I’ve never lived through a pandemic before and I’m pretty sure you haven’t either. So each one of us is approaching our lives right now without a toolbox. Without an instruction booklet. Without a compass or a shortcut and without knowing how to make it to the other side.
Go easy on yourself.
I think we’re all having days where we’re struggling to maintain our positivity. Sometimes the dark thoughts completely char our world for a few hours, or sometimes we recognize keenly that there will be more collapse and death before this chapter of our history is closed. The ongoing daily trials of soldiering through so much uncertainty can make us feel very sad or very afraid sometimes. At least, this is what happens to me regularly now.
But I like to remind myself that my feelings are heavily influenced by my brain—the part of my body that thinks and plans and maps out a future that doesn’t even exist yet. It’s just one part of my body, true. But it’s a powerful one when it goes rogue from all the stress.
So when I feel like I’m drowning emotionally, I’ve made an effort to put my screen away and get quiet instead. I use that time to tune in to my essential self: the “me” that sits calmly beneath the ruckus, unbothered and unafraid. The “me” that knows humanity has been subjected to plagues and pandemics before, that many people died, but also that many people lived and went on to build new and different ways of being—often better than before—from the ruins of those experiences.
The essential me understands that we humans are mere specks on this planet and in this universe, and that although we think we are in charge, we really aren’t. We have an illusion of control because we conquer and destroy and consume, but we don’t have it, really. So then I ask myself, “Why, Elizabeth, are you worrying about a lack of control when you never really had it to begin with?”
I find it’s often best to let my fearful thoughts roll onward like storm clouds, and to just make the best decisions I can every day. You know, like washing my hands and staying safe at home. It’s also helpful to stand back a little and observe whatever transpires in order to discover the lessons in what I’m living through. I don’t think it’s an accident that any of us are alive at this moment in history.
Some of you know that I used to be a yoga teacher before my health issues hit. In fact, I’m a certified yoga and meditation teacher although I don’t wave it around obnoxiously. I tell you this because I think now is an exceptional time to learn how to get quiet. It’s the best way to maintain our sanity when we’re flailing around, because we remove ourselves from an unwritten future and instead focus on the present moment. And unless we’re in the hospital or being mugged or our cat is dying, the present moment is usually okay.
I like to take my lessons from the pages of Thich Nhat Hanh’s playbook. One of them goes like this:
2.Breathe in and out.
3.Notice that you are breathing in and out.
My favorite variation of this exercise, if you want to explore it a bit more, is where you say to yourself (while breathing):
"Breathing in, I smile. Breathing out, I release all my worries and anxieties."
I find that even a few breaths like this can be grounding and will turn down the intensity of my emotions.
I know it doesn’t feel like it, but there really are so many things we can do despite living in a time of social isolation and perceived powerlessness. We can choose how we respond to the world and to our stresses, and we can choose to do this positively (to the extent that we're able to, anyway). We can also breathe in and out, as I mentioned. Or we can think about our dreams and start sketching out a roadmap. Or we can write. Or we can walk. Or we can find ways to help others. Or we can just rest.
There is so much possibility in the pause.
My hope is that all of us take this time to not only contemplate what we might like to do differently in our lives going forward, but to learn something about ourselves and how we can continue to evolve. I know you’re hurting in one way or another; I’m hurting too. Even the people who still have jobs and whose loved ones aren’t sick are hurting and live in fear of what’s next.
You are not alone.
So while you try to cope, make sure to breathe and pull yourself back into the present moment every once in a while—where you are okay, where you still have food, and where you still have a roof over your head. None of the catastrophes in your mind have happened yet. And anyway, you’ll figure out how to persevere through everything once "everything" finally gets here. You have infinite knowledge in the quiet place inside of yourself…that non-thinking place. It’s where the answers to the hardest questions in life lie.
And if all of this doesn’t work on a particular day? Just go to sleep and try again tomorrow. Shutting my eyes and starting over with the sunrise works miraculously for me when even breathing feels too hard. Mornings have a way of bringing new perspective and a fresh start.
My first book, Halfway There: Lessons at Midlife, will be published in July 2020. Click here to read an excerpt or to order a copy. Click here to subscribe to my blog/mailing list.
The Big Pause