The human toll of the coronavirus pandemic is staggering. But amid all the loss, it’s easy to overlook the moral injury that’s resulted from the virus and the public response to it. Over the course of just a few weeks, we’ve witnessed shifting narratives from authorities that don’t accord with reality, and our very perception of truth being deliberately undermined.
We call this gaslighting, a term used colloquially since the 1960s to describe efforts to manipulate someone’s perception of reality to the point that they question their sanity. Many of us are familiar with the phenomenon, either from popular culture or, more frighteningly, from a personal experience when we’ve felt something to be true right down to the cells of our bodies but have been unable to find any external affirmation of that truth.
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All this brings to mind the work of Gregory Bateson, the anthropologist who advanced what he called the double bind theory, a once popular though now discarded theory about the roots of schizophrenia. According to Bateson, a double bind occurs when we receive two conflicting messages — for example someone telling you they love you while their facial expression and body language communicate distaste — so at odds with each other that successfully responding to one means failing in response to the other. (Hugging that person expressing their love means you won’t likely be responding to their dislike.)
While a double bind might not be the source of schizophrenia, its effects can still be fearsome. Malicious actors have a long history of using double binds to create a sequence of repeated suggestions which, together, foster the notion that you can’t trust your perceptions or your feelings. The authority figure, we’re led to believe, is the only one with reliable knowledge.
But by drawing on the rich resources of mindfulness, we can mitigate the effects of gaslighting and release ourselves from the double bind. We can start by simply recognizing that living through an event for which we have no context requires compassion. At a moment when our normal way of constructing reality is gone, compassion for ourselves, and others, serves as the first act of reclaiming calm and clarity.
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But we also need to step back and assess whether or not it is a good idea to take in so much of the information the world is throwing at us. With some distance, we can examine the assumptions we import when we hear a claim or absorb a piece of information. Doing this, we slowly start to see how bias warps reality to meet the needs of someone else’s agenda.
If you’re unsure whether there’s an agenda at work, listen to your body. What happens when you hear a certain claim being made? Does your stomach drop? Does your diaphragm tighten? When a given authority figure takes the microphone do you feel alert and focused or cloudy, tired and ill at ease? Your mind may be filled with a hyper-partisan din, but your body can serve as a channel to deeper parts of yourself.
We also have to embrace trust as an essential part of living. Despite all appearances, there are truth-tellers out there doing their best to bring facts to the surface. You need to seek them out. One reliable way of doing this is by listening to people speak about what they don’t know. If they’re open and forthright about gaps in their understanding; if they’re puzzled, intrigued or even bewildered but still searching; if they’re hesitant or even skeptical about their own theories or results, then you just might be dealing with the real thing.
Finally, focus on the fact that we are all connected. If the virus has taught us anything, it’s that what happens over there doesn’t nicely stay over there. And that what we do, what we care about and where we put our energy matters, as our actions and our focus ripple into this sea of interconnection. Despite however much gaslighting may be going on, the irrefutable truth of interconnection can never be denied.
Sharon Salzberg is a meditation pioneer and industry leader, a world-renowned teacher and New York Times bestselling author. As one of the first to bring meditation and mindfulness into mainstream American culture over 45 years ago, Sharon’s secular, modern approach to Buddhist teachings is sought after at schools, conferences and retreat centers around the world. Sharon is co-founder of The Insight Meditation Society in Barre, MA, and the author of eleven books, including the New York Times bestseller, Real Happiness, now in its second edition, her seminal work, Lovingkindness and her newest book, Real Change: Mindfulness To Heal Ourselves and the World, coming in September of 2020 from Flatiron Books.
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