We have a tendency to live life in the fast lane. We receive vast amounts of information in a day, far more than we ever did. Imagine being a farmer in the 17th century. There would be little that was novel in your day, very few distractions. Someone pointed out that back then the loudest noise might be a church bell. There would have been a lot of silence, something that today we find very hard to handle.The 17th century mathematician Blaise Pascal famously said “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone”.
Being comfortable with solitude is difficult. We are connected to so many people and have so much access to information, but we find it difficult to find connection to ourselves. We are geared to be action oriented meaning we tend to live in “doing” mode and very little time in “being” mode. Living in lockdown gives us an opportunity to get to know ourselves, to step outside of our normal routines and behaviours and to simply be, warts and all.
These momentous times might bring out resilience that we might be surprised we had, or a yearning for connection and how important other people are to us. We might also experience dread, anxiety, fear, confusion, hopelessness, frustration, feel irritable with those around us and feel the obvious yearning for a return to normality. These are actually all feelings noted as part of psychiatrist Kubler-Ross’ 5 stages of grief. They are denial, anger, depression and bargaining and the feelings I have stated are feelings attached to the various stages.
But the last stage is that of acceptance. This is a very difficult place for many to get to and often gets misinterpreted as giving up. The reality is that we gain the insight that this is a new reality and we need to reconfigure our lives, to make the best of what we have been dealt. It actually comes from strength not weakness. Zen master Shunryu Suzuki said “Without accepting the fact that everything changes, we cannot find perfect composure. Unfortunately, although it is true, it is difficult for us to accept it. Because we cannot accept the truth of transience, we suffer”.
Suffering is a part of being human. So too is compassion. Compassion is to see another’s suffering and to take practical steps to help them reduce their suffering. You could say that clapping for the NHS staff on a Thursday evening is a collective act of compassion. Many NHS staff have reported how important it has been to them in dealing with unimaginable difficulties. These things are not tokenistic, but tie us together in our communities and give us strength.
It is also possible to show ourselves self compassion. This means being kind to ourselves. We can realise that all these feelings around grief are normal and are part of our heritage and genes that have have helped us survive as a species. If finding ourselves overwhelmed compassion research has shown it helpful to say inwardly that you are going through a moment of suffering and that this ties you into a common humanity. We tend to find it hard to be kind to ourselves, thinking that we need to be strong or always be emotionally stable. Mindfulness and self compassion opens you up and turns you toward your suffering and allow it to be and showing yourself kindness in the moment of vulnerability.
A simple tool from a practise called Tonglen is to close your eyes when you are having a difficult moment, take slow deep breaths and say that whatever you are going through, so somewhere else in the world there are thousands of others having the same thoughts, the same feelings, the same emotions. If you have the strength the practise asks you to breathe in their suffering as an act of compassion, and on the out breath you breathe out a healing white light to all of those that need it.
One thing covid-19 has taught us is we are deeply interconnected. Someone in Wuhan, Milan, London or New York can exert a direct effect on our own lives whether positive or negative. We all need each other to act responsibly and distance ourselves from others, something that if you were a wolf would be no problem, but humans are the most social of species and this is a big ask.
We have the opportunity now to sit quietly in a room on our own and pay attention to our breath. Simply note the sensation of the in breath and the out breath wherever you choose. This could be the nostrils, the chest or the whole body breathing. When the mind wanders and you notice, simply bring yourself back to your breath. And repeat and repeat again. In this simple way we can find peace with ourselves and boost our resources.
Graham is a mindfulness instructor and is happy to see people wanting to learn mindfulness, using zoom or whatsapp video. It is perfectly suited to this format.