I woke up this morning and reached for the trusty words of Pema Chödrön:
“Underlying hatred, underlying any cruel act or word, underlying all dehumanizing, there is always fear–the utter groundlessness of fear. This fear has a soft spot. It hasn’t frozen yet into a solid position. However much we don’t like it, fear doesn’t have to give birth to aggression, or the desire to harm ourselves or others. When we feel fear or anxiety or any groundless feeling, or that the fear is already hooking us into “I’m going to get even” or “I have to go back to my addiction to escape this,” then we can regard the moment as neutral, a moment that can go either way. We are presented all the time with a choice. Do we return to the old destructive habits or do we take whatever we’re experiencing as an opportunity and support for having a fresh relationship with life?”
Contrasting Messages in Crisis
Over the past week, I’ve seen a few common sentiments circling social media. One of them is a meme comparing the quarantine to our grandparents going off to war. The second half reads, “You’re being asked to sit on the couch, you can do this.” On the other side of the spectrum are memes comparing our productive potential to Shakespeare writing King Lear during the plague.
Though I realize these posts are meant to amuse or inspire us, and that they have good intentions, they both fall into the same category: disconnect from the moment or be productive to escape what’s going on. Sure, these tools may work for short moments at a time, but what about when you need to get off the couch or step away from your work? What about all the moments in between filled with fear and groundlessness about what’s going on outside our doors? What about all those that are also handling the financial panic of lost work, unstable health, and distance from loved ones?
These messages also go against the main sentiment of the news: that if we don’t do more, the result of covid-19 will be catastrophic. And yet, for a non-medical professional and non-politician, I research what I am supposed to be doing, I find “stay at home and practice social distancing,” something Ben and I have been doing already.
So we’re pulled in all directions. Stay home to make a difference, produce to make the most of your time, stop complaining and escape into your television, do more to stop the catastrophe.
The Cost of Silence and Time
What we are being asked to do–to remain still in the terror of this scenario–is no easy task. In Buddhist writing, it is one of the most universal challenges. How do we let each new moment wash over us and not judge our response to it? How do we not transform panic into online anger, sadness into reaching for one more drink, or hopelessness into crawling back into bed?
The challenge is that there is no simple answer to this question. Learning to simply accept the fear of crisis is one reason practitioners study meditation all their lives. So, if you’re feeling that this is a larger struggle than the internet is allowing you to feel, you are not alone. You are not wrong.
As Pema Chödrön explains above, maintaining mental health during times of crisis takes practice. We are not meant to ignore feeling scared, sad, lonely, or enraged. It is the practice of noticing these feelings arising and changing how we respond to them, or letting them happen and then move on.
A page later, she says this,
“When you are waking up in the morning and you aren’t even out of bed, even if where you are is frightening or perhaps so routine that it’s boring or deadening, you could look out and take three conscious breaths. Just be where you are. When you are standing in a line waiting, just allow for a gap in a discursive mind. You can look at your hands and breathe, you can look out the window or down the street or up at the sky. It doesn’t matter if you look out or you give your full attention to a detail. You can let the experience be a contrast to being all caught up, let it be like popping a bubble, a moment in time, and then you just go on.”
You May Change Even When The Road is the Same
In my first two hikes on the Camino de Santiago (you thought you were going to get through one of my posts without a Camino story, didn’t you?), I typically hit a difficult emotional turning point on my third day of hiking. Like clockwork, my body starts to push against the 15-20 miles of walking a day, the first of which was over the Pyrenees mountains. And yet, it is my brain that starts to painfully shift, not my body.
For eight hours a day, you are faced with the present moment and all the beauty and pain that goes with that. Without a work schedule, media distractions, and socializing, you must sit (or walk) with a rambling mind that had been previously ignored. On day three, I often yell and scream like a toddler who cannot communicate what they’re truly upset about.
After I make it past this point, the trail changes. It isn’t necessarily easier; the silence of the trail can be just as deafening. Muscles get stronger but blisters accumulate. How you process the constantly fluctuating highs and lows does change. One hour, a flat road ahead of you is freeing and effortless to walk, the next, it is a monotonous prison of too much open space. The constant change–the expectation of change–is all that you can depend on. When you learn to not latch onto the angry, sad, or lonely feeling of that moment, the feelings pass on as quickly as they came without fanfare.
Don’t get me wrong, I am struggling right now. It is why I’m writing this post. I am scared, I am uncertain, and I want to do more to help but there is little to be done other than wait.
I simply wanted to remind you that what we’re going through is hard, even if we can compare this to darker times or those facing bigger challenges. Being asked to sit still and trust that the world will not fall around our ears is not in our nature. But if we can learn anything from teachers like Pema Chödrön right now, it’s that getting through these times takes practice, patience, and more kindness toward ourselves and other than perhaps we’ve allowed ourselves to feel before.