And when they say, “Look here,” or “Look, there is Christ.”
Go not forth; for Christ is within you.
–George Fox, Quaker mystic
Everywhere we look, there are signs and reminders that the best thing we can do for each other is to physically separate ourselves—to keep within our homes when we can. “Flattening the curve” is our new social goal, in order to assure that the medical system has the capacity to deal with this pandemic. It is, of course, no guarantee that we ourselves won’t suffer from COVID 19. It’s simply a commitment to lessen the possibility that we are the cause of each other’s suffering.
Speaking as a person who has older family members in quarantine (exposed to COVID 19), other family members stuck overseas for days, many beloved ones living in the heart of the U.S. outbreak in Seattle and Portland, and a husband who is 76, I am pretty damn committed to flattening the curve. I am “keeping within” my house most of the time, doing my meetings on-line or when walking outside at a double-arm’s length from my walking partner. I am bowing, foot bumping, and washing my hands. I’ve wiped things down with bleach that I never even thought about before.
And I am trying to “keep within” my steady self, the Christ within, the depth of me. This is a herculean task. Yesterday, everything just ganged up on me: the grief and fear made me nuts. When I finally wept for a while, when I finally wrote for a while, when I finally sat with those feelings, it got better. But I am trying to remember to be as kind to myself as Christ would be. To “keep within” the boundaries of generosity, compassion and humility.
With all this in mind, I’d like to share a few things that I’ve been pondering about staying healthy, on multiple levels. You all know about how to wash your hands. Here are some thoughts on how to wash your mind, your emotions, and your soul.
CONTEMPLATIVE RECEPTION OF THE NEWS
I am trying to keep up on what is happening with the pandemic. This is different for me: I am usually inclined to ignore things that are uncomfortable. But, of course, the effect of my present effort is a kind of internal craziness. Time to bring a few lessons of the contemplative practice to my news-reading!
INTENTION. I am attempting to remember this: I don’t read the news unless I have clearly stated to myself why I am going to read it, and how long I’m going to read. (I find a timer helps because I get totally grabbed.) I try to remind myself that I am reading the news so that I can 1) adjust myself for what’s coming; 2) express compassion (see more later); and 3) see where I can be of service. The quote over the top of my computer screen says, “Bidden or unbidden, God is here.” A small attempt to bid God’s presence—ask for guidance and discretion—is a great way to begin the period when I let in “the latest.”
SOURCES. I’m also trying to be very careful about what I read—reputable, thoughtful sources are important. We all have our own—I’ve been using The Washington Post for U.S. information (their COVID 19 section is free to all) and CBC and The Tyee for all things Canadian. For the bigger picture, I’ve tossed in a few podcasts from Peak (economics), while a Living School friend turned me on to https://medium.com/insurge-intelligence, a look at this from a systems point of view. There’s hope in these long-term considerations.
MEDIA. You’ll notice I say “read.” I am not watching anything these days (except Miss Fisher Murder Mysteries and Time Team!). The combination of visual image, spoken word, and anxious energy—aka television—impacts us at levels beyond our conscious control. The spoken word, too, comes with a certain energy. At least for me, it helps to ditch the clicker, turn off the radio, and get out my reading glasses, instead.
BODY PRACTICE. I’ve recently learned a practice used in trauma therapy. Because trauma healing is not a matter of thinking but of changing our bodily response, I recommend this practice strongly when you notice that you are feeling anxious—say, in the midst of reading the news. Try the practice for a few minutes and then come back to your reading.
Ground—feel your feet, your butt in the chair, your clothes on your body. Notice what you notice.
Orient—take a minute to look to your right, noticing what’s there; look to your left and do the same. Look up; look down. Look behind you from both sides. Know where your body is physically.
Hum—yep, hum. Doesn’t have to be pretty. Just hum for 2 or 3 minutes.
This practice, repeated over time whenever we sense ourselves feeling anxious, makes significant difference in our ability to take in difficult information without panic.
CONTEMPLATIVE MENTAL HEALTH
LANGUAGE. Alana Levandosky, singer-songwriter and a recent Living School student, has suggested that we need to reframe the way we speak about COVID 19. Try saying “physical distancing” rather than social distancing—most of us are more connected socially than ever before. We’re calling, zooming, sending notes, forwarding articles and websites. She also suggests that as contemplatives, we might think of what we are doing during this time as “being solitary” rather than “isolating.” Solitariness carries with it an intentionality of silence and non-reactivity. These few changes in language bring entirely different conceptual frames into play, shifting our actual experience of what we’re doing. Like a hermit monk, our withdrawal from the world is for the health of the world.
EXERCISE. I am walking, a lot. This is the only thing I can safely do in physical proximity to friends, so it’s my social life. It is also part of my solitude time: today I wandered slowly along the trail for an hour and a half. It helps that the sun is out. But when it was grey and nasty on Saturday, cleaning a small part of the garage worked. And one of these days, I will file the pile on my office floor.
CONNECT. Do this however it works for you, but as a friend in AA used to say, “Your mind is a dangerous place. Don’t go down there by yourself.” So check in with family; check in with friends; watch uplifting podcasts; read 12 Step material on-line. Spirituality and Practice has a special rate on classes right now. Check out the online 12-Step meetings.
As Fr. Cyprian of the Camaldolese Monastery suggests, actio is part of our practice these days. The best antidote to anxiety is altruism. Reach out in whatever way you can. If you aren’t of the right age to go out and deliver groceries, make a list of shut-ins you know who could use a call. I’m regularly connecting with a family member who is alone so that she knows that she is loved. This week, George FaceTimed the grandkids and had them read a book out loud and then told a story, thereby taking the load off their parents. We all have our ways to do this.
CREATE. My more artistic friends are painting and recording music: when the weather is nice, one of them says she is going to play music out in the yard so others can enjoy it. I’m writing, and trying out new recipes (and some old ones, like peanut butter cookies). Some folks have tackled the garden, at least indoor plant starts.
BODY PRACTICE. See above—that Ground, Orient, Hum practice outlined above is essential.
CONTEMPLATIVE PRACTICE: This is the part that will anchor us: this is why we have been practicing lectio divina and meditation and prayer. For me, it helps to set a time each day and decide on a format that I honour–it’s after I’ve fed the dog and gotten a thermos of tea. I read a book—right now it’s A Testament of Devotion, second time around—and read the gospel for the day out loud, spending some lectio time with it. Then I meditate; and I close with prayer for others. Later I add, as Fr. Cyprian of the Camaldolese Monastery suggests, actio. The best antidote to anxiety is altruism. Reach out in whatever way you can.
INTENTION. It helps to remind myself when I sit down that the purpose of my practice is primarily to fit me to be of service to Love. Yes, I hope like hell that it will calm me down! But as you know, that’s just the start. The bigger picture is that a calm and generous heart will know how to spread calmness and generosity.
JUST DO IT. I’ve had my “all-time worst” meditations in the last two weeks. No surprise—I’m churning on the inside. I accept that this may be how it is because everything I’ve been shoving out of consciousness comes pouring in when I’m quiet. But this is an excellent time to remember that faithfulness counts. Honouring the commitment to keep my bum in the chair for 20 minutes no matter what is my current goal. If I keep coming back and remember that compassion is the key, it’s all good. I personally have to start with forgiving myself, realizing how sweetly messed up and afraid I am, and how it gets in the way of sitting in the silence. It’s okay: The Holy Infinite is at work even when we are a mess. But we’ll never notice that if we don’t settle down a bit.
CHANGE IT UP. If you simply can’t sit, walk. If you can’t walk, use the Welcoming Practice. If the Welcoming Practice drives you nuts, listen to a guided meditation. Practice kything, or intercessory prayer, or tonglen, or whatever you call it. Take out your journal and tell the truth. Wash the dishes with intention. Just breathe deeply.
METTA or LOVINGKINDNESS MEDITATION. This is a great time to try out this form of Buddhist practice, if you haven’t already. (An interesting note—the Hebrew word chesed, one of the major attributes of God, is also translated as lovingkindness.) I’m going to adapt this to a Christian framework, but do it however you feel most comfortable.
Start by feeling a sense of the infinite belovedness of all creation, and focus clearly on your own belovedness within that. Remind yourself that the Holy wants nothing less for you than to be fearless, happy, joyful, non-anxious, and an open conduit for love. Then slowly say to yourself: May I be free from fear. May I be free from suffering. May I be happy and healthy. May I know the joy of being alive. May I be filled with loving kindness, and held in lovingkindness.
Now move outward, to someone you love, and pray for that person: May X be free from fear. May X be free from suffering. May X be happy and healthy. May X know the joy of being alive. May X be filled with loving kindness, and held in lovingkindness.
Moving outward again, think of your community, and pray it for them: May they be free from fear. May they be free from suffering. May they be happy and healthy. May they know the joy of being alive. May they be filled with loving kindness, and held in lovingkindness.
Moving outward again, you can include the country, our leaders, doctors and nurses and health care workers, all people suffering from coronavirus, all people who are fearful, and finally all beings everywhere.
Then bring it home again to yourself. May I be free from fear. May I be free from suffering. May I be happy and healthy. May I know the joy of being alive. May I be filled with loving kindness, and held in lovingkindness.
FORGIVE, FORGIVE, FORGIVE. On a scale of 1 to 10, this pandemic is off the scale. We humans operate best when we can control or at least predict the world around us: but because of our connectedness, we are experiencing this event as everything changing, all the time. And indeed, we will come out of this time with many of the things we have taken for granted simply gone. It is impossible to grasp, really.
So let’s assume two things. We will do this thing badly—and need to forgive ourselves and others. And we will do this thing beautifully—there will be redemption, although we don’t know what that will look like. Start now by forgiving yourself for being afraid, or angry, or numb. And keep practicing; keep reaching out, keep forgiving, keep letting in the beauty and generosity of the world around us. Above all, plant yourself clearly and deeply in the Light within, the Christ who protects us from nothing but sustains us in all things. Keep within.