Your Ability to Feel: An Empathetic Approach to Toxicity.

At one point in my life, I moved to a breathtakingly beautiful place. Yet in the same breath, within this city’s beautiful walls, I encountered much toxicity.

Including people who feel, in the high cost of living, so strapped for cash they’ve grown to value money over themselves or the people around them. Individuals quick to psychoanalyze any and everyone (including themselves), but slow to ask a simple question.

Humans afflicted with addictions of varying shapes and sizes, sometimes grown to such a degree they don’t even bother to hide it anymore. Drug use in broad daylight. Street defecation is commonplace here. As is the alarming level of psychosis that occurs when individuals, for whatever circumstance, succumb to the streets.

Some days, on crowded sidewalks, I have felt most connected to the lady who sings and shouts her way through her crooked trawl. I waited for the bus to yoga in still-dark morning alongside prostitutes strolling to meet their own daily ride. I have been one of far too many bodies living inside walls that smell of mold and sadness.

And other stories of encounters I cannot bring myself to share.

It has often felt like far too much to bear.

Until someone made me realize, recently, that exposure to these realities, and my ability to feel the depths of hardship amid difficult life circumstances surrounding me, is only strengthening my compassion for humanity at both its high and low extremes .

Far too many people have learned to numb out or shield starry eyes, as a coping mechanism to avoid facing the reality of human life. It’s easier to throw eager, well-intentioned solutions at a so-called problem than it is to sit in stillness and observe, taking everything in without agenda. 

My ability to stay open despite this heartbreaking level of reality is not only a gift, it is invaluable.

Many have criticized me for my openness over the years, instructing me to “grow thicker skin,” to “let it go.” Others, out of love and desire for preservation, would have me live inside a contented bubble, safely contained from any filth outside.

They tell me to ignite my protective power, and find a way to deal with whatever’s going on, primarily by ignoring anything toxic and focusing only on the “good” bits of life.

Sometimes life deserves more than mere dealing with it. The paradox of beauty inherent in pain.

The two are intertwined souls, and it is impossible to escape darkness.

Rather than hide our eyes or run from the world, we can recognize these instances as opportunities to relate and connect to both ourselves and others on a deeper level.

My personal lessons, as an empathetic artist, open to the world around me, have proven invaluable in my ability to value myself.

From each person who failed to believe in me, every stale nod or remark lacking subtlety about how my offerings and, consequently, I, am not enough, I have learned the lesson beneath the gravity of their snide comments. I have discovered that the clues my radar ears attach to are mirrors reflecting what and how I feel about myself.

The external comments have little to do with me, really. And I can choose to change the story I listen to at any point in time. I can choose an alternate inner dialogue that champions my strengths and supports my growth.

From every person who told me, whether outright or through actions, that I am not worth it, that my ability to feel deeply and create artful change based on that felt sense isn’t worth it, that I don’t have value to offer or add to this world, I have learned how to walk away when need be, because each transaction involves an energetic exchange, and I have learned how to value my own energy.

I have learned to state what my time and well-being is worth, and I am still learning how to set clear boundaries of just how much I can healthily give.

From every person who manipulated me into doing, thinking, or believing something, whether true or otherwise, I have learned how to see that their version of the truth is filtered, and I can choose to see another perspective.

I have learned that the truth isn’t black and white, and anyone who attempts to convince me otherwise is probably attempting to bucket life into a simplified form of understanding. It’s easier to manage a bite-sized version than the full picture, which extends further than any of us can imagine.

From every person who has attempted to convince me to be a certain way or to do a certain thing without taking the time to listen first, I have learned what it feels like to not be heard. I have learned that normally those with the quietest voices have the most of worth to say. I have learned to spot these people like a needle in a haystack.

I have become a skilled multi-tasker, able to tune out the noise that shields me from what truly matters. Because the most important change stems from the heart. If we can’t hear our heartbeats or those of the people around us, the changes we make and the action we take do not serve ourselves or others.

And with each and every encounter, I continue to gather information. Signals and clues dot my crookedly trodden path.

I now know what it means when I lose an article of clothing. And that it’s no coincidence when I see three bees in one day. The butterfly that lands by my feet carries a message on its wings, and I was brought to this city for a reason, the depth of which I need not know nor understand. I need only believe.

For as Paulo Coelho so accurately explains in The Alchemist, here I have been learning to read the signs of the desert.

My song is not unique, and my story is not rare. Collectively, entire segments of humans have been learning, together and alone, that we have a voice. And that our voice(s) matter. It begins in the heart, by listening to what feels nourishing and supportive, and what does not so. And then continuing to move toward alignment with the former.

That does not mean discounting the latter, for these lessons provide a glimmer of possibility into deeper healing.

We have become obsessed with the quick and dirty detox as an easy fix, without understanding that embracing the full range of our experiences rather than obsessively attempting to rid ourselves of them provides the opportunity for more lasting change. This change takes place on a deep level, in the bones.

We change our structural anatomy in order to pave a new way of movement. One in which we value ourselves, our talents, and our gifts, rather than diminishing or trying to make ourselves small.

So when we experience toxicity, we can recognize it, choose to remove ourselves from any situation that does not feel supportive, and possibly even thank the lesson for its appearance, as a guide toward a new way of moving through the world.

This is by no means easy, as there are life factors that can bind us to unsupportive people, places, and things. But nothing about humanity is permanent, and we are often far less stuck than we believe ourselves to be.

The first step, always, is to listen. To return to the heart. And then ask ourselves, what does the heart need, what will be the most nourishing, in this moment? And then again in this one.

Nourishment, desire, and ease are often contradicting. Sometimes the nourishing path is a difficult one. And in these moments, each of us is supported, far more than we can sometimes see or feel. We each move through, one breath at a time.



Bretton Keating is a Yoga-fanatic, clean-eating junkie, artist-because-she-doesn’t-know-how-to-be-anything-else. She never sought this lifestyle, rather it found her; after years of attempting to be ‘normal’ she realized that simply doesn’t work. Now she strives every day to live from a place of authenticity, and aims to inspire others to do the same both through teaching Yoga and through her words. Bretton grew up immersed in stories. Through years of practicing Yoga and meditation, she has learned to ground back down to Earth, and realized that she has the power to live her own story. She is passionate about sharing her experience and the process of exploring this life, particularly in the realm of mind-body-spirit health, however she can. She writes because, quite simply, she knows that she must. For more of her musings on Yoga and life, check out her blog.


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