Our invisible cages: Why cultural isolation is ruining our health

lone treeYou know when you read something profound and it sort of clicks, then you come across several other timely articles and examples and you think, “That’s it. This makes total sense! But now what can I do about it to help?”

Last night I came across this article about the opioid crisis we’re experiencing in BC at the moment. Author Andrew MacLeod examines the many complex factors that contribute to deaths due to opioid addiction amongst middle age men and women, including broken marriages, guilt, shame, past abuse, high housing costs, debt, poverty, mental illness and the weakening of social support groups like churches and service clubs. But the overarching reason for addiction, MacLeod argues (citing retired Simon Fraser University psychology professor, Bruce Alexander), is cultural isolation. “When I talk to addicted people, whether they are addicted to alcohol, drugs, gambling, Internet use, sex, or anything else, I encounter human beings who really do not have a viable social or cultural life. They use their addictions as a way of coping with their dislocation: as an escape, a pain killer, or a kind of substitute for a full life. More and more psychologists and psychiatrists are reporting similar observations. Maybe our fragmented, mobile, ever-changing modern society has produced social and cultural isolation in very large numbers of people, even though their cages are invisible!’

Social and cultural isolation aren’t just catalysts for substance abuse. I feel it’s at the very heart of what’s breaking down our society as a whole right now, even though we have access to more information and knowledge than ever before. You think we’d be so enlightened by now, right?

Within the lotus of the heart

In my research for a new business and health and wellness program I plan to launch next year with Janine, I’ve been reading several yoga philosophy texts (required reading for my yoga teacher training program) and came across a few concepts worth shining a light on at this moment in time. I’ll explain how I think it’s related to the above article later.

Within the city of Brahman, which is the body, there is the heart, and within the heart there is a little house. This house has the shape of a lotus, and within it dwells that which is to be sought after, inquired about, and realized. Even so large as the universe outside is the universe within the lotus of the heart. Within it are heaven and earth, all the stars. Whatever is in the macrocosm is in the microcosm also.

Chandogya Upanishad

In the yogic worldview, consciousness exists as potential in each one of us and is physically located at our heart center. This “lotus of the heart” connects us to the divine and to all other living things. Most of us, however, haven’t experienced a fully awakened consciousness because this lotus of the heart can only be called forth by another awake human heart. As the brilliant yogi and psychotherapist Stephen Cope says in his book Yoga and the Quest for the True Self, “just as a physical human being can only be born from the body of another human being, so, too, consciousness must give birth to consciousness. It does not come through practices or postures or scripture or knowledge or purification. It happens only in the magic of relationship — and not a relationship with an impersonal Absolute (atman/brahman/God) but with a human embodiment of the divine. As Bapuji put it, ‘The key to your heart lies in the heart of another.'”

Now think about yourself and the general state of Western society today. We’ve become more and more detached from one another and a collective human experience. We grew up in nuclear families, not villages. We were shuttled off to structured activities instead of being allowed to explore and roam with the neighborhood kids (if you were even lucky enough to have kids your age that lived nearby). We drive ourselves in our cars alone to our office cubicles, or work remotely so we don’t even have to physically be at an office to work. Now with online shopping and self check-outs at the grocery store, some of us can go an entire week without having any human interaction.

For those of us that do have human interaction on a regular basis or grew up in a home that allowed for regular physical interactions, let me ask you this: how genuine, soothing and safe do/did those interactions feel?

On the surface, I had a very safe and loving childhood. I grew up on a cul-de-sac where I had several kids my age to play with. We spent afternoons exploring the forest at the edge of our neighbourhood and hung out together at one of our houses where someone’s mom would always make us snacks. My parents and older brother were always looking out for me and made me feel loved and safe. But thanks to my dad’s chronic health problems, there was an omnipresent sense of anxiety and worry. Anxiety and worry that he might have another heart attack and not pull through this time, anxiety and worry that his health might further deteriorate and he can’t go back to work, leaving us financially unstable. A therapist once told me that I picked up on this anxiety from my poor mom, who was always worrying about my dad’s heart health. This undercurrent of anxiety and worry caused lots of issues for me growing up, both mentally and physically — there were times I was so anxious and stressed I would actually make myself sick and miss school, then be so anxious that I had fallen behind I’d get sick again. Therapy, running, yoga and meditation has helped me manage my anxiety and I feel much more calm and centered now, but not yet fully awakened. I’ve had glimpses of a fully awakened consciousness during yoga teacher training and during meaningful conversations with like-minded people, and in my adult relationships with my parents, husband, friends and family.

“We awaken our calmly abiding center through deep relationship and connectedness with others who have found their own center,” says Cope. “We need others like this to be so close to us that they are, in fact, almost like extensions of ourselves. People who have deeply internalized the capacity safely held and soothed, comforted, calmed, grounded and centered in themselves have a unique capacity to transmit this to others.”

We need this connection to awakened others like we need food, shelter and air. In psychology, this is known as the “narcissistic need” — we need a stable, non-anxious, powerful and protective relationship to relax into so we can discover our true selves. If we haven’t experienced this, especially growing up, it will be hard to provide this for ourselves and to others.

Removing the invisible cages

Traditional yogic practices provided this, as relationships were at the heart of yoga. Students came to live at ashrams to be near their guru, or teacher, and other like-minded yogis in a quest to awaken their own hearts. Some yogis may experience this now by attending classes regularly at their local yoga studio, but often if you’re serious about “awakening your true self”, you travel to stay at a yoga or mediation center for a period of time.

That said, you don’t need to find a guru and go live at an ashram to have your lotus of the heart sought after and fully realized. You simply need to have authentic interactions with other humans who make you feel safe, comforted and seen.

How do we do this in our fragmented, mobile, ever-changing modern society? For most of us, this means making a concerted effort to join groups and clubs that interest us (including yoga!); making time for friends and family members who make you feel heard, supported and loved; and seeking the professional help of a therapist or doctor if needed. If you’re not sure where to start, spend some time in a comfortable place with a journal and write down the times, places, people and spaces that have made you feel the most soothed and comforted, then come up with a plan to make time to visit those places, people and spaces; perhaps drawing inspiration from past comforting experiences to discover new communities, or you can even make your own and invite others to join you.

For marginalized populations, unfortunately, I believe it’s our society and government that needs to shift to allow for the invisible cages to be removed, allowing for more support and meaningful interactions to take place.

So now I ask: what can we do to help make that shift?