Communal Vitality
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Communal Vitality

Social anxiety and awkwardness. Introversion and shyness. Trouble recognizing faces. Because I struggle with these obstacles, read this essay skeptically. Drawing vitality from community is not my forte.
Even so, I observe people carefully, and while the insight gained seldom helps me connect with them, it’s often accurate. Furthermore, grappling with trauma, addiction, and mood issues has forced me to learn about communal energies, for better or worse.
What we call ‘individual’ is almost never so. Human behavior arises from social contexts and is shaped by past relationships. It involves many people we know and more whom we don’t.
List activities you enjoy with zest. Here are a few of my own favorite things: teach this class, jog on the beach, pet my dogs, walk in nature, meet one-on-one with friends.
Each is in some way social. Teaching, petting animals, and meeting friends are obviously so, but what about jogging on beaches or walking in nature?
For me to get to the beach, I need to drive twenty miles. Driving can seem solitary, but it’s communal. Humans manufactured the automobiles, built highways, elucidated road rules, and agreed to follow them. People supply gas or electricity, maintain and patrol the roads, manage accidents, help injured drivers, report traffic conditions, sell and repair vehicles, operate junkyards, and so on. My trip to the beach is supported by innumerable humans, most of whom I’ve never met and seldom think about.
To walk in nature, I am fortunate. I need only stroll across the street, where a gate opens to wetlands and trails. So perhaps that’s solitary? Not really. The area had been diked, drained, and farmed in the nineteenth century, then converted to an airbase in the twentieth. The soil lost volume and settled six feet below sea level, and the military littered it with debris, toxic waste, unexploded munitions, etc. The current wetlands grew out of a major restoration project. During one years-long phase, mud dredged from Oakland Harbor was hauled by barge across the Bay, anchored five miles offshore, then pumped onsite. Imagine how many humans worked this project! My strolls in nature are far from solitary.
Some natural areas are doing well, without need of intervention. Still, our enjoyment of them usually involves others. We wear clothing that others make. We often use maps or specialized gear made—of course—by people. Even if we walked naked, we’d spend time thinking, which employs language, a collective product of humanity.
If our activities are communal, then the vitality that keeps us doing them must also be. The question becomes, how do we draw vitality from community?
My extroverted friends don’t need to strategize. Time with others energizes them. They’re fun to be around and inspire zest in the rest of us. They’d find it easy to talk about tapping into social vitality. But me? Spending time with others drains me, even one-on-one. Who am I to give advice about using sociality to fuel vitality?
Well, because society drains me, I’ve needed to find ways to conserve vitality in social contexts, including distressing ones. I’ve also learned to energize myself by sharing the joy of others, and I’ve found ways to feel connected even when alone. These approaches will suit introverts better than those more outgoing, but here’s the list for those who find it helpful:

Guard the Heart

We hear so much bad news, we often feel overwhelmed. Our screens serve steady streams of tragedy from around the world, ever reminding us of ecological, geopolitical, and cultural disasters. Closer to home, we see poverty-stricken folks in tents on sidewalks, and whether we say so or not, we know deep down that if we hit hard times, we could end up with them. Our loved ones face all manner of troubles, including medical, financial, familial, and existential crises.
As empathic beings, we feel this pain as our own. While it’s healthy to share the hurts of the world, it’s also vital to conserve our resources. When drained by negativity, we feel too depleted to help our hurting world.
So it’s important to guard the heart. We don’t shut compassion down, but we maintain healthful boundaries. We absorb enough bad news to sustain compassion, but we repel enough to remain effective.
For me, this requires a strict limit on the amount of news I consume. I no longer watch video feeds, and I seldom read more than fifteen minutes of news a day. This is enough to keep me abreast of major stories but not enough to suck me into despair. When I see people struggling on the street, I offer a smile and sometimes cash. I try to connect with them in a warmhearted way, which often makes the experience feel less distressing. When loved ones share their difficulties, I feel pain but maintain strength, confident that the latter will feel at least as supportive as the former.

Free the Heart

Guarding the heart is important, but so is opening it. We don’t need defenses that keep everything out; we only need shielding against too much bad news. For good news, we gain vitality by dissolve the barriers that isolate us.
I look for uplifting stories. Positive News is a great resource. I’ve also found apps that serve optimistic news feeds.
Even simpler is savoring uplifting stories close to home. When acquaintances tell me of joyous events, fun outings. or worthy projects, I try to resonate with their happiness. In Buddhism, this is called sympathetic joy, and it’s a fine way to celebrate others’ good fortune while recharging our own vitality.
Work that eases suffering also empowers the heart. I look at Mindful Biology as a vitalizing activity. It connects me with others, has healing intentions, and forces me to view Life clearly and positively. For nearly a decade my wife has volunteered with a group that propagates native plants and removes invaders in our local wetlands. Another friend helps parents whose children struggle with substance abuse. Another cooks large meals for the destitute. There are so many ways to open the heart while providing antidotes to civilization’s toxicity.
Finally, I’ve found it helpful to soften my grip on resentments. Flowing through Life is a process of continual letting go, and forgiveness is an important step in doing so. It’s also one of the most difficult. Check out the Forgiveness Project for tips on benefits and strategies. I’m not well-versed in the literature, but one thing seems clear: resentment does little to right past wrongs but does a lot to drain vitality. It still surprises me how energized I feel when I free myself from a resentment.
It helps to remember that because everything is communal, bad deeds are too. Every act of intentional wrong follows antecedent causes, including—quite often—childhood trauma. And because the prior harm was also caused, the bad actor isn’t just one person; it’s our entire civilization, plus the momentum of history. Furthermore, each of us has hurt others, and whenever people are hurt, they grow more likely to harm in turn. So we none of us is innocent. All harm is collective in both cause and effect. To paraphrase a famous saying: ‘we have met the enemy, and it is us’. But we have also met the savior, and it is forgiveness.

Cultivate Gratitude

If everything we do depends on others, countless people deserve our thanks.
Here’s a practice: take a moment to consider how many people made a pleasant experience possible, as modeled above. Offer a mental note of gratitude to all your helpers, seen and unseen. Like so much else, gratitude has been studied experimentally and demonstrated to improve mental and even bodily health. In other words, it’s vitalizing. Visit UC Berkeley’s Expanding Gratitude project to learn more.
In Asian Buddhism, it’s common to meditate on mothers, who do so much to give us Life. This can be a profound gratitude practice, but here in the West, such meditation often stirs anger and resentment. After all, many of us were harmed by our families, including our mothers. For instance, my mother’s depression, psychiatric hospitalizations, and ultimate death by suicide have shadowed me since infancy. The stepmother who (reluctantly) took her place showered me with contempt, violence, and sexual humiliation, all against a background of neglect. So I quite understand how meditating on mothers isn’t an automatic heart-warmer.
But over the years I’ve learned to look more deeply. Sure, my mother’s illness harmed me, but she did her best to love me. Her affection was inconsistent and occasionally overwrought, but I didn’t doubt it, and for that I am grateful. Even my stepmother deserves gratitude. She taught me manners and kept the house clean, while her behavior forced me to grapple with painful realities in ways that still serve me. Sure, she didn’t care about making me a wiser person. but she did it anyway.
These days, I see myself as a post-modern shaman. Not that I wield healing power or commune with the unseen, but I do view reality—including its mysteries—with bracing clarity. Harrowing experiences often form the soil from which shamans grow, and in my case, many were provided by my own family. Because I consider shamanic clarity a gift, it’s natural to feel grateful to those who enabled it, even though they were acting out their own hammering pain with little ability or desire to shield me from it.
Gratitude can feel incredibly vitalizing, especially when it reframes experiences that look horrible and unacceptable. When something like shamanic gratitude releases the stagnant, self-defeating energy bound up in resentment, a gush of aliveness flows forth. So before you insist you could never look at your own horrors in a positive light, take a moment to imagine how much freer you’d feel if you did.

Communion in Solitude

After our mother died, older sister and I moved in with my dad and stepmother. From then on, I wasn’t allowed to return home after school. I had to wait until my father drove in, which left me several hours to kill. As shy as I was, this time usually was spent alone. The first year was the hardest, because we spent the winter in frigid Minnesota. My seven-year-old self tried to befriend neighborhood kids and shelter in their homes, which sometimes worked but often didn’t. The library was more reliable but required a long walk on icy roads. Somehow, I got through that first year, and from then on we lived in California. My lonely afternoons grew less frightening but no more comforting.
For many years I felt badly damaged by this experience. It heightened feelings of rejection first bequeathed by my mother’s illness and death. Recently, however, I realized all that time alone taught me useful skills. As a lonesome child, I occupied myself with daydreams, which created an alternate reality that kept me from going mad. To this day, I remember my fantasies as vividly as my actual experiences.
I learned the mind can soothe us in harsh circumstances. Of course, I’m not saying we should retreat into fantasy worlds. Instead, I’m suggesting we look at how social support works and be creative in our mental lives.
I’ve noticed that people with large, loving families feel confident and supported even when their loved ones aren’t near. No doubt the proximity of family feels even more powerful, but it’s obviously useful to remember the love of supporters when they’re far away. It generates vitality.
Whether or not our families are large or loving, each of us can remember love. Someone must have held us as kids and cared for us to some degree, or we wouldn’t have made it to functional adulthood. The tragic plight of Romanian orphans proves that.
Even if—like me—you remember few occasions of being loved as a child, such memories are in you somewhere. We can have faith in that fact and use it to build memories from scratch. The meditation that accompanies this essay will demonstrate how it’s done, but in brief, you can simply imagine being embraced and adored as an infant, young child, or adult. You can draw from what must have been true (you were held), what you consciously remember (someone who treated you well when you were little), or times you’ve felt loved as an adult (by a lover, good friend, or non-human animal). As you do so, you will feel powerful companionship, even in solitude.
Neuroscience has shown that imagining an activity recruits the same brain regions as actually performing it. So when we remember love, circuits that respond to affection come online. Using memory to relive loving times creates genuine feelings of companionship.
Without doubt, the richness of proximity to people who love us requires their actual presence. By ourselves, that palpable sense of connection doesn’t arise. But memory is still potent, and I’ve found it surprisingly helpful
In my childhood and preteen daydreams, I imagined living in villages where people adored me, playing sports as a valued team member, and walking hand-in-hand with a girl who loved me. I still feel warmed by the sweetness of those fantasies. Of course, I feel warmed by memories of actual experiences, such as joyous visits to my grandparents, goofy times with my sister, and peaceful walks with the family dog. I remember the thrill of moving in with my beloved high school sweetheart and bicycling together to Berkeley High. Right now, I can savor the way my little dog sleeps near my heart each night. I can bring up a smile by recollecting some recent lovemaking with my wife, which lasted hours because—as a gift of aging—it took that long to get everything going. When relishing such memories I feel the vitality of companionship, right here in solitude.
In the early days of Mindful Biology, I wrote about the body’s loving support. I supplied a link to the main article at the end of the Personal Vitality essay, as further reading. The topic’s not directly related to communal vitality, but it does provide a feeling of communion in solitude, so I’ll repost the link here: My Body, My Lover.

Communion in Religion

Freud dismissed religious experiences as unrecognized memories of infantile dependence. Personally, though I don’t believe in an anthropomorphic God, my own religious experiences seem more significant than that. But let’s suppose Freud was right. If so, then when we feel supported by Life in a deep, mystical way, we’re doing what I suggested above: using the memory of love to summon the feeling of it.
What’s wrong with that? As long as we don’t attack those who work differently, it could be very healthy.
Freud's take on religion, the banner of many atheists, sounds sensible until we ask a devastating question. Couldn’t materialism’s philosophy of isolation also be a memory? By parallel reasoning, we can suspect it recalls the loneliness of the crib, of crying for comfort that didn’t come. Beyond cultural assumptions, why should we believe Freud when he says feeling loved is delusional, while feeling abandoned is perfectly sane?
I’m not sure how much consciousness the cosmos possesses. Over the years, I’ve come to suspect it’s a lot more than most scientists believe. But this isn’t crucial to Mindful Biology, which aims to build better relationships with life and doesn’t worry about answers to philosophical questions. Even if mystical feelings are nothing but infantile memory, they can be valuable. If they help us feel more supported, and thus more vitalized, I’d say: go for them!
That’s a good motto for this whole essay: let’s go for what helps us feel embraced and adored.

Meditation

Begin in a comfortable posture. Tune into your breath as you experience it in your chest. Notice how the front of the chest rises and falls as you inhale and exhale. Follow this movement for a few cycles.
Now let your attention broaden, so that you feel the breath expanding the sides of the chest. This can be subtle, so you have an opportunity to refine your capacity to tune into less obvious changes in the body. Notice the little bit of expansion and contraction with the inhalations and exhalations.
Feel into your back. Notice how the distribution of pressure changes as the breath moves in and out. Feel any friction in the clothing.
Now tune into the front of the chest again, but feel beneath the chest wall into the interior, feeling the heart area. Notice any warmth, fullness, aching, or hollowness. Whatever is present, greet it with openness. Not judging, not rejecting, just greeting.
Call to mind a time when you felt supported by others. It could be a time when an adult loved you in childhood. It could be when you were falling in love. It could be when you were working on a project with coworkers who like you. It could be when you played a team sport, or were part of a band. Whatever it is, imagine it fully. If your memories are visual, build out the space that surrounded you. If acoustic, imagine how things sounded. Are there any scents? Can you feel the touch of others. How do their faces look, their voices sound? How do you feel in that heart area? Feel into it now, feeling the support take hold in your heart area simply as a result of this memory.
Notice how even though you aren’t in that situation now, some of the warm support can still be felt. Imagine.
Every supportive experience you’ve ever had remains with you, if not as a conscious memory, then as an unconscious one. See if you can trust that fact. See if you can invite in support from many times and places. Imagine all the people who’ve ever helped you. Even if some of the relationships have ended, they were important in their time, and they remain important in memory.
Imagine all the people who you could befriend, given the opportunity. Imagine all the places that help you feel safe and joyful. You can even imagine some you’ve never visited, but that you know would help you feel happy and whole.
Keep returning to the heart area, feeling the effect of all this remembering and imagining. The mind is a powerful instrument, ever weaving our moment-by-moment reality. The more we remember and imagine support, the more we feel it.
Sit with this practice as long as you wish. Imagine that you are installing a feeling of safety and love that will remain accessible to you wherever you go.
When you are ready to return to your ordinary activities, you might want to say a silent thank you to all those people who have helped you in the past, are helping you today, and will help you in the future.