Hello everyone. I hope this post finds you all healthy and safe.
It’s almost June. COVID-19 rages on. Our existential free fall continues. No matter where we look, there are unknowns in every direction. While some parts of the country, for better or worse, are “reopening,” uncertainty stubbornly lingers.
We’re collectively uncomfortable. This discomfort may manifest in a variety of ways depending on the individual: scary thoughts, gnawing anxiety, restlessness, despair and so on. God knows, I’ve experienced a mad jumble of sadness, stress, disorientation, worry and fear around what’s to come. Intermixed, there have also been a few surprising moments of grace, calm and optimism. Go figure.
What I do know is that getting through these days with some semblance of sanity requires work. We’re all coming up with our own emotional and mental survival tools. In the spirit of helpfulness, here are three approaches (philosophies?) that have been quite beneficial for me. While there are nuanced differences between the three, they all share the common wisdom that it’s not what happens to us but how we react to what happens to us.
1. STOIC PHILOSOPY
The guiding principle of the stoic philosophy is understanding what we can and can’t control. In the words of Epictetus: “In life our first job is this, to divide and distinguish things into two categories: externals I cannot control, but the choices I make with regard to them I do control. Where will I find good and bad? In me, in my choices.”
We can’t control externals – other people, acts of nature, accidents, maleficent entities or global pandemics–but we can decide how we respond to these externals. We have a choice on what value we place on the things we can’t control, and that value ultimately informs how we respond. Do we freak out? Stay calm? Go neutral? It sounds simple enough, right? Yet, sometimes it’s harder than it seems.
One difficulty is really getting clear on what’s within or outside our control. This determination can be fuzzy, especially if we’re in the thick of something. Not long ago, I was confronted with a challenging situation I mistakenly thought I could influence. I felt that if I just approached it with good intention, hard work and tenacity, the problem would ultimately resolve. However, despite my efforts, the problem perpetuated, and I became increasingly frustrated, exhausted and needlessly vocal. It wasn’t until I stepped away from the situation that I realized I’d been flailing myself against an immovable object. The resolution to this particular problem was way beyond my control, and I only hurt myself in the trying. It’s easy to lose sight of what’s truly within our control. This is why it’s important to pause, access what’s going on and make sure we have clarity around what we can and can’t do about it.
We can’t control COVID-19. We can’t control whether or not thong-clad masses practice social distancing on public beaches. We can’t control the timing of a vaccine. But we do have choices around how we respond to the pandemic. We can choose to follow suggested protocols of washing our hands, practicing social distancing and wearing masks in enclosed public spaces. We can also choose to power wash our groceries before bringing them inside, burn our clothes at the backdoor and incessantly ruminate on death and dying. What we choose will ultimately determine our sense of well-being.
I’ve barely scraped the surface of the Stoic approach. For more information, a great place to start is the Daily Stoic.
2. THOUGHT WORK
I’ve recently been introduced to thought work through “Unf*ck Your Brain,” a podcast with Kara Loewentheil. It’s been a godsend. Thanks to Kara, I’ve learned a lot about how the brain works. I’ve also learned that thoughts don’t necessarily reflect reality. In fact, unchecked thoughts can create a lot of misery. For an overthinking, catastrophizing person like myself, this information has been extremely useful. Kara talks about the amygdala, the part of or brain that’s wired to alert us to danger and that triggers a fight or flight response to threat. Earlier on in our evolutionary journey, humans were routinely exposed to dangerous situations, such as attacks by wild animals. Throughout time, the amygdala has been crucial for our survival. However, situations like the COVID-19 crisis can throw the amygdala into a sort of hyper-drive, where it’s constantly scanning for any kind of danger and throws us into a dizzying loop of fight or flight reactions, even if there isn’t a real immediate threat. This is why it’s so easy to look at what’s going on and spin off into an ominous thought storm of worst-case-scenarios. The amagdala is more than happy to facilitate.
Thought work is a method for engaging the frontal lobes–the part of the brain that generates logic and reason– to override an amygdala gone wild. Under duress, the amygdala will rapid fire any number of awful thoughts and keep us in a heightened state of anxiety. But our frontal lobes can interrupt the barrage, apply reason to the scenario and bring us back to a more balanced and peaceful state. To paraphrase an example from the podcast, the amygdala may tell us that we’re all going to catch COVID-19 and die a horrible death. Whereas the frontal lobes remind us that not everyone catches the virus and that of those who do, the majority recover.
The thing with thought work is that it takes practice, especially for those of us who are prone to overthinking. Many of our thought patterns are habitual, and so the challenge is to create new neural pathways in our brains, thus generating more productive ways of thinking about our situation. Fortunately, there are a lot of great tools for creating these new pathways, and Kara is an expert in this work. It’s been a huge relief for me over the past few months. Check out the podcast here. As a bonus, she’s done a special series, “Turn Panic Into Peace,” to help people deal with the pandemic.
Twenty-eight years ago, my first child was stillborn as result of an umbilical cord accident. I was forever changed by his death, and the experience of grief was all-consuming. I was drowning in the darkest of pain, with an intensity I previously would’ve never been able to imagine. My world was upended. Everything I thought I knew was smashed into pieces. Although the grieving process was long and complicated, I became increasingly drawn to Buddhism as it was the only philosophy that addressed human suffering in a way that felt true to me. As I attempt to navigate this current crisis (and the additional hardship of losing my job in the midst of it), it occurs to me to revisit the particular tenets that were so helpful when my baby died: the distinction of pain vs. suffering and the grace of the present moment.
Pain is an inevitable part of the human experience. People die. We get sick. Relationships end. Suffering is when we react to pain in a way that prolongs it. To the extent that we can simply sit with the pain, without stoking its embers, we can find peace in the worst of circumstances.
After my son died, the pain felt unbearable. I spent my days engulfed in grief and looking for something that would bring relief. I read books about the grieving process. I talked to other bereaved parents, querying them on how long the grief would last. I went to support groups and grief counseling. I was bewildered, heartbroken and suffering. I woke up every morning with the hope that the grief would be gone, only to be disappointed. While many of my actions were healthy– going to counseling and grief groups, planting a garden and working out– I was still creating my own suffering because of my attachment to things being different than they were. The truth of the matter was that my son had died, and I was going through a process that I had no control over. Finally, I simply surrendered to the grief. I quit hoping it would go away and accepted it as my reality for the time being. Interestingly, the very act of letting go shifted things. I began to see grief as a natural response to the devastating loss of my child. I let it move through me without resistance. The pain was still there, but I had a different relationship to it. There was a poignancy and a profound sense of connection to the rest of humanity. There was also trust that I would be okay and rejoin the world in a new way.
Another thing that Buddhism has taught me is that we only really have the here and now. When we fixate on what might happen in the future, or create a storyline to justify our anger or beat ourselves up over past mistakes or scramble for quick fixes to our existential conundrums, we’re losing out on the only certainty we really have- the beauty and preciousness of this moment. For me right now, it’s the late afternoon sun coming through the window, the breeze blowing through the camellia bush just outside and the sound of an airplane overhead. I’m safe and alive. It’s peaceful. This moment is the only sure thing. The good news is that the present moment is always available to us. Even when we spiral off into fearful thoughts, we can stop and return to the here and now. The choice is always there.
Buddhist nun Pema Chӧdrӧn has been an ongoing source of inspiration to me and has written a lot about dealing with hardship and facing uncertainty. In this interview with Bill Moyers, Pema discusses pain and suffering and how we can free ourselves from the latter. You’ll find the interview here.
The COVID-19 crisis has thrown us all into uncharted territory, both externally and internally. Life as we knew it is upside-down. We have more questions than answers. We don’t know what will happen. This could be the apocalypse or the glorious dawn or something in-between. We have no way of knowing. The only thing that’s certain right now is uncertainty. But that’s always the case, global pandemic or no. On any given day, life is uncertain. The crisis has just shed light on what’s always been true. We get to decide how we want to live with that.
I’m struggling just like everyone else. I don’t have answers but am hopeful that some of the ideas I’ve presented here may be helpful to you. It’s a day-to-day effort for all of us, right? I’ll close with one more gem from Pema, and that’s to try to approach each day with curiosity. Maybe we can replace dread with inquisitiveness and a find gentle openness to things as they are.
Beyond all that fuss and bother is a big sky. – Pema Chӧdrӧn