Window of Tolerance
Contributor

During these uncertain and frightening times, I do a lot of wondering about just how all of us put up with cruelty, racism, random fear, greed, and just plain chaos.  

 

I’m thinking now not only of the crumpled body of a homeless man lying right on the cold concrete in my upscale San Francisco neighborhood, but of the many thousands of families whose homes were destroyed by Harvey and Irma, the refugee families dying at sea as they flee unspeakable conditions, the Rohingya being raped and terrorized in Burma, the hungry children in every state in the United States, all the black kids shot in cities large and small, and our invisible elders nodding off in wheelchairs in nursing homes.  This small list of human suffering is just a beginning…  In one of her brutally honest early essays in which she reported on the wild and crazy culture of the Haight Ashbury in San Francisco, Joan Didion quoted William Butler Yeats’ ominous phrase “the center does not hold” to describe what she was looking at.  We are living now in a world where the center, the bedrock of human decency and ethics, seems to have dissolved into space.  In the United States and many other parts of the world we have an imploded system –too many beings reacting in fear to that which is foreign, and acting out of desperation because of economic and racial inequality … In this country previously unheard masses, their psyches overloaded with resentment, rose up and elected a cruel, dishonest, and unbalanced man to be president, and they seem incapable of understanding his dark tendencies. This man has forged a national landscape informed by fear, aggression, and chaos.

 

We wander about trying to find the path amidst all the chaos, and we find ourselves outside our “window of tolerance.”  This window of tolerance is that realm where the human animal, much like the wild gorillas of Africa or the elephant matriarchs in Kenya, lives in safety and harmony with everything in its surroundings, where it employs self-soothing, self regulating behaviors in order to keep its own life and society in balance. Apparently, we as mammals can feel fully safe only when we are living in the present moment within this window.  Sadly, many of us marching through our daily lives have no clue that our anxiety and fear come from struggling to carry on outside this safe window … we only know that we feel lost and frightened, flinching here and there when there’s a loud noise, holding too tight to the railings, and feeling an ache in our hearts.

 

What does life look like within this window of tolerance?  There are experiences of empathy, of acceptance of all feelings, present moment awareness, awareness of (respect for) boundaries, reactions that make sense, and a feeling of safety.  In other words, a pretty sane life!  When I was in Rwanda last summer observing the mountain gorillas, I saw this secure world – a society of beings who lived in safety and awareness and love. Granted they live remotely, at a significant remove from so-called civilization … but they also appear to have built into their society a remarkable capacity for mindful self-regulation.

 

Just how have we humans ended up outside this secure zone?  We are subjected to trauma regularly in the form of dire suffering, deprivation, and cruelty.  It is swirling about us everywhere, it seems.  It looks like this:  Neo-Nazis with torches, broken human beings lying amongst garbage and cigarette butts on urban sidewalks, Syrian refugees desperate for a resting place, young diseased children in Africa, our jails filled with too many black men … Because we live in a cyber world with its hysterically speedy transmission of information, we are made aware of cruelties in every part of the globe no matter where they unfold. There is no escaping the news unless we turn off all connective devices.   And metaphorically retreat into our cave… Not a bad idea for meditative restoration, but certainly not a practical choice for the long haul.

 

Attention must be paid. We must not turn away.  The suffering world needs our mindful witnessing and speaking the truth.  So, we need to do two things:  first we must stay safe, holding the space within our own window of tolerance, and we must also stand up for justice, humanity, and love.  The Buddha taught that hatred is not erased by hatred, but by love alone.  We must start with love of self, because that is where all compassion is born.  Early on in my meditation practice, I learned that mindfulness practice was the journey where we find intimacy with all things, and feel love; being withall that arises, the beautiful and the horrible, causes our hearts and minds to expand. If we can apply ardent effort to live mindfully with the myriad of life’s experiences, cultivating curiosity and love, then we can fortify this zone called the “window of tolerance.”  And find ease in the midst of the chaotic landscape.

 

I am thinking finally about the mountain gorillas, those huge black furry creatures living in the bamboo forests in peace, meditatively eating the brilliant green leaves and observing their fellow mammals – the humans – with detached curiosity.  As this memory comes, I recall how close I felt to them when I stood awestruck in that moment.  There were boundaries and also there were not boundaries.  We belong to the same large primate family…andthere are boundaries.  And a clear seeing, and ease of wellbeing, together ... within the window of tolerance.

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