Even as the human world of working, doing, achieving, and traveling slows down, in the natural world the birds are still singing, the trees are still blooming, the water is still flowing, our cats are still purring and our dogs are still wagging their tails, the earth is still spinning on its axis, the stars and moon are still lighting up the night sky, and humans are still smiling, weeping, singing, and supporting each other, just as we’ve done since the beginning.
On Monday I had written an entirely different blog post for this week, but by Thursday evening the world had changed so radically that the first one didn’t make sense anymore. So I woke up yesterday morning and wrote this. I hope it brings you some guidance and comfort as we walk through this unprecedented challenge together.
When I received the email on Thursday evening announcing that the first case of Coronavirus had been confirmed in Boulder County and schools were shutting down, a wave of fear surged through my body. The announcement was a shock to my system, and I know I wasn’t alone in my response. There was something about the school closures that made all of this real. Within a 24-hour period we went from going about our normal lives, driving our sons to their classes, going grocery shopping, and seeing clients on regular Thursday to the entire country coming to a near halt by Thursday evening. I went to sleep that night feeling shaken.
But by Friday morning, as I walked through a very crowded Natural Grocers smiling at each person I passed and many of them smiling back, a wave of calm rose up in me – for I was reminded that despite this shocking and unprecedented crisis we’re living through, the world still goes on. Later in the day, as I stood out at the creek and watched the snow falling in great miraculous flakes, as I listened to the water flowing and the birds singing, I felt into the other reality of our stay on this planet: the non-human one that continues along unfazed by this particular human experience.
It reminded me of these lines in the great poem by Mary Oliver, which you can see her reading here:
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.
Even as I lie in bed and write this in my journal, my cat sits on my lap intently cleaning her belly. I gaze out the window breathing into the light dusting of snow from last night’s fall. I see a neighbor bundled up walking her dog, just as I see every morning. Soon I will read my spiritual books and sit under my tallit (prayer shawl), meditating and saying prayers. I will open to whatever experience needs attention: grief, calm, spaciousness, insight, fear and love.
Like so many of us, I have a list of people I am holding in my heart as we endure this global challenge: my beloved husband, who is a lifelong asthma sufferer; my family members and neighbors who are well over sixty and not in perfect health; my friends who are worrying about the financial impact of this crisis; and of course you, my readers, clients and highly sensitive audience who struggle with anxiety in general and health anxiety in particular. I feel into your fear and I hold it alongside my own. I open my heart to the vulnerability of being human that is always part of our reality but has been brought into stark focus these last few days. I think of the words of Rabbi Moss from Sydney, Australia (thank you to the reader who sent this to me), who responded to this question:
This coronavirus thing has really thrown me. I feel like I’ve lost all sense of certainty. No one knows what will happen next. How do we stay sane when we don’t know what’s lurking around the corner?
With these sage words:
It is not that we have lost our sense of certainty. We have lost our illusion of certainty. We never had it to begin with. This could be majorly unsettling, or amazingly liberating.
Or both. It’s unsettling because we’re human. And it can be liberating when we turn to the practices that anchor us in the sea of uncertainty that defines our daily lives. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy to rest into uncertainty. In fact, I would say it’s the most difficult of all tasks as humans. When we can arrive there, we find peace. The rest of the time we need more tangible practices that can help us shift from fear and panic to acceptance and calm.
Here are my suggestions for working with right-proportioned fear (by which I mean fear that is in proportion to what’s happening in the here-and-now):
1. When you feel the fear come in, name it and validate it.
This might look like putting a hand on your heart and saying, “This is fear (naming), and of course you’re scared (validating). The entire world is scared. It’s okay to feel scared right now. I’m with you. I’ve got you. I’m here.”
2. Notice what triggered the fear.
Did you read a fear-infused email? Did you have a conversation with someone who runs on fear? When you notice what triggers your fear, you can take steps to set necessary boundaries to protect your mental space.
3. Take a few moments to be fully with the fear.
I recommend practicing Tonglen, which is the simple practice of breathing into the fear and breathing out the opposite (love, hope, light, healing, comfort). Send your breath directly into the fear, imagining your breath as the most loving hands in the world. Then send out love. The second step of Tonglen, which is vitally important and powerful, is to breathe in the fear of everyone who is feeling exactly what you’re feeling right now (which is probably in the millions, if not billions), and breathe out love, healing, light. When we connect to the greater humanity, which is part of what’s being asked of us, we feel less alone and more peaceful inside.
If you notice that normal, right-proportioned fear has escalated into panic and become intrusive, which means that catastrophic, worst-case scenario thoughts or images have taken over, try one or more of the following:
1. Name the thoughts as intrusive and ask, “What is this thought protecting me from feeling?”
Intrusive thoughts are protectors from vulnerable emotions. If you can soften into the tears embedded inside the thought, the thought will quiet down. If you’re new to my work, you can learn more about intrusive thoughts here.
2. Move your body.
One of the fastest and most effective ways to dance with fear is literally to dance with fear: Get up and get active. Put on music and dance. Get outside if you can. If you can’t go outside right not, open a window and look up into the sky while still moving your body is some way. .
3. Reach out for support and connection.
Make a call, FaceTime with a friend, connect with your partner, be present with your kids, lie down with your pet.
4. Redirect fear to a prayer, poem, or mantra.
Gather up the fear and send it into a soothing one-line mantra like:
This too shall pass.
All shall be well, and all shall be well, and manner of thing shall be well (Julian of Norwich).
“You have generations of ancestors behind you cheering you on saying, “Yes, we lived through tough times, too.” (Jack Kornfield on this podcast).
Or turn to a longer prayer or poem that is or can become a totem for you. With extra time on your hands, this is an excellent opportunity to memorize a poem or prayer. My go-to is Psalm 27, which you can listen to below, but I know that the God piece might not work for some of you. Find a poem that does. Find a prayer that soothes and grounds you and reminds you that you are being held in the hands of something bigger than you. Working toward memorization puts your brain to good use otherwise it will gravitate to the its default setting, which is fear. We have to work consciously with our thoughts more than ever now.
5. Continue or re-establish healthy rituals.
Healthy rituals will help you find a foothold of normalcy amidst the uncertainty and groundlessness. When my family sat down to Shabbat dinner on Friday night just as we have every night since our son was born, I could feel a layer of tension dissolve. The light of the candles, the traditional food, and the prayers are all the same even when the world around us is more different than we’ve ever known it. Linking into normalcy and the long chain of rituals that your ancestors have been enacting for centuries can be profoundly comforting at all times, but especially during times like these.
Giving is a highly effective way to shift out of the spin cycle of intrusive fear. Give however you can. Call a friend and check in. Give to a local community food bank (even a few dollars helps). Send prayers. Send an email or text to someone who might need to know that someone is thinking about them. Offer support on a forum. Offer to pick up groceries for someone who is immune compromised. Crises tend to bring out the best in humans. Be that person and notice the reduction of your own anxiety.
I will be offering a free webinar on Monday March 16th at 6:15pm ET on how to work with fear and panic during times of heightened global anxiety. If you would like to join me, you can sign up here. If you can’t make the live event, you’ll receive an email with the recording after the event.
As always, I’m sending so much love and many blessings to all of you. If there was every a time when our shared humanity and interconnectedness has been brought into focus, it’s now. This virus is teaching us that we are one family and we’re being asked to do our part in protecting each other: the young protecting the old, the strong protecting the weak, countries reaching out across borders to help. Despite what it might look like sometimes, at the core humans are good, kind, generous, and deeply caring about the common good. It’s times like these where this becomes more evident. May we stay healthy and may a new consciousness of oneness and partnership rise from these challenges times.
Psalm 27 (Translation by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi; Music by Allegory Music)