In the early weeks of the COVID-10 pandemic, when quarantines were new, I sent a supportive email to my sangha (spiritual community) most days. This is the best of them. They speak to how we use practice in hard times, to grief, perseverance, joy, and most of all, to love.
In the past day or two I've found many people turning from anxiety to grief. People are confused that they can't do anything, or they can't stop doing. I notice that I fumble for words and forget what I am doing -- all these are classic indication of shock.
Remember to move your body. Go for a walk in the fresh air, a run, a bike ride. If you can't bring yourself to do that, walk or run up and down the stairs or in circles around the house. Keep your body moving; it keeps up your energy, your health, and your spirits.
Nourish yourself. Eat healthy food as much as you can. Sure, some treats, but not only treats, because that feels lousy later.
Remember to put the screens down and talk to your loved ones and feel. Or put on headphones and get space from your loved ones and feel. The news does not need you more than a couple times a day. Endless cramming of your head with data just leaves you with a lot to process mentally and overwhelms.
Today some friends and I did this, each in our own places: set a timer for 30 minutes and spent it with Ram Dass' perfect mantra: inbreath I AM outbreath LOVING AWARENESS. Let the outbreath be longer than the inbreath; this is calming.
It's okay that your mind will wander. You could set an interval timer (a timer every few minutes within the meditation) to remind you to keep coming back. I did this today while stowing food in my ship, and it felt so good when the half hour ended that I did another one while I cleaned the galley. I'm going to do another now as I walk up to town for medical supplies.
It's soothing me. Maybe it will soothe you.
It's okay if some thoughts arise. Maybe you'll decide the mantra is better, or maybe you'll want to spend some time with those thoughts before you return to mantra. If something is really insistent, jot down a quick note for later and come back to the mantra.
This is a long but loose practice.
If that sounds like too much, you might try listening to the East Forest Ram Dass album "Ram Dass"; it's on Spotify and it is heavenly. I don't agree with his full conception of reality, but I like how he says the parts I agree with, and I let the rest go.
I love you.
Remember: we are free on the inside already.
Right now we are having an unprecedented experience globally, which makes for a whole lot of intense personal experience. We may feel strong, challenging emotions; anxiety, sadness, grief. Sometimes we can feel overwhelmed. Yesterday I was talking to a friend who was having a low moment. Here are the suggestions that I made to her -- after first asking if she wanted support or advice. That's so important to remember when folks come to us for support: ask what they need! Do they just want their feelings to be heard, or do they want help in considering solutions? Being presented with solutions can feel invalidating to someone who just needed to be heard and held and loved as they are. If what you need today is not solutions, tuck this away for another time and know that I love you.
Things That Might Help When You Feel Lousy About This Pandemic:
- Hold yourself in compassion. Notice your feelings. Notice that you CAN notice your feelings, and try to identify not as the crappy wave of whatever you are feeling in the moment, but as the gentle, loving, curious container of awareness that holds it. Because you are not any one fleeting emotion or thought! And all those thoughts and emotions will change. What is steady is our awareness of all of it. This pure awareness is what the yogis and Buddhists call the true self. Pure awareness and love. Just love your sad, cranky, ragey, whatever self. Watch it all happen, and love yourself as you are.
- Cry it out, which clears stress hormones, then do one of the other things on this list. “Mama’s taking a bath” might be a way to get some time alone to do that if you have little ones at home. Also, children are brilliant little empaths; if you can tell they are aware of your sadness or if you cry in front of them, that is not the end of the world. They do not require you to be an unflinching joyful robot; they need to learn how to be a functional human adult. You can explain that crying is a healthy way to feel your emotions, that you need to do a little bit of that, and then after that you feel much better now that you did some crying!
- Physical activity clears the mind and supports your health! All sorts are useful: cardio, yoga, tai chi, stretching, foam rolling. New things and blazingly hard things (YouTube has all sorts of options for new stuff to try) will occupy your mind to help break an anxious stream of thought, while repetitive action is helpful for processing emotions. Walking is great for long arcs of thought and conversation. If you live alone and need some people time, you could go for a 6' apart walk.
- Give your brain something to do that isn’t worry. Distracting from anxiety can be a healthful tactic used in moderation; of course we don’t want to use it to long-term dissociate because at some point it all hits you like a bus. But games and books and movies are good for occupying the mind. I'm particularly fond of physical games, like cards and dominoes, for getting away from screens.
- Rest. Stare at the wall. Watch a squirrel in your backyard for half an hour. There is a weird state of overwhelm where we just cannot process any more; the mind's buffer is full. I notice that I start to struggle for words, to remember what I am doing. This can come from shock and grief and it can come from cramming too much into the mind. I notice it if I overdo news or social media. Twitter is harder on the brain than articles because it’s so many short snips of new new new; the brain loves it at first but then it just gets TIRED. Rest is good! If you try to rest and find yourself restless (heh), then movement might be the way to go.
- Ask for help. Turn to your friends. Turn to your minister, your priest, your coach. See if your therapist is doing video or phone sessions yet. If you use medications to support your mental health, the stressors of this situation might call for adjusting them; talk to your doctor about that.
- Catharsis! I had a friend who bought a tennis racket and beat the bejeepers out of her couch with it during a divorce. When I was a freshman in college, my roommate and I kept a box for our glass juice bottles and when things got to be too much we'd go outside into the back yard, smash them against a concrete wall, and then carefully sweep up all the shards. Punch pillows! Yell! A mama told me she screams underwater in the bath because the children can't hear it, but goodness, take care if you try that one :) I'm here, too: I'm offering private sessions by phone with the low end of my usual sliding scale now halved, so my rate is a wild range of $140-60. Drop me a line if you'd like to book some time. And know that I'll keep sharing for free like this as much as I can! I don't mean this to be an ad, just a resource.
A little charming inspiration in this video. Please stay with this until :40 to feel the cathartic turn! This makes me weep with a little cathartic joyous frisson every time I watch it.
Sometimes when we feel low, a calm, orderly thing like this message can feel so soothing. Other times, clarity itself might feel irritating. I therefore humbly share with you what it looks like when I am speaking not from the transpersonal space of teaching, but just in my own little human voice on a personal level. Here's what I wrote to someone when I had a low spot a couple days ago:
my mind is a hysterical place right now. part of me is weary and dejected after a lot of work on a long project that is going slowly and just got derailed by the local government's request that folks not leave home for the next 5 days. i can’t get too deep with the being dejected thing, though; it’s a very superficial layer, because another part of me is just watching that, peacefully, knowing that this is a fleeting emotional state that will pass. the orderly part of me says i know how to lift up! what would i tell myself if i were my student? and i tap into all this wisdom and kindness. some little inner brat just wants to tell the wise lady to EFF RIGHT OFF. but i’m just holding her in compassion, too, and carrying on with the work, except for the part where i paused to write this to you.
I love you. Take care. We're all just doing our best.
Once, as we prepared for the final class of a retreat I was leading, a woman I'll call Beth entered the practice yurt and walked up to someone I'll call Maria who was sitting, ready for me to begin. Beth said to Maria that she'd been putting her mat in that spot all weekend, and could she please have it now? Maria replied politely that actually, she wanted to stay where she was, as she was happy to be beside a friend. Beth instantly burst into loud tears and the room fell silent except for her sobs, which echoed through the round room as everyone turned to watch.
I walked over and gently asked what was happening; like most folks, all I knew at that point was that Beth was standing there crying so hard she couldn't speak. Maria, wide-eyed, described their interaction. I said, "Okay. Thank you. So, I'm pretty sure Beth isn't really crying about where her mat goes."
Beth nodded vigorously, oozing visible relief at being understood. I cannot remember precisely what happened next; this was long ago. Perhaps Maria was moved and gave up her spot after all. Perhaps everyone worked together and slid over to make space for both women have what they wanted. Perhaps the moment was the catharsis Beth needed and she simply chose a different place to sit.
What is key here is the healing opportunity that arose when Beth and I were able to acknowledge that the thing she was expressing emotion about wasn't the source of that emotion. I'm telling you this story because many of us, right now, are sobbing about where we wish we could sit.
A friend of mine who recently made a choice at a big forks in the road of her life shared with me that she was anxious about whether she made the right decision. I gently asked if perhaps, since it was so hard to comprehend the scale of what is afoot with this pandemic, her mind was focusing her anxiety about the world in the direction it had been accustomed to worrying lately? Another friend marveled that with all the big stuff that was going on, he couldn't stop worrying about the fact that he only had a week's supply of his favorite tea left. I myself awoke a couple days ago and found myself feeling quite sad about something that happened years ago. For each of us, realizing that the thing we seemed to be feeling upset about wasn't the true root of the emotional wave allowed us to move into understanding, self-compassion, and constructive action.
It is difficult for our minds to comprehend the vastness of this tragedy, and the fact that we do not know what the future will hold is destabilizing. We had plans, we made preparations, we thought we knew where life was going... and now everyone's life is on unfamiliar ground. It's a lot.
I hope that those moments of sobbing in front of her community, of being seen, held, and honored in the depth of her emotion were comforting to Beth. I hope that we can try to do this for ourselves and for one another right now. Most of us are not at our best all the time! That's fine. That's human. We are all shocked, we are all grieving, we are all unsettled.
When you see big emotions arising for yourself or for another, take heed. It is especially useful to notice when those emotions seem outsized for the moment. On the day that I found myself sad about something that didn't call for it, I turned in toward that emotion and meditated upon my sadness; I made space to feel into that sadness, and also into love.
Be gentle with yourself. Be gentle with one another. Make space to feel your sadness, and cultivate resilience, both.
If you feel powerless and afraid, a great way to change that can be found in service. It is such a comfort to be and feel useful. You might call your elderly neighbor to see if you can pick up anything for them at the grocery store, reach out to videochat with someone who you know lives alone, walk the dog of the person down the hall who has asthma and is afraid to go out. I'm practicing what I teach right now; I'm here, writing to you as I have each morning this week, hoping to be of use in sharing meditation and mindfulness. My husband James, when I asked him to make a little directory of a few of my recordings, instead made them a website; you can if you wish stream or download free guided relaxation, meditation, and energy work sessions at http//beloved.org. There are so many ways we can help each other.
If what you need is to be helped, ask for help. Reach out to your loved ones, your neighbors. Join an online group; there are so many springing up! Call your therapist or doctor. One extroverted friend said that she sits in her window, and when someone passes by she yells, "Help! I'm trapped in this house!" and giggles, and then strikes up a conversation with the person passing by.
If things are dire, please call a crisis line. People all over the world want to help. We all need to receive, and we all need to give.
We're in this together.
I love you.
Once, when I was a student on retreat in the mountains above Santa Barbara, I befriended a woman. She was going running on the trails around in the forest around us. I wanted to do this, but I did not trust my ability to know the way, so I asked her to show me. As we set out together along the dry, dusty trail, she paused and turned to speak with a plant, telling it with great appreciation and a little flirtation how beautiful it was. Here, I knew, was a kindred soul.
My friend told me a story, and I want to share it with you today. She had a dream, a recurring dream, in which she was being chased by a bear. It was terrifying, a nightmare.
She told me that she had shared this dream before with someone who offered her insight, a pivot; this person said: "The bear has something to tell you. It is chasing you because it has a message for you. The next time you are chased by the bear, turn, face the bear, and ask it what it has to say to you."
At the time that we spoke, my friend had not done this; the dream had not yet returned. The point of my story is not what her bear had to say to her. The point of my story is an invitation: to face the bear. Your bear.
Many of us are running from the bear right now. We are afraid. When we are adrenalized with fear, our bodies try to save us: they tell us to run, to fight, or to freeze. I invite you to choose another way.
The wise Buddhist teacher Pema Chödrön, in her classic, beloved book, When Things Fall Apart, says,
"Most of us do not take these situations as teachings. We automatically hate them. We run like crazy. We use all kinds of ways to escape -- all addictions stem from this moment when we meet our edge and we just can't stand it. We feel we have to soften it, pad it with something, and we become addicted to whatever it is that seems to ease the pain. In fact, the rampant materialism that we see in the world stems from this moment. There are so many ways that have been dreamt up to entertain us away from the moment, soften its hard edge, deaden it so we don't have to feel the full impact of the pain that arises when we cannot manipulate the situation to make us come out looking fine.
Meditation is an invitation to notice when we reach our limit and to not get carried away by hope and fear. Through meditation, we're able to see clearly what's going on with our thoughts and emotions, and we can also let them go. What's encouraging about meditation is that even if we shut down, we can no longer shut down in ignorance. We see very clearly that we're closing off. That in itself begins to illuminate the darkness of ignorance. We're able to see how we run and hide and keep ourselves busy so that we never have to let our hearts be penetrated. And we're also able to see how we could open and relax."
I invite you, my loves, to turn to face the bear. There are many ways to do this. Meditation is one, but only one. There is writing, journaling, drawing. There are the inner realms of the mind; you might sit and in your mind's eye, invite the bear to tea or a glass of wine. In some way, in your own way, turn to the bear. In this, remember: curiosity, compassion, a bit of humor. Turn to the-bear-your-fear in love. Listen to its message. Its apparent form may not be its message. The bear may roar a terrifying roar; which might mean, "I am in pain and I need to be loved." Listen, consider. Stay present in your loving awareness. You are larger than any of your thoughts or emotions. You are a big enough container for all you hold; you are larger than any and all of it.
If we do not turn to face the bear, we grow so weary of running. The bear may overtake us and deliver its message to us when we are weak and weary. Choose a tender moment, a moment of clarity, to face the bear in strength.
If you cannot do this alone, enlist aid. Turn to a friend. Turn to a therapist; many are working with people by teleconference. I am working with people by telephone. Your ancestors and the beings which guide your heart are ever available to you inside of you. You have resources.
Mary Oliver, in her brilliant book length poem The Leaf and The Cloud says:
This is the poem of goodbye,
And this is the poem of don't know.
My hands touch the lilies
my hands touch the blue iris
and I say, not easily but carefully
The words round in the mouth,
crisp on the tongue --
dirt, mud, stars, water --
I know you as if you were myself.
How could I be afraid?
When I shared yesterday's teaching on Facebook, the friend who had the bear dream responded. SHE HAS MET THE BEAR! And she gave me permission to tell you about it.
"I did, ultimately, face the bear again in a dream. As I was frantically running away, I remembered the man who had told me to turn and face it. In the dream, I stopped, closed my eyes, and turned toward the bear. The bear tackled me, smelling foul and slobbering all over. I waited to be devoured but what came next was the realization that I needed to RELAX...Relax or the bear will kill you. I surrendered to the moment. Let go. I felt the earth supporting me. As I did this, my fear evaporated, the bear evaporated, and the dream shifted. A lifetime of running away from the bear. And finally, I turned toward the bear to discover what it was trying to teach me. Relax. Be. Here. Now. The earth is supporting you."
Another friend shared a similar experience:
"Now I have to share my dream from some years ago when I was battling many demons. I was running through a dark snowy wilderness, very aware of the wolves panting and slathering behind me, inexorably catching up. Ahead was a small cabin and I thought if I could just get there I’d be safe. I ran, terrified, beasts nearly at my heels. Just as I got close to the cabin I turned towards the source of my fear, these red eyed sharp toothed monsters. And there, spread out on the snow behind me were cardboard cutouts of wolves, balanced precariously on their little stands. If we would only look boldly at what we fear..."
And a third shared her vision of the bear as an ally in a quote from Winnie-the-Pooh:
"I'm afraid," said Rabbit.
"What are you afraid of? asked Bear."
"I don't know," replied Rabbit. "I just am."
"Then I will sit with you until you are not afraid anymore," said Bear. "We will face it together."
When James and I were first together, he was sometimes bemused by vases of flowers collapsing around the house. Moldy stems, wrinkled leaves, rings of fallen petals. I would keep them all the way until the water stunk. Yes, I know the water won't stink if you change it daily, but there is a point in the process where it isn't possible to change the water without losing all the petals because if you touch the stem, the petals go all at once.
I've had a lot of surgery. Five in ten years. I lived in the same house for all of them, and one of the worlds in my heart is an endless convalescence. The windows are all open, the white muslin curtains are soft in the breeze, and the room is filled with flowers. On the bookshelf, on the mantle, on the tables. I lay in bed for days on end, high on both the natural altered state of consciousness of healing and painkillers, cherishing the breeze, feeling the cat soft against my side, and watching the blossoms open and fall, time slowing to a crawl as I lay, mending, for days and weeks.
Once, on my birthday in December, we bought peonies, which are my favorite; they were hard little knobs in the morning. We set them on the mantle of the fireplace in the bedroom and lit a fire. The heat led the blossoms to open and all the petals to fall in a single day. We lay on pillows and watched them go.
I like the slower process, though, watching the hard bud become softer and rounder, watching the petals throw themselves exuberantly to the sky and my eye one by one or all at once. Watching the petals fade, watching the color bleed away. Watching the petals hold their color but wilt. Watching the petals fall one by one, or the whole blossom collapse at once. Waking and finding I missed the moment I'd been waiting for, or that it happened while I was at work.
I explained to James long ago that I didn't just want to cherish the flowers when they were fresh and beautiful; I wanted to love the whole process. I found the decay beautiful, too. Watching the leaves go brown and crisp, watching the water go green.
There is SO MUCH right now. In the early days of our love when I was explaining these things to James, I had the words HONOR CHAOS scrawled in eyeliner across my mirror. I was trying to learn to let go. I was trying to learn that life would not conform to my expectations, and that I, being life, would not conform to my expectations.
There is so much to let go of right now, and so much to take in. So much chaos. We have to set down so many plans and hopes and expectations. We have to take in so much astonishing change of context; the world is not as we thought. We have more work and we are out of work; the children are at home or the children cannot come home. Some of us have to go to work and wish we could stay indoors; some of us cannot go outside and stare at the sky with longing. Some of us have no windows. Some of us are ill, and people are dying. Every day this is so, but before the pandemic, most days we acted as if it were not. Right now, we cannot forget.
My intent today is to say that it's all part of the whole. It's all in there. The broken glass and the rotting flowers can also be beautiful -- and when it isn't beautiful, that's okay, too. Some days we stare at the wall. Some days we read the numbers until our minds ache. Some days we eat too much or too little, we drink too much; we sleep too much or we cannot sleep. We wail about the last cookie being gone, and it not about the cookie, and it is.
I love you wholly, and your wholeness includes your brokenness. Your rage, too, is a facet of your beauty. You aren't doing this wrong. We are wild and careful and numb and a tornado of feelings; it's all in there.
I hear Mr. Goenka in the Vipassana recordings; he pops up as I write that and says, "And if you cannot be equanimous, simply be equanimous with the fact that you are not equanimous."
If you are not at peace, try to be at peace with the fact that you are not at peace. Try to accept: right now the rage is coming. Right now the sorrow is coming. Today I surfed the internet for hours. Did you only eat cake last night? Okay. Just like meditation: notice, acknowledge, accept, and carry on. If eating cake for dinner felt bad, it does not help to berate yourself. Notice that it does not feel good, and make a different choice about breakfast. Keep showing up for yourself in love; be the bigger container. Do your best and accept that it will vary in appearance. Reach out to those who support you when you need help, and reach out to check in on others. If it is hard for you to ask for help, give help, and remembering how good it feels to give help may make it easier for you to ask someone to give you help in the future.
This doesn't have a perfect tidy ending or theme. Today I was trying to write from broken. I didn't mean for the peonies to go all in one day; they were expensive, a birthday treat, and I lost them in hours to the heat of the fire. The memory is beautiful, but it's because that's the story I am telling myself about it, the story I am telling you about it. I could also make it a story about poor planning, but that's not really my way.
I love you. I love you in all your ways. We're all doing the best we can. Some days that's not very good. That's okay, too.
Little human pattern in the body of the cosmos,
Yesterday I spoke to feeling broken, to grief and rage and shock, to listless catatonia. Today I wish to speak to how we carry on from there. Not how we leave it, but how we keep going right from the midst of that.
When I came to the practice that became my home, I was quite young, in the final years of my teens. As so many people who come to practice are at any age, I was in tremendous pain. I remember listening to people speak with grace and clarity about the wonders of spiritual practice and feeling ravenous but unworthy, alien, like a goddamned tornado set loose in my own life, baffled by my choices, ashamed, my wounds a raging fire that it seemed could never die out, terrified to be alone in my own mind for a single minute.
I remember, a decade or so later, having made great effort and feeling much growth, but still feeling exasperated by how much still felt awry within me, turning to my husband to say, "I see that the problem in all this is my own insecurity, but how on earth does one make that go away?"
I wish to be exceedingly clear that I still see endless room for growth in myself. I hope that I am so lucky as to grow old and that wizened-me looks back on middle-aged me speaking of her progress and cackles with laughter, jiggling my wrinkles and flashing my gold back teeth. I know, though, that I no longer feel like a poltergeist set loose in my own life. I love to be alive, now, even when hard times come, and I have seen a lot of hardship. I love myself and everyone else, and I am usually able to act in accordance with my honor and my dreams.
I wasn't at my best this morning when I sent that single sheep emoji as a reply to the person telling me on social media that billionaires deserve their money and I should be grateful to them; that is a thorn just now when I speak of honor. I mention it because it feels important, when I am speaking from transpersonal human wisdom, to also make clear that I am just one person and a work in progress, too. It is said that we teach what we need to learn. I commit to you that after I finish writing this, I will go make an apology to the receiver of the sheep.
In the ways that I have grown, the answers were love, practice, and time. One keeps showing up, as kindly as possible -- and hope, the lighthouse, is key. Today I aim to take a turn walking the long staircase to the top of the lighthouse to light the flame. We all take our turns here, and I send endless thanks to my own lighthouses, some of which I will share with you today.
When I felt like a six cats in a sack trying to live a human life, the more measured spiritual teachings sometimes felt alienating; the grace of it seemed so impossible. Poetry often spoke to more, and I clung to it as to a life raft. I still do, have bought these last weeks many electronic copies of books carefully tucked in boxes in California. A little poetry, now, for you, darling, with my tremendous affection. I love you. I believe in you. Yes, you. Really.
This first poem is Mary Oliver. What I wish to point your eye toward is not the neatly tied bow that the final word can feel like, but all that is implied by the next to last line: the long journey, the work, the patience.
The Uses of Sorrow (In my sleep I dreamed this poem)
Someone I loved once gave me
a box full of darkness.
It took me years to understand
that this, too, was a gift.
This second poem is one that has been a companion to me for most of my life. I read it in APR, the American Poetry Review, in 1990. This morning, I didn't know that; I only knew that I needed that particular poem and that it wasn't on the boat. It was, like all the other poetry I have bought this week, woven so fully into the fabric of my being that I was sure I had it within me. But that wasn't enough when the world spun sideways.
I searched on the title and author of this particular poem and not only did I find it, it turned up in the form in which I met it. JSTOR has that issue of APR and now, during the COVID-19 pandemic, has opened their archives to use freely. My cheeks are still damp with tears of gratitude and serendipity. Perhaps funny place for tears to come, but so often these days the grief cannot find a place to alight, like a tired bird far out at sea, and I'll take any place that turns up now to rest my weary wings and let go.
I wanted to be the woman speaking this poem when I met it. I was not; I was lost, wailing. The final stanza offered me great comfort and I clung to it for years as a lighthouse, a breadcrumb, lembas. That is part of the beauty of the piece; it shows you peace and non-attachment and then gives you hope that you can get there. If you are wailing, I hope these words comfort you. Remember that birth is a wild and demanding endeavor, and rebirth, too, is difficult. If you are at peace, I hope these words sing to you sweetly as well, and that they return to you when your turn comes, as all ours do if we are lucky enough to stay alive, to look into the well and wail and be born again, again.
The Free Abandonment Blues
- Jean Valentine
Now I don't have to leave this place not for anybody
No I don't have to go out of this wooden house not to oblige anybody
Once I would have lifted clean out of my own place to please somebody
The blue-robed man who said
You want to be loved, love me
The man in the blue robe who said I give, in order that you will give to me
I remember you my old blue-robed man, but you know this just can not be
Now if I want to warm myself I look up at the blue sky
Now I look to a number of people here and also to the round blue sky
To feel the sun, your free mouth on my mouth, not the fire that is gone by
I don't wear any clothes nowadays or say that I am me
I don't wear the right clothes in the closet or explain how I am me
I just come as I go translucent oh what you get is what you see
The woman said:
They held her in their arms and knew that she would save them
They brought her into their houses and into their hands to save them
But secretly they knew that no one would ever have them
And she said:
Listen, it's only a little time longer to wait
When you have taken this path you need just a little more time to wait
Maybe not today the amazing loveliness, but it won't be long for us to wait
Maybe not today the amazing loveliness, but it won't be long to wait,
Please, do remember that you are a creature. You are not a machine, a game, a program, a business, or a brand, no matter what capitalism tries to tell you. You are a soft, squirmy little animal. I am a primate, a cousin of the monkeys and the bonobos. We are little animals on a planet in space, and the entire human civilization on this planet has halted due to a new disease that is ravaging our species.
It's funny, for a moment I wondered if it was okay to say that. I wondered if it was too rude, too much, to say, "Hey, there is a global pandemic."
On Easter Sunday, we had a cool day here. This had been was forecast, and I had a plan: take advantage of the cool day to use the oven and bake cookies. I'm allergic to most grains, and I wasn't a person prone to baking even before I figured that out so I hadn't baked cookies in... maybe 15 years? But a couple mornings ago I woke up and baked chocolate cookies. They were delicious. (Thanks to Kirsten, who sent me the recipe)
After baking, I got dressed. It was a holiday, a holy day for many, so I dressed for celebration. I wore my favorite rather ratty sundress and put mascara on. I wore a necklace, pinned flowers in my hair. I got out the mask I bought when we were living aboard during fire season in California and put it on, tucked cookies in little brown paper bags and walked them carefully to a few neighbors and to the guy who got stuck working the marina gate on the holiday. I came home happy to have walked in the sun and spread joy; we aren't supposed to go outdoors here now, so the walk was amazing.
A little later I had this wave of pure joy. Everything was so quiet, the boat rocking gently at dock. The temperature was perfect and the light was incredible; that lovely low afternoon light, but unlike most days at that hour, I wasn't listless and sticky with sweat. The air and the light were just exquisite. My boat still smelled of chocolate, and my heart was warm. James was out working on the deck and I could feel his quiet satisfaction as he pounded away with a little Japanese hammer, replacing the little round bungs that cover the screws in the teak decking. It was a beautiful moment. I felt a wave of absolute pleasure and cherishing. I was listing in my mind all the qualities of the moment and how wonderful it was, how delicious in every way it was
and then a voice in my head said, "And there is a global pandemic underway."
I actually grunted and then moaned aloud with the force of the surprise and the pain, remembering. As if I'd been punched in the gut; I doubled over and held onto the wall beside me.
I think you've had that experience, too? I have it a lot after someone I love dies. The person comes to mind and you think that you ought to write or call... and then remember that their body has died. Or you reach up to put a book back onto the shelf or pull a pot down from one and the thought flashes into your mind, suddenly: "Grandma is dead." "Steve is dead." We remember, and it's so shocking and painful. I find that sometimes these flashes come for years after some deaths as some deep part of me tries to fathom this, to truly grok the loss. Incorporating the knowledge of huge changes takes time.
Yesterday I cooked most of the day. I planned to work on a project, but first I cooked breakfast, then I made a big batch of beans. I set some yogurt to ferment. By the time I finished hand-washing all the dishes, I was hungry for lunch. I sanitized the emergency water jugs with peroxide, then vinegar, then filled and dated and stowed them. I tended the beans and the yogurt again. I made dinner. I only have two burners and one is quite wee, so while the beans were finishing, I slowly chopped the carrots and the apple and the onion for curry. Most of the day I stood in the galley, which is smaller than my stove was on land.
I could say that I worked all day, or I could say that I got nothing done. The next big project that lies before me certainly went untouched.
Some days I write, like this, easy and fervent, hours in a flow state. Some days I do the work of living on the boat: I sew, working on the mosquito screens or the covers everything needs to keep the blazing sun off. I wash the boat, I churn the laundry; it's amazing what can be done in a day. There are days which are astonishingly productive, in various forms: food and boat and words.
Some days, though, I just can't. Some days I just. Can't. On those days, I don't feel sad, or even blue; it's like my bed has a massive gravity and I just need to be there, quietly, for hours. Years ago, when this happened in San Francisco, it often meant a long afternoon in bed watching stories on the screen; nowadays I choose a book, curl up and read or drowse. Sometimes I wake up surprised with my glasses still on.
I recognize this as part of my grieving process, part of how I process loss and change. It took me a long time to realize that big change doesn't always look like the first flush of grief: wailing, pounding the floor, making deals with the universe in the wee hours of the night. In the now-classic five aspects of grief, and an imperfect but useful model, one of the aspects is acceptance. I've observed that for me, there is a tremendous amount of processing that comes before acceptance. I seem to do that processing in bed. I just take to my bed, quietly, even happily, and can't seem to do anything else.
When this happens, it often takes me a while to realize what is afoot. I have plans for the day, or the week, or the winter, and instead I find that I simply must lie in bed. This isn't depression; I can shower, I can eat, I love the sunrise and the birdsong, but my whole animal being insists that I must spend the afternoon in bed again today. And again. Gradually, I'll see the pattern and I realize that I am grieving; this is what certain levels of deep emotional processing look like for me: long afternoons in bed. I have come to think of them tenderly, as a treasure, but that took time. I used to feel guilty about them. I still do, some days, though, I can hold it in compassion and talk to it sweetly nowadays. We are told that we must make, do, produce. The time to plan and dream and scheme and process is not accounted for. We need this.
I'm not sure what your processing time looks like: deep cleaning? Taking the car apart? But I know it's probably coming. The first couple weeks of the quarantine felt like a great rush: final errands, logistics, sorting this new life out, talking to everyone you love all the time: "I love you, I love you, I love you." Now this time is becoming familiar. I hear folks say that they are quiet, that they are bored, that they just couldn't do anything. I saw a wise and silly meme that said, "2020 is a special leap year: February has 29 days, March has 5 weeks, and April has 300 days."
I want to say today that space is a necessary, useful thing. We need space to process. To find our way. It's okay to be unproductive. You are not a machine. You are a little animal leading a human life during a time unprecedented in history, much less personal experience. You might have too much space and you might have too little; very little is ideal right now. Frank Ostaseski, a founder of Zen Hospice in San Francisco, suggests to those caring for the dying who cannot stop moving that the small, natural pause between the inbreath and the outbreath be chosen and cultivated as a refuge.
I don't have a tidy answer for you about grief, or about processing. I am here to remind you that it's there; it's happening. It's healthy and natural. This article about grieving the pandemic might be useful
I notice that when people tell me they are sad or grieving or processing, they often seem to feel guilty about it. If they are not a front-line worker or experiencing infection in their immediate circle, folks will often carefully count their blessings aloud after speaking their hard truths. And while it's important to be aware of one's privilege and a wise and wonderful practice to cultivate gratitude, it's also okay to hurt. It's okay to hurt even if others are hurting worse. We have to feel our feelings to get through them. I have to take the afternoon in bed to get the day where I can write to you, like this, and then cook three days of food and figure out how to keep the mosquitos out.
I'm here to say that your pain is valid. I'm here to say that it's rightful to grieve. If you have the space to grieve, it is not only in service of your own health and wellbeing to do so, it is a service to the world.
For those who fear showing sadness before their children: how will they learn to move through their own grief if we do not teach them? We are teaching them how to be human, and how to survive this time with resilience.
Our most common model, the Five Stages of Grief (which I tend to refer to as aspects), are often spoken of as the work of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross. She had a co-author, however, in David Kessler. As I mentioned in one of my prior love letters, he has added, with the blessing of Elisabeth's family, a sixth aspect to their model of grief: meaning.
It might be that right now, what you need to feel is your sadness or rage. We don't feel all the aspects at once. We don't feel them in a specific order. And our circumstances vary tremendously. You might live alone and have lost your job, or you might be swamped with work and caring for children. You might be making a collage with the children about the things you miss, sobbing in the bath after you've finally finished work. You might be feeling filled with hope and life. There are so many ways to be alive. Ride the moment you have. If in the moment you have, you wish to consider meaning, here is an article about David's book:
And there is the book itself. There is also Viktor Frankl's great book, Man's Search for Meaning, written after he survived the concentration camps of World War II and made the observation that what allowed people to survive seemed not to be health or wealth or strength, but having a sense of meaning. There is Miriam Greenspan's, Healing Through the Dark Emotions, the Wisdom of Grief, Fear, and Despair.
If you or someone you love is deep in the thick of grief, here is another tender resource, which is a little animated film about how to be a good friend to one who grieves. I have found it useful to show people who are grieving and who are supporting those who grieve. It says, in short, not to fix people, not to cheer them up, but to respect their pain and sorrow, to respect their process and hold them in love. Just as we do for our own minds in meditation. It says this with lovely cartoons and in a fashion that makes deep sense.
I encourage you to sit, my loves. I also encourage you to move. I encourage you to feel: to cry, to laugh. I encourage you to take to bed, if you can, when you need; I encourage you to respect your needs, even when you haven't yet figured out why you have them. Maybe especially then. I encourage you to question. I encourage you, I encourage you, I encourage you.
I hold you in your pain.
We are here together.
I love you.
This is going to be a humble missive. I'm going to let myself preen here with this next statement, though: I really felt like I nailed it with my last missive. I felt satisfied with and proud of my work there. I took a few days off writing afterward; did not feel anything new arising in me and felt like I'd said enough for the time.
I did a lot of personal processing. I got to full acceptance of the loss of our summer sailing adventure and the impending prospect of a summer at dock in what has been described to me as a "southeast Asia level of humidity" by a friend who spent two years living in Thailand. I felt tremendous gratitude: I love this sleepy little village where we are living. I am so grateful for the community here. Today is the birthday of a community leader and his partner threw him a surprise party over the VHF radio, with everyone gathering for a "special announcement from the marina" which turned out to be everyone taking turns to share words of appreciation for Mike. Yesterday I stood out on the dock doing laundry in a bucket under the glorious sunshine, wearing a running bra and shorts, barefoot, with flowers in my hair, looking up at the ring of mountains and the beauty here, awash with love for my surprise new home.
Then the President of the United States openly called for armed insurrection, tweeting “LIBERATE MINNESOTA!”, then “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” and then capping it off with “LIBERATE VIRGINIA, and save your great 2nd Amendment. It is under siege!” The 2nd Amendment is the right to bear arms.
I did all the right things yesterday. I did sweaty cardio on the three steps inside my boat, practiced asana in the tiny space between the table and the padded bench, meditated. I reached out to friends for connection, giving and receiving support. I cooked healthy food and planned a treat for the evening; my first go at spiced, roasted crunchy chick peas, which were great.
Then I sat down and got quite deliberately drunk.
It was cathartic. Now I'm hung over, that man is still president, and there's still a pandemic. Doing my practice is going to be painful today, but I'll do it anyway, because I always feel better after. I'll have lousy hot flashes for a couple of days, and my mind will be a bit wilder because my hormones will be awry; perimenopause and alcohol do not mix well.
I debated whether to write about this. I certainly don't wish to appear to advocate for binge drinking. But I do wish to be honest about what it looks like to be a person with a practice. I am not a monk. I chose to write about this because I find that people in the United States tend to have puritan ideas about spiritual practice. As I type that, the memory is flashing in my mind of coffee cups stashed in the bushes around the stairs leading to an ashram I used to teach at because people didn't want to bring them inside to be seen discarding them.
We do try to "be good" in spiritual community; we want to be good people, to live lives of decency, honor, and value. But people tend to believe, conversely, that they will be unloved or rejected if they are "bad". This is a reasonable idea to have given that most of us are raised with a form of socialization where desired behavior is responded to with affirmation and affection and undesired behavior is responded to with punishment, disapproval, and the withdrawal of affection. I am grateful to those seeking to change that pattern in raising their own children, but it's still how most of us grew up: being taught that we are unlovable if we don't act as others wish us to.
This leads people to present a false self to those they care about, even those they turn to for help. People keep secrets from their therapists because they fear losing approval and respect. They tuck their coffee cups into the bushes on the way to yoga. They don't talk about the fact that they got drunk while grieving. They lie. They curate a careful persona that seems worthy of love, and then feel all the more certain that their true self, were it known, would be unlovable, reifying the belief that begins the tangle.
Oh, how grateful I was to the woman who said once, during the introductions at a retreat I was leading, that this was the first Friday night since she couldn't remember when that she wasn't having a beer. How I loved watching all the eyes slip my way, waiting to see my reaction. I laughed and thanked her for her honesty and showed her my love. It's so important to be human together. So here I am, today, saying: yup. I hurt real bad, and I tried treating that pain with alcohol. It felt good at the time. It hurts again this morning.
My work takes a lot of forms. I teach yoga and meditation. I offer bodywork and train people to do energy work. I minister weddings and attend births. I support people in crisis, and through death. Last summer when someone asked what I did, I said that list, because she seemed truly interested and we had just discussed her work at length, and she replied, "You're a straight up priestess, aren't you?" It was such a beautiful gift. It took almost precisely a year for me to gather the courage to say it myself, and it makes me so happy to do so. Most of all, though, what my work consists of is love. I show up, I love people. I encourage them to love themselves and one another. Everything else arises from and returns to this.
What I want to say today is: there is no external standard of puritan perfection that applies to being worthy of love or worthy of being a person with a spiritual practice. I accept you as you are. The bywords I teach the teachers I mentor are "unconditional love and exquisitely clear boundaries."
My favorite description of ego is "I-maker"; the yogis call this the ahamkara, that part of the mind which takes the whole wild jumble of things that is me and manages to create a coherent experience and story of self from them. We also have, as a civilization, this kind of thing on a larger level, a consensus reality, a story that we accept together about what the world is. In that reality, we tend to think that time is progress, that "It gets better", naturally. Many things do! Not all of them, and not always.
We are alive in a difficult time. Climate change and ecocide, the careful dismantling of the world order as we knew it by oligarchs, and now a global pandemic. That is a lot to take in. If we are to stay awake and aware so that we can act, we must feel our pain. If we are to carry on so that we can act and enjoy the lives we have, we must feel our joy.
I'm here to support that process: being human, with all it entails, and muddling my way through as best I can, with highs and lows myself. I want to say today that you are good enough to practice, exactly as you are. Practice will not make everything effortless; showing up to face who and what you truly are is powerful and beautiful and horrible. In my experience, it also makes everything more bearable. It doesn't make everything easy. It doesn't eliminate grief. But it makes it easier to tolerate these experiences, elevates your joy, simplifies your desires. Right now it's making it easier to pick up my hung over behind, hold yesterday-Dahlia in compassion, resolve without shame to find a less painful way to process my emotions today, and continue onward with the work of being human right now.
I wish you the best in your human-ness. I love you as you are, with all my own humble, thoughtful, chaotic humanity.