When you live on a ship at sea, everything (apparently) gets amplified: ruminations, moods, behaviors. The signals bounce around the narrow interior, dramatizing our personalities and quirks and various existential dilemmas.
Enter COVID-19, and the fact that a good chunk of humanity is now stuck inside. Ping ping ping, go the signals. I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to get a pretty clear picture of what I’m comfortable with, and what I’m not.
There’s never been a more obvious call to take care of ourselves and each other. Everyone knows this is what’s being asked for. Now is The Moment.
The question is, do we know how to do this? I mean, beyond the improvisations: the impromptu Zoom dance parties, the backyard calisthenics, the rotating food drop-offs for elderly neighbors. I’m after something broader and more complete: a model for how to think about healthy care and practice, one that will help us survive the weeks and months and years to come.
Here’s what I’ve come up with. Call it the Dynamic Care Grid:
The most important thing to know about this grid is it’s a scribbly human mess – and that’s fine. All four quadrants are allowed and necessary, because they’re all about caring. And it matters that we try to balance them (within reason). Otherwise our nervous systems will free-run according to our default habit patterns, and we’ll end up burned out or totally checked out.
“Change self” is about action. Activities you know will keep your mind and body alive and learning. It’s working out, it’s deliberately meditating on your anxiety, it’s taking up painting and gardening and finally reading Ulysses. This is about choosing to extend the range of conditions in which your body and your mind can flourish. Instead of stagnating, you’re alive to your edges, and work intentionally to expand capacity and stay responsive to the changing situation.
Which sounds like a shit-ton of work! So we also need “accept self,” which is about rest and kicking back and flipping the bird at your various self-improvement regimens, including my stupid grid. This is the deep skill of appreciating your limits and giving yourself permission to lounge around doing nothing, maybe watching Netflix, maybe lying on your living room floor blowing saliva bubbles as you stare vacantly at the ceiling. It’s sleeping in. It’s playing with your kid, or your dog, or your genitals. (Screw the self-improvement censors!)
Of course we’re in danger of sounding a little too self-involved here; fortunately, we have the entire other half of the grid. Start with “change world,” home of the caregiver and activist and artist. Now is definitely the time to implement your own peculiar creative service mission: to offer free online music classes, or organize Zoom cocktail parties, or sew face masks for healthcare workers. It’s an opportunity to learn firsthand a truth of human life: giving is getting. The more we help others, the more paradoxically fulfilled we become.
But our own efforts, however inspiring, are not the end of the story. Contemplatives point to a final form of care that doesn’t fit into our caffeinated model of Western activism. This is the deep care of accepting the world, and by that I mean a kind of listening. What is this moment trying to tell us, to teach us? Can we be quiet and humble and respectful enough to hear it? To really experience it? Or are we going to cover over this sudden pause with more noise, even the noise of our best intentions? Sometimes the real work is adapting ourselves to the changing world, not forcing the world to adapt to us. I’m not sure what this looks like, and that’s the point. It won’t come from my agenda, or from yours.
The recognition that each quadrant has its place can be liberating. It frees us from the “shoulds” imposed by our internal judge, to say nothing of our culture’s. Even within the four walls of our homes, there’s a time for rest and for action, for accepting and appreciating things as they are, and for deliberately working to change them. Rest and acceptance restore our energy and our wisdom; action and change express them. They’re all part of a single dynamic of care.
So: that’s the theory. What about the practice? I’ll look at this in Part 2.
PS – I also just posted this piece about how to engage responsibly with meditation in these intense times.
“Many people rely on rage to do the work [of activism]. But that rage is actually extremely depleting. I don’t show up out of anger or rage. I show up out of love and compassion.” – Lama Rod Owens
Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love and Liberation by angel Kyodo williams, Lama Rod Owens and Jasmine Syedullah. Civilization doesn’t feature a deliberate pause very often. We’re in one now; it’s a good time to read and reflect. Radical Dharma is a beautiful dialogue about the linked enterprises of social and personal liberation. It’s an example of what dynamic care looks like when it’s lived. A must-read for activists with contempt for self-care, and self-care types blind to the grotesque habit-patterns of social inequity and injustice.