Heal Yourself, Heal the World
Drawing from the wisdom of spiritual teachers, writer Emma Pearse focuses on healing herself to heal the world.
On the day of the Women’s Marches all across the world last month, I found myself feeling both empowered and guilty. I wasn’t on a bus from NYC to DC surrounded by dozens—hundreds of thousands—of my friends, as I’d planned. I’d sold my bus ticket, changed my return dates to NYC and instead, I was doing warrior position on a blue mat in front of the TV in my parent’s living room in a small Australian town. ,mnb
My heart was in a topsy turvy state: why wasn’t I out there? Was I apathetic? As I moved through downward dog and eagle pose, my eyes were on the TV, watching millions of women marching in pink “pussy hats”, singing acapella, holding “Stay Woke” signs and “Ninety, Nasty, and Not Giving Up.”
My yoga poses were feeling pretty benign as Ashley Judd chanted “I’m nasty like the battles my grandmothers fought to get me into that voting booth,” to a roaring crowd of activists.
Yet, this twisted feeling was becoming familiar: me in some sort of healing pose while out there in the world, friends and like minded souls were holding placards on the streets or organizing conscious events for essential causes.
Was I an activist? Or a whiny 30-something with first-world problems? Over the last year, during which I hit an emotional low and was diagnosed with PTSD, I’ve been learning one answer to this that is sweeter than it sometimes feels: I’m on the path of spiritual activism.
“If you think spirituality isn’t political, then you don’t understand spirituality,” Gandhi once said. After a long period of existential turmoil, I’m in the throes of healing. And for that, I’ve had to get selfish. It feels pretty uncomfortable—how does my tree pose contribute in any positive way to the world noise and the resistance—but as I’ve surrendered to the process, I’m also finally absorbing the foundation of the spiritual teaching: heal yourself, heal the world.
“We lose empathy when our limbic system is hijacked,” Tara Brach said to a packed auditorium in NYC after Donald Trump was elected. Throughout the evening, Brach wove the personal with the spiritual and the spiritual with the political. “We’re in a limbic hijack in our culture.”
My limbic system had definitely been hijacked for a long time. Brach and Gandhi helped me realize that if I didn’t reclaim it, I was going to cause a lot more damage. For years, I’d found myself facing chaotic life event after chaotic life event, each one landing me in bed for days, then on the therapist’s couch, which would refuel me to keep moving only to land back in a similar state of paralysis and confusion. I lost friends, I quit jobs, and my finances were a mess. A dramatic divorce had sparked much of this, yet that was only the catalyst that stirred a bunch of childhood traumas that I thought I’d dealt with…but hadn’t.
“It is unconditional compassion for ourselves that leads to unconditional compassion for others,” Pema Chodron says in one of many lessons on self love and knowledge as activism. “The only reason we don't open our hearts and minds to other people is that they trigger confusion in us that we don't feel brave enough or sane enough to deal with.”
Spiritual teaching often pivots on self compassion as the gateway to world peace. When my PTSD diagnoses landed after one more lost relationship, I couldn’t deny that while my friends were evolving and moving towards conscious careers, I was merely surviving. As long as I was only surviving, I wasn’t much good to the world. I was also a burden to the people close to me. Friends were worried but impatient, and my family didn’t really know how to help.
“One day you finally knew/what you had to do…” wrote Mary Oliver in her poem “The Journey,” which a friend sent to me at my lowest. For the past year, I haven’t been donating to the ACLU or organizing ocean clean ups, nor have I been among the dedicated and mighty souls protesting at Standing Rock. Instead, I have showed up to every possible talk like Brach’s and taken meditation and Buddhism courses all over the city at places like the Open Center, Art of Living, and Kadampa Meditation Center. Any possible time and money went to ashram vacations, wintry meditation retreats, and chanting “om namah shivaya” at public gatherings.
With each experience, I’ve felt a primal shift. Not just inside, but also in the world around me. I’ve truly started to feel some magic. Sometimes disasters occurred while I was on retreat, like the earthquake in Italy while I was at the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Retreat in the Bahamas in August. That night, the Swami leading satsang sent a chant out in healing to everyone affected.
I admit I felt flutters of hypocrisy. How could our chanting, here in this tropical paradise, really be effective? However, months after finally realizing what I had to do, I was getting it: I wasn’t going to influence a positive thing without personal healing.
“If you want to change the world, go home and love your family,” said Mother Teresa. For a long time, that felt impossible for me. I have a loving family, but in my early 20s I had literally flown 10,000 miles to get away from much complication and dysfunction. Now, I’m 39 and doing yoga in my parent’s living room while some of the loudest social resistance efforts in recent history unfold globally.
Yet something seems to be working. A week before the marches, my Dad told me he’d been taking courses in mindfulness and our relationship has evolved from its fraught adolescent stage to a place where we can, well, live together. I don’t have delusions that my personal healing (or me living with my parents) is going to solve the growing political divide. But I can genuinely claim that yoga in front of the TV got me one step closer to donning my own pink pussy hat and offering my new, untraumatized self to the world.
After hours of stretching and speeches by Madonna, Scarlett Johansson, Angela Davis, Gloria Steinem, I sent a text to a tiny group of my new friends in my new small town home. We shared colored pens and cardboard and a guy friend took our photo overlooking the beach on a stormy Sunday holding “Nasty is the New Nice” signs and “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun-damental Human Rights.” The next day, we made the local newspaper.
It’s hard being selfish when the world seems to be in more chaos than ever. Yet, the more self focus I have on me, the less selfish I’m feeling. So I’ll keep doing what I have to do, as Oliver put it “determined to save the only life you can save.”