You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves. Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile the world goes on. Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers. Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting – over and over announcing your place in the family of things.
As I look out my office window, the sun breaks the boundaries of today’s clouds. Immediately, the snowfields glow, almost blinding in their sweep down to the inky blue expanse of Lake Champlain, whose western shoreline is anchored by the Adirondacks. This view never gets old. Beauty never does.
To live in this pandemic, natural beauty has become a necessary balm, a daily tonic for me. As for most of us, with varying iterations, the shape of my life has been reduced, slightly expanded, then reduced again with each new wave of Covid-19. The relative constant has been navigating the small triangle of: home, office, and grocery store. When the triangle breaks for errands, takeout, the rare out-of-state trip when infection rates have dropped, spaciousness seeps in, as does the remembrance of life before Covid-19. The old normal. The time, like all time, that will never return.
As we approach the 2nd anniversary of the pandemic, I am struck by how much stress and grief people have had to navigate in universal and unique ways. These include: social isolation and fear of illness or death, deaths of loved ones and pets, shifts in employment or demands thereof; reduced or no access to healthcare, housing, and food security; confusion related to public health management, and lack of access to regular activities or travel that bring joy and renewal. All of these circumstances are continuing to unfold against a backdrop of global social, political, and environmental challenges that create their own clouds of existential angst.
Throughout it all, what humbles me most is human resiliency. And not the dressed up kind that one reads about in psychological theory or the latest self-help book, but the gritty, necessary meeting-life-another-day kind. No matter what. What humbles me is the way I witness people hanging on, leaning in, being vulnerable, sharing what’s real, and taking care of themselves and those they love. What humbles me is the courage it takes to show up messy, curious, sad or grieving, and still find moments of laughter, joy, and ways to love. This kind of human resiliency lives below or beyond the labels of identity, life circumstances, social structures, political affiliations or lack thereof. It’s messy, heartfelt, courageous, and tender. And I have the privilege of witnessing its emergence and growth all the time.
One of the things I have learned personally and professionally is that the worst things in life are not poverty, illness, trauma, hunger, or even the death of loved ones, as devastating as any or all of these experiences are or can be. It’s being alone with our suffering, whatever its origins. It’s living in a cage of chronic silence and isolation. Feeling and believing that if people only knew how you felt, or what happened to you, or some mistake that you made, you would be exiled off the planet and everyone would know your individual brand of unworthiness and shame.
While the hiding, the silence, and related isolation create the worst suffering, connection heals. Authentic connection to ourselves, others, and nature make life not only bearable, but meaningful. In these ways, resilience is born and nurtured. Every day. No matter what.
It has been 21 months since Covid-19 arrived and turned the world upside down. Suddenly, it was as if the whole planet was encased in a snow globe on intermittent, vigorous shake mode. Since then, we have globally, nationally, and individually needed to adapt, re-adapt, adapt, and re-adapt again. With the fourth wave now cresting and beginning to fall–or shake, shake, shake us up again–we are left to find our way in new currents of uncertainty. While we are more seasoned with coping with the pandemic at this juncture, we are also so much more tired. Our surge capacity, the mental and physical adaptive capacities that activate in short-term crisis or extremely stressful circumstances are depleted.
When I read in the New York Times on Sunday, 12/19/21, that the Omicron virus is being detected across the United States, and later learned it has arrived in Vermont, I felt my heart sink and my spirits slump. Several months ago, I had thankfully accepted the reality that there was never going to be ‘a return to the way of life before the pandemic.’ Then again, as an individual or as a therapist, I never would have expected or framed it this way. We never go back. There is always, only today and the anticipated, hoped for future. I found that releasing the mainstream media message of “returning to normal” was a much needed relief. There was agency in recognizing that a more realistic goal was hoping that the pandemic would eventually shift to an endemic status, like the annual flu.
As I’ve watched our state and federal politicians and healthcare leaders struggle with the lethal politicalization of a public health crisis, I have felt a growing sadness and disappointment. Pandemics require clear, direct framing and public messaging that explicitly asks citizens to get appropriate medical care, engage in all infection-reducing, mitigation measures, and to support and care about each other in this time of great uncertainty and vulnerability. As citizens, we have so much more capacity to act and care for and about each other than what has been demonstrated. We also have so much more in common than it appears on the surface of polarized viewpoints, as most people are vested in their own and their loved ones’ health and safety. Ultimately, the virus seeks hosts; it doesn’t care about personal preferences or political affiliations. The latter are simply noise and blindness when it comes to a life-threatening illness. The divisiveness keeps us in emotional distress and divided versus connected at a great cost.
As solstice, the longest day of darkness and the threshold of winter arrives in the northern hemisphere, we are on the cusp of the returning light. May we be kind to ourselves and with each other, recognizing that our strength and resilience are nurtured through connection, caring for each other, and being able to see what is arising and meet it as it is. Tomorrow the light will linger a little longer. Tomorrow we begin again.
Pair your breath cycle with the meditative phrases/instructions and then drop to the individual word. You can choose how much time you stay with each instruction depending upon how long you wish to practice. You can also utilize this as a recitation, pairing each instruction and singular word with your breath cycle for one round.
Breathing in, I know I am breathing in Breathing out, I know I am breathing out.
(Inhale) In (Exhale) Out
Breathing in, I see myself as a flower. Breathing out, I feel fresh.
(Inhale) Flower (Exhale) Fresh
Breathing in, I see myself as still water. Breathing out, I feel clear.
(Inhale) Still water (Exhale) Clear
Breathing in, I see myself as space. Breathing out, I feel free.
(Inhale) Space (Exhale) Free
~From the book: The Blooming of a Lotus, by Thich Nhat Hanh
While perspective-taking is an important life skill, I observe repeatedly that many individuals have been taught to use it as a tool to minimize their own suffering and grief. Paradoxically, this simply creates another obstacle to integrating one’s authentic life experiences and the potential healing benefits for self and others. It also often creates another layer of suffering, as the comparative subtext is: Who am I to claim I’ve suffered?
In The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit, speaks to this with great clarity and eloquence:
Other’s woes can be used as reproaches and sometimes are: how dare you think about your own private suffering when wars are raging and children are being bombed? There is always someone whose suffering is greater than yours. The reproaches are often framed as though there is an economy of suffering, and of compassion, and you should measure yourself, price yourself, with the same sense of scarcity and finite resources that govern monetary economies, but there is no measure of either. In high does suffering is boundless and incomparable and overwhelming.
Furthermore, whenever we connect to our own authentic life experiences, it expands our capacities to relate to and care about the suffering we observe in ever-widening circles of relationships: family, friends, community, state, nation, and the world.
Today, through the Parliament of World Religions’ 2021 Conference online, I had the privilege of speaking with two bright, emotionally intelligent, compassionate individuals engaged in youth work in India. While we could all imagine the differences between our respective worlds and work, the connecting threads were that youth in India and the States (and everywhere) meeting the obstacles: of poverty, family distress/dissolution, educational access challenges, employment demands or access to employment, etc. and need community support, mentorship, and compassionate, skillful programming to help them create a life beyond survival mode. We made space for the fullness across landscapes and time, and hope to connect again to explore more how therapeutic yoga and mindfulness practices can support resiliency and healing for youth and those who provide services to them.
The recent gestures of two people reminded me how simple acts of gratitude, generosity, and kindness connect us to our shared essential goodness, the inherent light within us. One gesture inspired the poem below. The other filled my palm with sea glass, followed by a heart-shaped stone. Both brought joy and helped me to remember that blessings are where we find or open to them, passing them back and forth, hand-to-hand, heart-to-heart.
sunbeams and shadows like stars cut through the dark cloth of night, all portals, parts of the universe we embody as one