“If someone says ‘Love in the Time of Corona’ one more time I am literally going to punch them” – from NYRB’s Pandemic Journal.
Hello friends. I hope everyone is safe and healthy – and furiously washing their hands!
I just got back to Toronto from Costa Rica, so I’m in self-isolation, pacing around inside, like so many others. With anxiety running high and all this extra time on (some of) our hands, it is a good time to meditate. And by that I mean the deliberate practice of cultivating sanity and care.
This post is about how to do this responsibly. It’s about knowing when to engage with our anxiety and our discomfort, and knowing when to pull back and rest.
Last week my friend Scott Davis and I led a movement and meditation retreat in the Osa Peninsula in Costa Rica – a very wild place at the edge of the world. It was tense, to say the least. Everyone huddled around a weak and intermittent wifi signal as flights got cancelled, airports closed, and concern mounted for friends and family back home and around the world.
Through it all, Scott and I did our paradoxical best to keep both social distancing and hold a strong container. In the end, it may have been the most powerful retreat I’ve been a part of. Because it was real. The practices we engaged in were not practices for checking out. They were practices for checking in. For being with our own fear and reactivity and insecurity, for taking care of ourselves and each other.
At the retreat I recorded two jungle-sound filled meditations, available here. Different meditation techniques help in different ways. The first meditation – “Pendulation” – is 25-minutes long, and is more educational than relaxing. It is also quite intense, so be aware of that. It’s about how to address anxiety and challenge responsibly in a meditation practice: the necessary pendulation between opening and expanding capacity, and then moving back to safety and comfort and knowing our limits. This is absolutely relevant for right now. Fear, like the coronavirus itself, is contagious. It is also workable – in a sense, treatable. But first we need to understand the medicine.
The second meditation – “Caring Hands” – is softer and shorter, about 17 minutes. Scott and I had been up all night dealing with a retreatant in great distress, and afterwards I was cracked open and raw. It’s about how to hold ourselves – and each other – with care.
The text below is adapted from a talk I gave before the first meditation. It provides some important context. I hope both meditations will be helpful for these uncertain times.
The Real vs the Ideal
Talk given at Finca Exotica, Costa Rica, March 17, 2020
This week has been a kind of user’s manual for the body and mind.
With Scott you’re learning some of the basic physical movements of being an ambulating bipedal human, what it means to have hips and shoulders and a scapula, which I didn’t even know I had. Oh, that’s what that is!
So we are learning basic movements of operating from our core, of mobility, of pushing and pulling. Principles that no matter what you do, as you go out in life, they’re going to be applicable. No matter what sport you do, no matter what movement that you do, whether you’re walking, or playing, or lounging around.
And with me we’re exploring some of the basic principles of having a mind, of working with the larger container of our awareness, our experience.
I’d like to lay out a dialectic here, a model for how to think about this exploration. Then I’ll lead a meditation practice that I hope will animate that model.
The dialectic is between the real and the ideal. The real is where you are and who you are, your exact body and mind, with its particular attributes and gifts and limitations.
In the case of my body, that means, among other things, a separated clavicle, a broken neck, and a messed up right ankle and hip. So when I explore Scott’s movements, I have to always come back to what I can actually do based on my physical limitations.
Here’s my point: the posture, the movement – they’re ideals. I know I’ll never actually arrive there. I’ll never get to “perfect” with this body. Even so, the attempt to move towards this ideal is important. It expands my mobility, it extends the range of conditions in which my body can flourish. Instead of stagnating, I am alive to my edge, working to change and improve and stay dynamic. And when I reach my limit, I say, ‘nope, I’m good.’ I stop. I don’t override the signals my body is giving me, for the sake of some idiotic self-improvement regimen. This is what it means to care for ourselves as we really are, not as we wish ourselves to be.
We need an identical understanding when we work with our patterns of mind. There is, on the one hand, this important movement towards improvement and healing and change. Towards actively working on the beliefs and patterns and behaviors that prevent us from being present and happy in our lives.
You could say the direction of contemplative practice is towards being centred and available to life independent of conditions. No matter what intensity is rising in us externally or internally, we have this aspiration as practitioners to be centered and poised inside that intensity. And from that place, to then respond in the most intelligent and caring way to whatever life is asking of us.
Except … guess what? Just like the perfect posture, or the perfect movement, this idea of centredness and happiness independent of conditions is an ideal. It’s not real. Nobody will ever totally get there. There will always be some situation, some internal or external intensity that will hook us and overwhelm us and take us over our edge.
What happens then?
We accept our limitations and take care of ourselves. Sometimes instead of trying to improve and change ourselves, we need to relax and accept ourselves exactly as we are. That means turning our attention to where we are resourced and nurtured. Maybe that looks like chatting with friends, or taking a bath, or going for a walk in nature. Maybe it looks like meditating on the breath – whatever works for you. This is us being real: Where am I right now? What are my limits? What have I learned about how to care for myself?
And then after we rest and recharge, we go back into the world and resume the work of expanding capacity. Working on the world, working on ourselves.
So one direction is acceptance, and the other is change. And there are skills that help us move in both directions. The skill of going out, towards challenge, towards our ideal self and world … this is the skill of equanimity, the skill of opening to ever-more of life. And when we get to our limits and need to pull back… this is the skill of care (care infused with equanimity – equanimity is everywhere!). Of course there are other skills too. Like the skill of clarity – of discernment, of self-understanding – of knowing when to move out, and when to move back in the first place.
Let’s do a practice. It has four parts. Part one we explore the skill of equanimity and what it feels like to open. Part two we find a homebase – a comfortable and calming place to put our attention that we can use to come back to. Part three we explore how to open to some intensity, and pendulate back to homebase as needed. And finally in part four we let it all go, and return to rest.
Taking care of ourselves in life means knowing how to do all these things. I believe this passionately. There’s a time for being a warrior, and a time for being a caregiver. And here’s the thing: they’re all caring. Change and acceptance are both expressions of caring.