Thomas answers questions from Point of Relation listeners about activism, presencing, and staying grounded and open to joy amidst global suffering and uncertainty. He explores the mutually resourcing relationship between contemplative, internal practices, and collective actions that aim to affect social and political change. He also offers tools and practices to help us maintain emotional and spiritual regulation while being deeply affected by current events.
Becoming Mindful Global Citizens: A Q&A Episode
“Emotions want to be honored. And if they’re being honored, they can be digested and integrated and they become part of our wisdom.”
- Thomas Hübl
Thomas Hübl is a renowned teacher, author, and international facilitator whose work integrates the core insights of the great wisdom traditions and mysticism with the discoveries of science. Since the early 2000s, he has been facilitating large-scale events and courses that focus on meditation and mindfulness-based awareness practices, as well as the healing and integration of trauma.
His non-profit organization, The Pocket Project, works to support the healing of collective trauma throughout the world. He is the author of the book Healing Collective Trauma: A Process for Integrating Our Intergenerational and Cultural Wounds.
His new book Attuned: Practicing Interdependence to Heal Our Trauma—and Our World is available now wherever books are sold. Visit attunedbook.com for links to order it online.
For more information, visit thomashuebl.com
Notes & Resources
Here are the two questions from our listeners that Thomas addresses in this episode:
- “Could you please share about the difference and the need of activism and presencing as two different approaches?” – Kaja
- “How and what practices do you suggest could help us to stay grounded and to be able to grieve with the suffering being experienced in our world while also being able to experience deep peace and joy?” – Ann
Michelle Stransky: Welcome to Point of Relation. I’m Michelle, producer of the podcast. We recently asked you, our listeners, to submit your questions for Thomas to answer on the podcast. We want to thank each person who submitted a question.
While we won’t have time to get to every question, each of the questions you submitted will contribute to the content we continue to explore in the podcast. So thank you.
For today, let’s begin with this first question, Thomas. This is from Kaja: “Could you please share about the difference and the need of activism and presencing as two different approaches?”
Thomas Hübl: Yeah, I would say it looks like at first. And often in the practice, there is a difference. But in my understanding, ultimately there is no difference. And I will explain what that means.
I think activism is the recognition that something needs to be changed and the agency for the implementation of that agency is social transformation or any kind of transformation in our world, in our living together. So when we look at presencing, what is actually presencing?
Presencing is a conscious awareness process of my relationship to a certain topic in the world, or to a certain part of my life, or to a certain inner part of myself or part of the global process. So presencing means bringing mindfulness or awareness into the relationship with this perception that I have of a certain circumstance. Mindfulness-informed or also, trauma-informed activism means that I am aware that the driving force of my wish needs motivation to engage as an activist in the world.
We might see two motivations around activism. One is the true purpose-fueled engagement. I see something that I want to take care of. I’m passionate about it. I feel it is something to contribute and I am being active and I really do something about it, which is super beautiful. But what I just said is a relational process. That it might be mixed with whatever I see in the world also triggers my own trauma, and the part of my engagement at least is fueled by my own trauma stress by some fears that are rising in me or my own traumatic reactivity to that external circumstance, that gets triggered by that external circumstance, and that’s a different fuel of motivation. I think the first one, the purpose driven motivation, is naturally also connected to relationality. I stay deeply related to whatever I am taking care of in the world or wherever I put my energy or whenever I’m active. And that relationality is also congruent with presencing.
Now, the word “presencing” might for many of us mean even more than that, being present with something and staying related. “Presencing” in the more contemplative part, so to speak, or to practice means allowing higher resolution and an even higher resolution of something to emerge into us, which is a process of revelation. It’s a process of insight. It’s a process of deep learning.
So if I presence something, if I contemplate a social issue that I see that I want to take care of, I can rush into action or I can be active, but I periodically take time to really tune with and presence the very thing that I’m taking care of. So I’m actually deepening my relationship with a social cause, human rights issue, conflict, climate change, and contemplation is a way of generating more insight and deeper understanding, or even coming in touching myself with a deeper intuition of the next steps.
Sometimes when in activism, we actually don’t know fully how to proceed. For instance, sitting and inner mindfulness practices can actually be the door opener to have new creative insights on how to proceed. So to bring innovation in, because mystical teachings say that “The birthplace of the future is now.” The future always gets born within the present moment as an insight, a drop of light that gets revealed to me. That chose me. Oh, wow, suddenly I have a great idea. But that great idea is an insight, and the more present I am and not only present, but there’s a certain level of tension and relaxation. It’s not only one or the other, it’s that there is a level of attention that is concentrated and then there is a part of me that is more relaxed.
That’s why, for example, great scientists like Heisenberg said some of the insights came when they left the laboratory or the desk and they went for a walk in the park. It’s not that their attention or concentration disappeared, but there was a certain level of letting go while being deeply immersed in a subject that allowed for the insight to come in. And that’s why I think presencing is a very important skill, practice for every activist. I believe it can be very beneficial to have a deeper contemplative practice. I think many activists also have some sort of inner practice for their own recharging, for their own centering, but also for new insights on how to actually be more effective or contribute more to whatever causes or whatever we want to take care of or whatever we contribute to in our world.
I think if we can differentiate the urgency to take care of something, and the urgency the traumatic stress creates in us, the urgency of the cause or the social issue is one and it’s relational. So they feel something really needs attention – which means I’m related to that, whatever that is, and I feel in my “responseability” that now we need action, now we need to do something about that versus traumatic stress is that I see something in the world. It triggers my trauma stress, and that creates a heightened urgency that is actually reactive and not relational. So these two things need to be differentiated and I believe presencing can help us to do that and have a better discernment.
Michelle Stranzky: Thank you, Thomas. So, yeah, what I’m hearing, I believe, is that it’s not so much about two different approaches. It’s about the relationship between presencing and activism. And perhaps that even maybe not having a response could also be a trauma response, is that also true?
Thomas: Yes, that’s true, because one side of the trauma symptoms is the hyperactivation, distress, and reactivity. The other side of the trigger is numbness, absence, indifference, and non-action. So sometimes not engaging is actually a deep trauma symptom. I think that’s also what we often see, the indifference in the world is not just like a blunt not caring, it’s often a trauma depression of the sense of engagement or the sense of connectedness as a defense mechanism against overwhelm. So, yes, it’s not an excuse, of course, to not engage. And it’s important for us to see the root cause of indifference. The more we understand the indifference, we can really skillfully engage it and bring the skills that are needed in order to transform the indifference into a relationship and then into action or care or activism sometimes.
Presencing and activism seem sometimes like loopholes that are different or very different, which they often are because some people that feel more outgoing, they choose more activity in the world than a contemplative practice. But eventually, we can see that when we go deeper, they can be beautifully combined. And I think we can really reinforce each other’s power. And I think that also for many people, their contemplative practice is a great resource in their work in the world.
Michelle: That’s great, thank you. Very helpful for the times that we’re in. So let’s move along to this next question, which is from Ann. She asks: “How and what practices do you suggest could help us to stay grounded and to be able to grieve with the suffering being experienced in our world while also being able to experience deep peace and joy?”
Thomas: Presencing or any kind of deeper presence practice reveals to us the deep inside – there is a place (for lack of a better word) is some kind of inner place of space that is not so affected by the movements of our world. So there is a deeper peacefulness in the contemplative practice that arises for practitioners. But some very quickly, for some along their way that we feel it’s like this. It’s true that there is a deep peacefulness in meditation. And the deep peacefulness from being and sometimes rising events becomes more like a steady plateau of practice. So we rest more and more of our days or days in an endless state of spaciousness, stillness. And at the same time we can be active in the world. So we are active, but actually, the deeper ones disappear. But we are active in the world. It stays depth to the moment.
And at the same time, this doesn’t mean that we’re not deeply feeling or caring or engaged or related to what’s happening in the world today. It just means that there’s a deeper depth than it should. It in a way transcends our current daily experience. That means that when we look into the world today, of course, when we see a lot of suffering and we are all padded, different, and shut down and absent. We will feel something and it’s important that we feel something because that’s healthy. To be able to relate to this suffering that we see in the world, of course.
Here is the point. In my mature, integrated self, in the maturity of my emotional and cognitive development, I can be deeply affected by something that’s happening in me, and around me both. But it doesn’t mean that they become regressive, which means it takes me to earlier pain or trauma in my own development, then starts to ripple inside of myself and create an overlay on top of my sense of compassion or felt experience of a certain amount of suffering that I see in the world so that we are affected by the suffering is a healthy process. That’s a healthy response to the pain of somebody else. That I am not just indifferent, not in any way affected is strange. There’s some sort of absence or distancing happening here.
But for many people, when we feel the suffering of the world and it triggers much deeper places of those suffering, then we feel we are kind of drowning in the pain. And it doesn’t feel regulated anymore, not because of what’s happening outside. But because my interior developmental landscape starts to resonate very strongly with the pain that I see outside. And often we project our inner unintegratedness onto external suffering. So there’s a mix between my own past that hasn’t been integrated and what’s happening now.
One way to look at it is in our own practice. First of all, did I notice that am I willing to touch deeper feelings and emotions in myself? Did I healthily respond to something painful we see people go through? Or a person goes through? and we are in a resonant relationship. I think that’s a very healthy response. But when I feel that I get really triggered and start drowning in my own inner experience and I’m not any more regulated and I don’t feel any more that I’m in my full mature capacity, then it’s a time where either they need somebody to talk to or I need at least some space for myself to really look at what’s happening, but it still has to settle.
When I make some space for myself and contemplate my inner experience, I can say, oh, well what I see scares me, what I see brings up a lot of sadness. Oh, I feel anger or I feel numb, I don’t feel anything. So that kind of higher resolution process is important. And can go to the next step. And in my self name the emotion and I’m feeling, oh, I feel getting scared and then maybe I can feel my body well, I can locate the fears of my body. I can ground the fear in my body. And also into that fear or the stress that I experience. If it’s not too overwhelming, I can connect it to my breathing with slower exhalations. And like that, I could ground my stress response or emotional response. And experience it. Because that’s why it’s here – wants to be experienced.
It wants to be experienced because the emotions that come up in me, once they’re set off like a wave, they come to grow more intense and they kind of ebb. And so when we see suffering in the world, that process, that wave that goes through us, it’s healthy. But if that wave touches deeper pain that it feels like, oh, it gets stuck in me. And now I’m fully in fear the whole time. But it has nothing to do anymore within it externally, when that has something to do with my past. If that happens, feeling by myself cannot anymore regulate my inner space because it gets very strong, then I really need to reach out for support, either by talking to a therapist or a professional who can support me to digest whatever gets triggered. For some people, it also helps just to talk to people you feel safe with – good friends, family members, people that we trust, or colleagues, whatever way we feel we need to share it. Somebody really listens to me, the co-presencing brings it into a relationship and needs somebody is the co-regulative power for me. Or sometimes I am a co-regulative power for some of my friends. But the mutual space that is being created, the recognition of our emotions. But just how do we get out of it as fast as possible? But how can we really listen to each other so that we honor our emotions, not to get out of it but because they are there?
Emotions want to be honored. And if they’re being honored, they can be digested and integrated and it becomes part of our wisdom. If we try to suppress it, they will kind of linger around and have side effects in our lives.
So coming back to the question, I think the first step: Healing my body. Second step: What’s my stress level? Feeling my stress level elaborated and noticing, what emotion is actually triggered or what emotion comes up in me? And then make space for it. I can name it. It can create a sense of it a bit around the edges of the emotion and let it relax into the emotion until there’s a feeling slowly subsiding and it’s being digested. And then I will also feel Oh I’m more engaged and I can look at the situation maybe more clearly, maybe do it another way for an emotion to come.
But once I’m in that experience when strong emotions come, something really makes me feel sad. I feel sad, maybe even cry. And I can let go of it. The aim is not that we don’t feel any emotions and be trust-centered. Centered means that we really care about the world, and that we can feel deeply. But we are drowning in the emotions because it is like a center that is spacious enough to host our deep experience and the other side is also that I notice once I touch my own inner overwhelm I might feel them and I can see many things from the news. I can intellectually understand that it’s really terrible sometimes what people experience. But I don’t have any emotional response. I don’t have any physical response.
It’s okay if I don’t judge that. But I notice that that’s not presence but often absence – the absence of a felt experience. Then I bring attention to the not feeling and I don’t try harder to feel something. I am, in a way, slowing down to feel my inner overwhelm. So I feel that I don’t feel.
Once I’m aware of numbness, and feel what I don’t feel, then I can soften into that. And often, once we honor the overwhelm, our emotional system can slowly turn on again. Feeling some of the deeper feelings that are needed to numb. And that’s, I think, a great practice. And in our world, we see that because I believe we all have been born into more or less collectively traumatized circumstances, but sometimes we can speak intellectually about events or circumstances in the world that actually encode a lot of emotion or a lot of feelings. But the way we speak about it is like you go to the grocery store to buy a few apples. So the amount of information that’s missing in the sentence is also a sign of how much we learned to suppress deep experiences. That’s where we can talk about them as if they were the same, like going to the grocery store to buy apples. And sometimes we can really feel it when we hear sentences, some people say, Yeah, my parents also beat me. And you can feel that the sentence doesn’t come through. The body becomes a bit lifted out of the body.
Because when we really stay open and embodied, except it has been but then it also doesn’t sound like it when somebody works through the after-effects of violence in our childhood. Then it comes through the embodiment, but with openness. And if we didn’t work through it, then the pain still sits here. So when we begin to deepen our experience in our body, we will touch the pain that could be experienced. But often we hear that a language can speak about it. But without some aspect about it. But we can hear it. And I think the more we ground ourselves through our bodies, what’s happening in the world resonates with us. That resonance is really important and healthy.
Like an important motivation to be engaged as a global citizen because we are all global citizens once we use the technology that we’re using, we’re running around with mobile phones, we have access to the Internet, we have access to tons of data. So we have been initiated into global citizenship. Even if we just live locally, we still believe it’s probably around the world, and at the moment we know about it we are part of it, even part of it, and we don’t know about it. But it’s another story, but the information that we are able to consume means that we have to develop emotional literacy, physical literacy, and ancestral literacy to be global citizens. But I think that’s the initiation that the world is going through at the moment. It’s not just easy because we could easily get overwhelmed by so much information that is being delivered to us that we often consume and sometimes overconsume. So it really overloads our systems.
So I think a deeper relationship to the emotional content and seeing the intelligence in our emotions. I think it’s really important. And it’s an evolutionary step because I think we’ve never been exposed to so much information as we are now.
Michelle: Thank you, Thomas. That’s really supportive given all that the world is going through right now. Thank you for taking the time and energy to be here when you’re not feeling 100%.
And thank you again to our listeners for their questions and to Ann and Kaja specifically for those questions. I think we’ll end this episode here. But we’ll be back with part two and in future episodes also be asking Thomas questions that came from all of you listeners. So thank you again for submitting your questions and for listening to Point of Relation. And we’ll be back next week with another episode. Take care.