Joyful Solidarity in a Drowning World

Probably you’ve seen the images of the floods from around the world – cars flowing down rivers that were once roads they had driven up, people sat on top of their roof waiting for rescue boats, fields that held the potential to feed hundreds becoming lakes. And in day to day life, so many of us are drowning – unable to breathe from the weight of overwhelming stress.

If we want to be able to be among the ones who are helping, we need to be able to breathe ourselves. To put on our own breathing masks before helping others. 

The trouble is, so many of us feel deeply affected by the emotions of others, we find ourselves diving in to try to help without being prepared. Empathy literally means in pain (em = in & pathy = pain). It’s like seeing someone drowning and jumping in the water when we’re not a strong swimmer ourselves. Is this solidarity? This approach all too often leads to burn out. If we want vibrant movements for social transformation, we need a different way.

For those of us with an analytical approach, looking at all the interconnected problems can lead to what I called “big picture attack” when I was struggling in my activist research. This kind of intellectual and emotional overwhelm can feel like drowning. A common response is to narrow our gaze – just looking at what we feel we can handle and ignoring the rest. In other words, we might see that ignorance is a protective strategy rather than a moral lack. 

This ignorance and forgetting is actively promoted by those who imagine, in their own ignorance, that they truly benefit from an unequal society. In her guidebook for social transformation, Undrowned: Black Feminist Lessons from Marine Mammals, Alexis Pauline Gumbs asks ‘What do we need to remember that will push back against the forgetting encouraged by consumer culture and linear time? What can we remember that will surround us in oceans of history and potential? And how?’

If we want to help others who are drowning, if we want to remember the rich potential of life and take steps towards realising it, we need a firm foundation ourselves – whether that’s standing on solid ground and throwing a rope or being a strong swimmer able to support others who are frightened and flailing. Clearly, neither burnout nor ignorance offers the steadiness and resilience that’s required in these times.

This is no easy task. As the activist-mystic Simone Weil observed, ‘The capacity to pay attention to an afflicted person is something very rare, very difficult; it is nearly a miracle. It is a miracle.’ In other words, avoiding both ignorance and empathy is a miracle. How can we experience it? The answer might simply be compassion. Com-passion is to be with (com) the pain (passion) rather than in it. Instead of drowning, we ourselves are steady, able to help and support others. 

And while compassion might be simple, it is not easy. It is the miracle of which Weil speaks.   She kindly offers us a clue as to how proceed: before we can offer compassion towards others, we must first offer it to ourselves. She notes, ‘Compassion directed toward oneself is true humility.’ In compassion for ourselves, we release the habit of ignorance – ignoring our pain, ignoring our emotions, ignoring our lives – and instead develop presence. Being present with life, just as it is. This is not easy for the mind which is conditioned to avoid pain and move towards pleasure. Allowing ourselves the humility of being just as we are rather than dressing ourselves up to impress or please others, to accept the fullness of life including both pleasure and pain, requires an incredible steadiness of mind.

And yet we all know the habit of the mind, including the emotions, is movement. Emotions flow. Thoughts wander. Being present is a difficult practice. Unless, that is, we let our focus rest in the place that is already present. Already compassionate. Already steady. 

This place is the heart. Not the emotional one nor the physical heart, but the spiritual one. This isn’t just a metaphor used in all spiritual traditions – it is a pointer to a felt sense in the body that can be experienced by anyone. All we need to do is relax (which can take a lot of practice in itself), touch the heart in the centre of the chest and smile. When this happens, the heart smiles back. It is felt in the body – like a sunrise or a dolphin leaping. A steady presence here, always the same – gentle, joyful, vibrant and loving. It is completely reliable. A place of remembering. A foundation for life. The more we focus here, the stronger it gets. 

This heart is an ocean of compassion. Instead of drowning, we find ourselves swimming. Over time, with dedicated practice, we become the ocean. As the Sufi poet Rumi put it, ‘You are not a drop in the ocean, you are the ocean in a drop.’ The mind is a drop. The heart is the ocean.

Resting here in the centre of our being, grounded and steady, we become able to help others. We do not get pulled into their suffering. We gently draw them into this felt sense of compassion, this openness to life, rich with possibilities. The more people who are open to possibility, awake with compassion, the more helpers there are in the world. We can share the work of healing our world together – with joyful hearts. 


Vishwam is one of many people actively organising for a healthier world on all levels. In service to Life Itself, he is offering two heart-centred events in Fife this summer, a retreat in Dumfries in September and is co-leading an online Foundation Course in heart meditation with the Heart of Living Yoga Foundation starting in October.


Comments (7)

Join the Discussion

Your email address will not be published.

  1. SleepingDog says:

    Marine mammals also struggle with collective decision-making:
    We should of course be wary of projecting our own agendas on them.

    I think though that the problem with this article is the (quite colonialist) implication that ‘we’ are particularly helpful (‘at heart’) or wise. Imperialisms have often been justified on the basis of ‘saving’ others — their souls, from savagery, from ignorance, from want/disease/famine, from Communism — when realistically ‘we’ had better concentrate on stopping poisoning the world materially and ideologically, and sacrificing ourselves or at least our toxic, consumptive and unsustainable lifestyles for the greater good. I find it extraordinary that your empathy stretches towards cars; surely we should cheer when these heartless emitters and crunchers and kidnappers are washed away to their doom?

    I suggest this is the problem when one gets swept up by mysticism and fail to think in terms of systems and material causes and effects.

    1. Vishwam Heckert says:

      Dearest SleepingDog,

      I’m so sorry if the tone of my writing implied that I was right and you or others were wrong. My intention was to offer an approach that may be helpful for some. It seems perhaps it’s not so helpful for you at this time. Communicating in a kind way through comments on websites is challenging! Perhaps one day we will share clearer communication over a cup of tea – or perhaps not. Either way, I wish you well.

      Hearts warmth,

      1. SleepingDog says:

        @Vishwam Heckert, perhaps my intention is through necessary brusqueness to be kind? I have recently completed a course on systems thinking, and although I barely grasped its major concepts, I suspect the solution to our current polycrisis is not found in poetry, although (if I understand your view) I agree that changing mindsets will be vital. My objection to poetry is not its occasional pinpointedness but its common ambiguity (and banality). But I would appreciate if you would explain why you deliberately chose to front your article with distressed cars.

        1. Vishwam Heckert says:

          Thank you so much, SleepingDog, for kindly clarifying. I understand better now.

          I also love systems thinking – so helpful for seeing the patterns including the details. We’re agreed this is a valuable support for the polycrisis we face together (if not all in the same way).

          I’m sorry if it sounded like I was empathising with the cars – something I hadn’t really considered. While I am grateful to be able to drive, living in rural Shetland, I’m also aware this is a technology which cannot continue forever. My concern was more for the people in and on the cars, for the affects of the flood on all the people, animals, and plants

          I am a little confused by the poetry reference as I don’t seem to have mentioned it in this article. Maybe you could explain a little more? I do consider creativity (including poetry) important as one way of helping us break out of the mindset which has lead us into the polycrisis.

          Here are a few speakers you might enjoy who elaborate on this in a way you might enjoy.

          ❤️ Lyla June
          ❤️ adrienne maree brown
          ❤️ Iain McGilchrist

          Thank you for your kind patience with me, SleepingDog, as we learn to listen to each other.


          1. SleepingDog says:

            @Vishwam Heckert, I was seasonally time-poor, and only watched the first of your suggestions. I was able today to watch the Iain McGilchrist interview, and here are my thoughts.

            McGilchrist mounts an initial unqualified defence of freedom of speech, yet 09:53
            “everything is up for grabs, and then the people who shout loudest, and are most insistent that other people must not offer their opinions”
            But drowning out other people’s opinions by shouting or making bad noise (cacophony) is a feature of unlimited freedom of speech, which includes drowning out quieter, less popular or powerful voices.

            I broadly agree with his expressed views on science, reason, imagination and intuition (and a few other things), although I think the word ‘civilization’ was ill-chosen. I am not a neuroscientist, but I don’t remember this level of hemispheric reductivism from studying Psychology. Oddly, he speaks out against reductionism later on without seeming to note this tension in his ideas.

            I’m not really sure where his views on (global?) micro-managing and mediocrity come from. If we are in a pre-revolutionary stage, future historians and generations will easily be able to pick out revolutionary cultural products from today.

            As for carefree young lives in the past, my parents generation sometimes talked about the existential dread they experienced living through the height of the Cold War. Not to mention those children living in abusive homes or institutions. I don’t think our social media ‘hall of mirrors’ limits spontaneity either, though of course a lot of following, imitation and repetition is involved (which used to happen offline, largely unseen).

            I don’t think McGilchrist is realistic either about stressing individual points of view rather than group or partisan viewpoints, the latter of which is extremely important in shaping our human world. Presumably he finds his brain-hemisphere argument difficult to apply here.

            His remarks about social media seem vastly sweeping and possibly ill-informed. If anger was the dominant emotion expressed, whole swathes of social media (including online courses, interest groups, support groups, technical and scientific groups etc) would fail to function, yet clearly they do function. McGilchrist shows a possibly understandable lack of awareness of subcultures, but a less creditable lack of awareness of this lack of awareness.

            McGilchrist also confuses what people say (online, typically) and what they think. Just because they stridently maintain a viewpoint doesn’t mean they wholly believe in it; indeed the lady may protest too much, and it may in some cases be the person trying to convince themselves or others of a viewpoint they have little or no belief in. Think of hypocritical Christian preachers, for example.

            The interview smacked little of intellectual elitism, McGilchrist presumably the master of hemispheres, his opponents mindlocked and boxed-in.

            Instead of this binary distinction between right and left hemispheres, a more plausible model to me would take in the complexity of a continuum of cognitive density (if that is the right term), layers of brain function, and meta-cognitive patterns which distribute mental resources (such as time, focus and memory access). But McGilchrist seems to dismiss this in the last part of the interview around 35 minutes in.

            McGilchrist also seems oblivious to conditioning, education, and social psychology (including behavioural modification by governments, corporations and organised religion, say). Oh, until he gets to Puritans very late on. Of course the RAF destroyed more churches and books and paintings than the Puritans ever did, but hey, that would be awkward to square with a time when youngsters were supposedly carefree.

            Is McGilchrist actually defending positive portrayals of British imperial racialised chattel slavery and slavers in public places? He fails to provide examples of what he means.

            Ending the interview demanding that each child become fluent in equivocation seems odd, rather than an encouragement of empathy.

          2. SleepingDog says:

            @Vishwam Heckert,
            Correction to above: “smacked *a* little”.

            My reference to poetry would probably be to your quote attributed to a Sufi poet, amongst other general arguments going on at the Bella site.

            My appreciations for your clarifications, expansions and good humour.

          3. SleepingDog says:

            @Vishwam Heckert
            Or think of it another way. If McGilchrist’s abrupt hierarchy of intelligence/wisdom is real (as opposed to a way of simply discounting people who disagree with him), perhaps my response is another level of operation above his, and perhaps he can be discounted? Note: I don’t believe in such hierarchies applying to individuals, and someone accounted intelligent and wise and learned in some areas may be stupid and foolish and ignorant in others (as Merlin appreciated).

            Or another way. Authors and academics and public intellectuals who make their living by selling products and services along a consistent viewpoint may be in far more danger of mental lock-in (and therefore unwisdom) than any member of the general public whose minds may change more freely without such reputational damage and income loss.

Help keep our journalism independent

We don’t take any advertising, we don’t hide behind a pay wall and we don’t keep harassing you for crowd-funding. We’re entirely dependent on our readers to support us.

Subscribe to regular bella in your inbox

Don’t miss a single article. Enter your email address on our subscribe page by clicking the button below. It is completely free and you can easily unsubscribe at any time.