN Tonight and at Rolling Stone, having been a weekly columnist for the Daily Beast for eight years. Jay was also an editor and podcast host for Ten Percent Happier for four years. He's an affiliated professor at Chicago Theological Seminary. Jay’s eight books include "The Gate of Tears: Sadness and the Spiritual Path" and the brand new "Enlightenment by Trial and Error".

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