Is the pandemic over, or not? Are we safe in returning to something like our pre-pandemic routine, or do we still have to wait?
I don’t know about you, but to me it’s felt like Covid is about to be over…it will be over in a few more months…oh, look out, here comes a new variant, just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water…the restaurants open, the restaurants close. Stores post signs that say, “No Service Without a Mask,” and no one in the place, including the workers, are wearing one. What are we supposed to do?
One of the great things about the spiritual wisdom traditions is that they factor this stuff in, and help prepare us to handle it. They warn us up front that life is this way, and is probably always going to be this way—you set up your expectations, and life knocks them down. The traditions aren’t pessimistic, in fact they are at heart more positive and optimistic than the average worldview, but they are realistic about a certain amount of uncertainty and frustration being part of the package.
While thinking and looking for a topic to write on here, I came across an online article about the way that one married couple decided to deal with the enforced limits and uncertainty of the global health situation, with its ups and downs. And while it was published in April 2020, at the beginning of the pandemic, I felt that it’s common-sense recommendations could work for a variety of situations. And although there’s nothing to suggest that either was in recovery, it seemed to me that what they did could work for many who are.
In 2020, Tom Popomaronis wrote that
By the time the coronavirus was declared a pandemic, our stress levels had reached an all-time high. Like the rest of the world, my wife Brittany and I were concerned about how the pandemic was going to impact our jobs, financial stability and health. But mostly, we struggled with the anxieties of having a baby in the age of Covid-19 (she had just entered her third trimester of pregnancy).
We tried everything we could think of to get our stress under control. We created a consistent morning routine, binged on our favorite Netflix shows, did yoga (although that didn’t last very long), cooked dinner, limited our news intake and took evening walks. Still, nothing felt enough.
“Why don’t you try meditating together?” a friend suggested. I laughed at the thought of it. “I don’t meditate,” I said. “I don’t have time for that. Meditating doesn’t pay the bills.”
I think most of us can relate to Tom’s attitude. When meditation first hit this country in a big way during the sixties, one of the first criticisms of it was that it amounted to “doing nothing.” Just sitting there, “navel gazing,” they called it, and it got linked with the movement to drop out of involvement in society. If all of that activity that Tom and Brittany tried didn’t help much, how was sitting there with eyes closed going to do anything?
”Do” anything. There’s the bias, right there. “Just Do It,” broadcast the t-shirts that are everywhere. We are a nation, even a species, of doers.
But what makes us suffer? What causes us pain? And where do we find peace, when we manage to find it?
External events, especially meta-events like the pandemic, obviously put all of us under very real stress, as these partners discovered. But what they also discovered was that more doing wasn’t necessarily the answer.
Why? Because it leaves out the internal part of the equation. This morning I was in a place of outer peace and quiet, and I closed my eyes to rest them for a moment, not having slept well the night before, and noticed a faint sensation behind my eyes and along the upper surface of my head. I felt into it the way I had been trained to, and realized it was pain. To be more precise, it was tension—a very subtle tension, almost unnoticed, that I could feel had a connection to all of the rapid-fire thinking that had been going on. Without a background in mindful attention to subtle sensations, I probably would never have realized anything was going on beyond “feeling a little crappy.”
Instead, I let go of the thinking process as fully as I could and listened to everything as silently as possible, inside and outside. I could feel the slight electrical burning sensation along the neural pathways of the brain where thoughts had recently been barreling like a freight train where somebody had sabotaged the brakes.
The longer I stayed still and quiet, the more the sensations changed by themselves, “cooled,” faded, and died down. Not completely. But they became like a couple having an argument in the next apartment, instead of in my living room.
Many kinds of pain are simply caused by contraction: of muscles, tendons, feelings, attitudes, beliefs, theories, as an instinctive self-protective mechanism against some experience or idea we don’t want to have. Thoughts, as subtle as they are, are complex interactions of physical processes throughout the body, not just in the head. And many of us are well-trained to take a difficult situation and make it worse by blowing it up out of proportion in the ways we think and talk about them.
Brittany and Tom didn’t do that. After they tried to “do” their pandemic stress away, they took their friend’s advice and began to meditate together.
Don’t think they found it easy. Sometimes, the hardest thing of all is to do nothing. To not react, lash out, avoid, rationalize, or paint rosy pictures of an unlikely future.
At first, their efforts didn’t work too well.
I quickly found myself getting tired and nodding off. It was only 9 a.m. Our dog Henry kept tiptoeing around us, inspecting the situation. I peeked at the timer: It’s only been two minutes?! Meanwhile, Brittany was fidgeting every few seconds, trying to find a comfortable lotus position. “Maybe I’ll lay down,” she said. I kept getting bothered by the noises; it felt impossible to concentrate.
Somehow, they persisted. And a week in, they had a breakthrough. A small one, okay, one that they might easily have missed, as I might have missed the tension my own thoughts were causing me, had we not been listening more closely to ourselves than on automatic pilot. “But, on the seventh day, we actually made it through an entire 10 minutes without anyone breaking the silence or giving up.”
That, in a nutshell, is usually how we change. I liked the fact that they recognized that they had accomplished something, however small, and were able to give themselves credit for it. By not overreaching, they knew progress when they saw it, and it helped them to keep going.
There are two observations I’d like to make from their experience, which I believe are particularly relevant for those in recovery.
One is that they solved, or at least moved toward solving, their mutual stress over the pandemic by supporting each other. Before, they’d been sharing the stress; now they were sharing a space of relative quiet and peace in which they could process the stress together, because of the strong relationship they already had. If you are still struggling with the questions of what to do about this endless pandemic, wondering when life is going back to “normal,” if there is such a thing, and already have someone trusted in your life with whom you share living space, consider whether meditating together (or praying, or chanting, or whatever spiritual practice centers you and grounds you and brings you peace) might be worth exploring.
In recovery, we’re cautioned not to isolate, to not try to “fix” things by ourselves. Recovery groups, sponsors, programs, rehab, and many good things involve pooling our energy with others to support each other and strengthen the best parts of ourselves. If you still feel unsafe to venture out too much, or are feeling unsafe again after having gone out, meditating with a life-partner, friend, or trusted roommate, whether they’re in recovery or not, can be a way of making best case use out of what you’ve got, rather than cursing what you haven’t got.
The last thing I want to mention is a powerful meditation practice Tom describes that I had never heard of before. He says that,
When Brittany and I meditate together, we spend the first few minutes easing into the practice. Then, we slowly synchronize our breathing with each other’s. It creates a very powerful feeling of connection.
Believe me or not, I can tell you from experience, there’s more useful information in those three sentences, by a non-expert, than in whole books by people with strings of letters after their names.
One: Have the patience and gentleness with yourself to “ease into the practice.” The tone you strike at the start of the session will often carry over throughout the whole meditation, and possibly after it. Relax, and don’t feel you “have to” accomplish anything. Says who?
Two: Synchronize your breath with your partner. This aligns with so many practices, in meditation, martial arts, yoga, and natural healing, yet no one ever taught me this one. I’ve tried it, now, and found it an easy way to increase concentration, and create a feeling link with the other person, a warmth in and around the heart, perhaps. Synchronization has much to do with it, too, and pay attention to the “slowly” part.
Three: The powerful feeling of connection is what heals and soothes the fires of addiction. It reverses the experience of feeling dis-connected that drove us to whatever our addiction-object was. At its best, it can wind back time itself, and bring us to a place we had once known, but had gradually forgotten, and let us feel it again, with the more mature perspective of having known pain and risen above it.