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What Helps Us through This? A Collaborative Enquiry
Almost a year ago, at the start of this ever-extending COVID-19 lockdown, I wrote a satirical piece called “Anxietatem Virus,” pointing to the dangers of allowing anxiety about the pandemic to run unchecked. I’ve recently been asking myself what has been holding me back from dispensing further mindfulness-related contributions to the situation. It would seem the obvious thing to do in a column on Bringing Mindfulness to Life. I’ve come to the realization that I have mixed feelings about giving advice. As a trained coach and mindfulness teacher, I practice biting my tongue when I feel the urge to try to fix another person’s problems. Too often, given advice disguises unacknowledged discomfort with the issue at stake, and maybe more is to be gained for both parties from allowing the reality of the pain to be felt, at least initially. Empathy and curiosity can create some space around the problem, in which unforeseen insights can come to light. I don’t want to take away the satisfaction a person can derive from accessing their own wisdom. (Could this be getting dangerously close to advice-giving, after all?)
Then it came to me: Why not simply ask a few people how they are faring in these difficult times? I would enjoy the back and forth of emails, knowing what is going on for people in a sense of mutual respect and discovery. With connection, or the limitations of it, perhaps the main issue of the times, what better way to approach the theme?
So in that spirit, I sent out three questions to about 20 people taken from my circles of friends, family, neighbors, and work, covering a range of different circumstances and experience of mindfulness:
1. What do you find most difficult in this time of COVID-19 restrictions?
2. What is helping you through this period?
3. How is it for you, reflecting on these questions?
I received a heartwarming influx of replies. As predicted, one of the most often-cited difficulties, particularly for those with small children, is the lack of contact with extended family. On the theme of connection, the lack of physical contact was mentioned, as well as not recognizing faces behind masks and living in an atmosphere of fear. “I’ve become so wary of others—my hand brushed against the Amazon delivery driver’s hand the other day and I recoiled in shock!” someone shared.
The other common cause of distress is “doing the same local walks again and again,” and not being able to get out of the city. Not being able to work was also mentioned. For a couple of people, what has been most difficult is regarding the extent of restrictions as “non-sensical” and “damaging to the well-being of so many people,” particularly children. One person described the “ominous feeling that instead of COVID-19 being recognized as another sign that a wholesale change is needed in the way we relate to one another and the planet, it’s diverting attention from environmental issues and being used to justify destructive steps.” I appreciated the honesty of one participant in naming as challenging “the way in which I'm confronted by myself so much!”
Moving on to what is helping, it seems to me that this is often directly related to and stimulated by what is difficult. Again, connection was often cited, “maximizing on the hugs that ARE possible,” “finding a different channel in the brain” to connect effectively on Zoom, and valuing any kind of meeting and enjoying the support and fun gained from them. One person mentioned writing more actual letters or cards, and even sending small gifts. This reminds me of a satisfying exchange I started with my five-year-old “Buddha daughter.” I sent her a handmade booklet made of thick cartridge paper and the start of an illustrated story, which we take turns continuing.
Almost everyone writes about contact with nature, feeling “nourished and recharged” by it. The monotony of the same walks is alleviated by “noticing and photographing the things I might otherwise walk past.” “If we are willing to lower our expectations (or perhaps our sense of entitlement) this can't but help greater possibilities in that what we may have overlooked before suddenly becomes something we can find interest in.”
Lack of control and uncertainty are relieved by keeping up the “reassuring sense of familiarity” that comes with establishing some structure and routine. I have a long-standing fascination with the dynamic between sameness and difference, theme and variation, and it seems that more people are discovering the inherent opportunities for depth and contentment. I think this is the playing field for any creative endeavor in the arts, meditation, and life generally.
I am particularly interested in several people’s struggles and insights with regard to experiencing themselves as less effective in what they can achieve. One woman who had just started on a self-employed business as a designer found her plans put on hold by the crisis. She wrote:
The positive is that it has highlighted how I worked too hard at doing things I wasn’t invested in and it gave me the confidence to make a change. It also highlighted how my identity was very much wrapped up in what I did instead of who I am. . . . I have made a conscious decision to change my pace and approach to life and will never go back to the constant rushing around again. The focus now is on what human contact we can have and noticing more what is going on around us, on our own doorstep.
Another contribution from a retired psychologist who usually leads a busy life:
Allowing my life to become simpler and slowing down—though this is also a bit scary as it feels like I achieve so little. I am resisting the need to justify myself and my inaction—we need to recognize the trauma of it and use a bit of self-care.
And in the same vein, an artist whose time is caught up with home-schooling: “not allowing myself to feel guilty when I don’t achieve or create as I normally would.”
The people who have an established mindfulness practice mention how invaluable it is, even if the time for it may be limited:
Mindfulness practice including mindful walking and my mindfulness meetings are helpful. Some online things work so well I want to carry on with them after.
My third question within this very small-scale research project was related to the effects of reflecting on these matters. For a few people it is nothing new, something they do “on a daily basis.” Some mention that they enjoyed “being helpful,” which is interesting to me, as making a contribution to others is recognized as having a positive effect on mental well-being. For some people, the process of answering my questions seems to have been valued as an opportunity for deeper reflection:
I feel guilty because I think of myself as a citizen of the world and always try and educate myself on what is happening to people everywhere. I have been doing this less because I find it overwhelming.
I can relate to this dilemma, having felt, during these late winter months in the Northern Hemisphere, a bit like a bear in den, wanting to wait it all out. And there is another part in me that can’t quite allow that, nudging me on to be informed and active.
A lot of the contributors expressed gratitude for the relative safety and opportunities present in their lives, and even celebration: “to have got this far with no major issues does feel like some sort of achievement!”
Awareness of our shared humanity and interconnectedness is another common thread and one that has been firing my work on this column. It’s been stretching my logistical capabilities somewhat (not being a trained researcher) to pull all the contributions together, but I am pleased to have engaged in this collaborative enquiry. I’ve been keeping the people who participated in my mind more than before and feel enriched by the connections. I bow in gratitude to our collective wisdom about how to live well in these testing times.
If you feel moved to contribute some of your own thoughts, perhaps sparked by the article, please do leave a comment below.
Holy Isle Centre For World Peace And Health
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