I hosted a small mindfulness seminar a couple of weeks ago, and on the mind of many there were questions about dealing with these unusual times we find ourselves living in. Questions about the toll of the disruption of the norm, about not being able to go out and do things, or, even more strongly, about not being able to meet with friends or family or mostly anyone in person. What answers can mindfulness and philosophy provide here?
First is to not beat ourselves up about it. Despite the common narrative, no one is squeezed out of the womb knowing exactly how to handle every single situation that comes at us. Resiliency is a practice, fostered and bolstered through mindfulness and philosophy. And even then it is no guarantee – I very much admit to having days feeling quite table flippy.* It’d be easy to relate to that as a loss or failure, but at the same time, thanks to my mindfulness practice for all these years, no table did I actually flip. It’s a bit like driving: when we start out, we have to pay attention to everything and it’s really taxing, but soon it becomes so second nature that we can even arrive at our destination with no memory of how we got there.** But when the unexpected happens, or we reach a bad road, or whatever, it, once again, takes all our attention and is taxing and difficult. Our prior experience and practice helps, but it’s still not automatic or easy. And so it is like that during these unusual times. It’s a new road. We have to work at it. The best part is that, just like driving, after this experience our new practice will make for smoother driving whenever something like it comes our way again.
Which dovetails a bit into the second point, which is to consider this: that we’ve been relying, inadvertently, on some crutches. Again, not in a pejorative way – nothing productive comes from beating ourselves up – but simply to look at where we may have been reliant on externalities to supply distraction, or meaning, or normalcy, or interest, or excitement, or joy, or etc. To the point where, in a way, we’ve become addicted to it, and with all of those gone we’re now suffering from a double whammy of both withdrawal and emptiness/lack of stimuli. It’s similar-ish to the ideas of dopamine detox I’ve seen floating about (learning to wean ourselves from the immediate/always/already available distraction of our phones/media/etc). Because of the ease of distraction and etc through happenings and friends, it is often a matter that we never having learned how to generate for ourselves and/or, more profoundly, how to just be with ourselves. And this pandemic forced the immediate removal of our/those usual crutches. Like before, this leaves us with an opportunity, the opportunity to practice and build up our internal sense of self and begin to generate on our own, which is great in its own right and even better is that when we get back to our activities, friends, and more, we will enter them more fully and they will be even fuller and more powerful experiences for us. The double bonus part here is also that, even while we begin to practice, the very act of knowing and naming this unease and strain and feeling of loss, and recognizing it’s just a result of our crutches no longer being there, can do wonders to keep ourselves from sliding things into the realm of suffering.
Which, again, dovetails a bit into the last point, which is to recognize the role that agency plays. As I’ve written about in previous posts, agency is one of our prime desires. And nothing kaiboshes our feeling of agency more than when not one, not two, not three, but multitudes of our ‘normals’ get cut off… further compounded with many unknowns, especially including how little we knew about COVID itself when this was just starting. Having a lack of agency can drive us completely batty and have us do some very unproductive (and harmful) things to try to get it back. Here, again, just knowing that’s what’s at play can be a great salve. If we find ourselves going spare, we can check in and talk to our calculating selves to say, “I know my agency feels thwarted. I understand.”
By being mindful of all of the above we can center ourselves and let our turbulent waters become still. And from that place of stillness we can create, striving forward with possibility and peace of mind.
* Less, I think, from the disruptions and more so from the inequities, discrimination, and power plays that this pandemic put into stark relief…
** Which, to be clear, is maybe not the best state to fully slip in to. Being present while operating several tons of metal is recommended!