The Heart of Civility | Catherine Shainberg, Ph.D.

“In a world that has gone viral, instantaneously informed and intensely distracting, the solid boundaries a sane world provides are lost. ….How can we re-discover boundaries that support – not destroy – civility?”

Every day it seems we are confronted with new, alarming revelations about climate change, politics, government, our economies, life-threatening viruses and more things that seem to go awry continuously. This is a global experience.

At the same time, we find ourselves in polarized situations – some as extreme as war and self-defense, some as simple as a conversation over the dinner table. With competing desires, it seems, we now devolve more quickly into conflict, sometimes serious, often unpleasant, and increasingly “not open for discussion.” Underlying these situations is a common question: Why couldn’t we talk about it? What has happened to civil disagreement? Why have we become so polarized? Why do so many of us simply walk away from these exchanges without real participation?

Why, indeed. There are many reasons for an apparent escalation of polarization and divisiveness. We are just beginning to come out of a period of extreme isolation and feelings of disempowerment that are part of the legacy of COVID. Tools such as social media that started with the hope of bringing us together have, instead, oriented us into increasingly separate channels. Virtual meetings, meant to allow us to maintain contact and communication in a time of forced social distancing have, instead, allowed behaviors that would never be acceptable face to face.

In a world that has gone viral, instantaneously informed and intensely distracting, the solid boundaries a sane world provides are lost. We inhabit a meta-world; with eyes and ears glued to our devices, we are increasingly oblivious to our actual surroundings and the real people in it. Our friends are not the neighbor we meet every morning on our run, but the many unknown “friends” that click onto our social media, providing numbers that we can boast of. The more the merrier.

In this great global sameness, maintaining a cohesive self and a polite and respectful attention to the other has become increasingly difficult. This goes toward explaining why we are desperately trying to regroup, to find alliances closer to home, to arm ourselves, with words and weapons, and to defend our territory. Boundaries are necessary to keep us safe, as long as they are not the tall impregnable walls that block interchange. How can we re-discover boundaries that support – not destroy – civility?

At the root of polarization and incivility is fear. The more frightening this world gets the more polarized we get and the more radicalized our points of view. Fear presses us to focus on the manifest world, but ironically and sadly draws us away from the world where manifestation begins.

As we know, manifestation starts within – in our dreams, images, imaginations and importantly, in our hearts. The term “open-hearted” is more than a metaphor and much more meaningful than a cliché: it is a way of being, an energy, and a practice we can all use to inhabit another’s world for a moment with love, compassion and interest. Then, coming back to our own, we can integrate the other’s point of view, not necessarily to agree but at least to gain an understanding of where they come from.

Individual acts we may take to open our hearts and remain open-hearted powerfully affect those around us at every level of existence. It is why the personal decisions and actions we take to understand another’s perspective are healing not just for us, but for our families, our communities, our nations and our planet. We are one, truly.

Here’s an exercise, which I have called Stepping Into Someone Else’s Shoes, that may help us to inhabit this awareness more fully.

Close your eyes, breathe out slowly three times, counting from 3 to 1. See the “1” tall, clear and bright.

Imagine you’re in a meadow on a sunny warm day, listening to the breeze and the birds. Someone you strongly disagree with enters the meadow and stands facing you a few feet away.

What is happening in your body?

Breathe out. In your imagination see your dream body. Step out of it and go stand in the other person’s shoes. From that new vantage point sense what is happening in your body.

How do you see the ‘you’ standing across the meadow? What are you feeling and thinking?

Breathe out. Step out of the other person’s shoes and return into your own. Look again at the other, what do you feel and think now?

Breathe out. Open your eyes.

May this help you when you suddenly get caught in believing you are right and the other is wrong. We are all made of consciousness, a great power that unites us and is embodied by our imagination and fused by our heart-centered openness to others and all forms of life on earth.

Keep your heart free and in expectancy.

It is the pumping wonder of manifestation.

by Catherine Shainberg