Food digestion is a complicated, multi-step process that depends on time and help and has outputs that vary quite a lot. It’s also frequently unpleasant.
Mental digestion is the same, I would say.
In one case, we are taking in solid input from the world, processing it down into components that are useful (or not). In the latter, the input we receive is in the form of ideas: news, words from others, realizations. Processing this input is no less complicated and likewise requires time and help and results in a variety of output. To say it’s often unpleasant is an understatement.
You can’t eat food and not digest it. And we can’t mentally absorb this world’s unfathomably deep pain without a similar process.
Recently I read the amazing “The Moment of Lift” by Melania Gates, in which she makes a case for letting your heart break. We can’t ignore the pain – we all have to let our hearts break, it’s the natural response to the pain that we see (and she has seen a lot in the work of her charitable foundation.)
“This, to me, is the model for all nonviolent social movements, religious based or not. The most radical approach to resistance is acceptance – and acceptance does not mean accepting the world as it is. It means accepting our pain as it is. If we refuse to accept our pain, then we’re just trying to make ourselves feel better, there is no limit to the damage we can do in the name of justice.”
For inspiration, Gates noted the example of women in Liberia who organized a peace movement to stop a war. When they were hurt, they went and cried to their fellow women, but did not retaliate. “When the women were wounded, they were able to absorb their pain without passing it on. But when the men were wounded, they needed to make someone pay. That’s what fed the cycle of war,” she says.
Whatever your gender is, I think she is saying that the key is to input pain and output love: to digest the world’s pain and turn it into determination, strength, innovation, and above all, empathy.
It’s a tall order, for sure. Your microbiome’s bacteria are there to help in food digestion, however, and we have help in mental digestion too. Friends, books, religion, and of course yoga are there to make it happen, step by tiny step.
This morning, in the wake of more awful national news, our yoga teacher told us that yoga class is a time to ignore the pain in the world. Yoga helps us process it. It gives our minds fertile time to work even as our bodies a chance to grow strong. At the end we set our intention for peace and we bring what we have processed into our interactions, our thoughts, the world.
I certainly don’t have the answer to how to absorb and process the pain and the helplessness we all feel. But through wisdom from books and from good teachers and many other helpful-bacteria-like friends, we can at least start to realize that it is indeed a process. It’s a process that deserves time and attention, that is messy and complicated and hard but ultimately necessarily for us to grow.