And Then There Is Awe

We’ve settled in. We are here for the duration. How long will that be? Two months? Six months? Eighteen months? We don’t know. We notice we have lots of things that are useless and we don’t need, and we don’t have some things we do need. We realize how profoundly important our attachments are to the meaningful people in our lives. Sometimes those people are different from the people we would have thought we needed. We feel a deep sense of connection and gratitude.

We are experiencing the fundamental lack of control we have over nature, over other people, and over our own circumstances. And we understand that even without complete control, it will matter what we do. We see that it is about probabilities and not certainties. We watch our own internal careening from denial to hope to despair and back again. We alternate between self compassion and impatience with our own weakness. We feel, starkly, our vulnerability and our interdependence with other people and with the world.

And after all, there is the uncertainty. We just don’t know. And not knowing, we are scared and we are frustrated and we are disorganized. And we wake up in the morning and we see there is another day and we face that day. And still the trees are budding, the flowers are beginning to come up, and we share encouragement, resources, and information with the people we care for and who care for us. And we create routines for our unstructured lives, we remember the people we want to encourage, and we do what we are able to do. And at night, we get into bed, and we tell ourselves: we are enough. We are doing our best. And the most fundamental rule is that you cannot do better than your best.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Kinder

I’ve thought about it. I don’t think it is just my imagination. People are consciously kinder to each other. Of course there will always be that two percent of people who are unmoved. But overall, people are kinder. They are smiling at each other. Helping each other. There is a general sense that we are all in this together. There is a one world awareness that is even affecting our fantasy that we are somehow a super-power. There is a humbling, a joint sense of uncertainty, and an understanding that everyone is being affected in different ways and that some people are suffering in the extreme.

People are joining in agreement about the everyday problems and losses, nodding together over the toilet paper problem and the work at home challenges. I am out walking and people are keeping their six feet distance, but they are smiling warmly, waving, chuckling ruefully with a sense, “Well, here we are. We are all in this together.” We are beginning to get it: you can’t just take care of yourself.

We are watching the news, astounded by the impacts, awed by the medical people, frightened by the predictions. We are re-centering ourselves in where we can take action, even if it is only by staying in. We are trying to cooperate to protect our vulnerable people, and we are sharing our ideas, our news, and our experiences. We are learning to appreciate the small aspects of everyday life that we have had in the past: The chat with the car mechanic, shopping for food, sitting together with friends and family.

We will hang in and come out the other side. But nothing will ever be the same. This global trauma will define this generation just like World War II defined the young families of that generation. We are learning, and we are noticing, and we are practicing living in different ways. You can’t unknow what you know. We will remember, and we will be changed.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Daily Routine Checklist

Here is a recommendation from Dr. Naomi Parrella, family doctor and lifestyle medicine physician at Rush University Medical Center. She suggests her patients make a daily checklist and try to get to all ten items every day if they can, in any order, at any time:

  1. Look outside and observe nature.
  2. Engage in a mindful moment.
  3. Make an anchoring statement and say it aloud every day.
  4. Breathe deeply, release your shoulders and smile to yourself.
  5. Hydrate and eat healthy.
  6. Learn something: read, practice a musical instrument, or learn a new word.
  7. Complete your list of tasks for the day–make it a reasonable list.
  8. Move your body.
  9. Hum, sing, or listen to music.
  10. Connect with and help others.
Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

States of Mind

Now that we have time to pay attention to all the parts of our lives we are always meaning to pay attention to, maybe we are going to get good at being aware–mindful is the trendy term. A central kind of awareness has to do with developing a capacity to witness what our own minds are doing. Since the mind absorbs raw data from the environment, including our own internal physical experience, and since the mind digests data in order to find meaning like the stomach digests food in order to create the body and the energy to run the body, it is useful to recognize the meanings in our lives as constructions, not necessarily as accurate representations of some kind of external truth.

Once we can realize that our felt experience–the subjective reality of what it feels like to be me–is created by the interpretations of our minds, we can be more open to the contingent nature of our moment to moments. We can tolerate the possibility that other minds have different experiences and that even our own mind might be different at different times. Instead of clinging rigidly to some ultimate “truth,” we can see the fuzzy nature of reality.

One way we can become better at witnessing our own mind states is to see them in the levels described by Bruce Perry. We have the reactive, safety-seeking first layer. Then we have the physical sensations and reactions layer. Then we have the emotional layer. And then we have the reasoning, reflective layer. We can fairly easily figure out which part of our brain/mind is active at any moment. Are we feeling overwhelmed by fear due to feeling unsafe? Then we are in a reactive mind state. Are we distracted by physical sensations, like hunger or pain? Then we are in the physical mind state. Are we mostly paying attention to our feelings and reacting to them? Then we are in the emotional state. Or are we thoughtful, problem-solving, and reflective? Then we are in the reasoning state.

What is useful about being able to see these distinctions is that we can choose how to respond to what our mind is generating. If we feel unsafe, we can seek whatever will help us feel more safe (Structure, routines, stable relationships…). If we have physical distractions, we can take care of our body needs. If we are emotional, we can deal with our feelings in ways that work for us. And if we are in the reasoning mind, we can make decisions and solve problems. The thing is, it will be better for us to do the decision making when we know we are in the reasonable part of our minds. And it will be better for us to take care of other aspects of our experience depending on what state of mind we recognize. The neat thing is, we can get better at doing that, and that allows us to make the best use of our very very advanced brainpower.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Social. Services.

Much of the time we have the luxury of ignoring the profound safety net we have as a city, state, nation, and world. We have the illusion we are doing everything all by ourselves. We forget our dentists, our doctors, our nurses, our police officers, our teachers, our car mechanics, our waitstaff, our manicurists, our hairdressers, our subsidies and supports, our food banks, our utilities, phone service and internet, our government workers and streets and sanitation workers, our yard maintenance people, post men and women, our handymen, painters, and repairpeople, our social workers, childcare workers, and agencies, our child welfare carers and our supports for the unemployed, ill, or destitute.

We have experienced several decades of relative peace and stability and so we don’t always remember the people who are supporting us in creating our lives. In the interest of efficiency, doing more with less, and accountability, we have reduced our spending on social services that are provided for people who cannot provide them for themselves, partly because we are not directly feeling a need ourselves most of the time. We feel noble when we think of people and donate something or lend a hand. We have closed hospital that do not turn a profit, and we have starved social service agencies out of business by cutting grants and funding.

Our current public health crisis shows us how inextricably we are intertwined with the other human beings on the planet. We count on each other to follow the rules of our community and to be responsible. We see that if we become compromised in any way, we will be dependent on the good will, the integrity, the knowledge, and the efforts of people who may not know us or have any obligation to provide care for us. People will do their jobs, but we want more than that when we are vulnerable. We want them to see us as individual people and to care about us and for us.

We are social beings, we need cooperative effort to make our social group work. Our lives are not a point count game with winners and losers. There is luck, there is chance, there is history, there is health, and there are the circumstances into which we were born. It does absolutely matter how we play the hand we are dealt, but every hand is different, and every person has to figure out how to live within the reality of their own experience. We aren’t in charge of everything. Actually we aren’t in charge of very much at all. We are just in charge of our choices and our perspectives. So maybe we will come out of this public health crisis with greater wisdom about the ineffable and essential nature of what we mean when we say “Community.”

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Sitting, I Say Thank You

Sitting here quietly, I am aware of my breath coming into my body and going out again.

I breathe in ……and I breathe out.

Because I am breathing, I know I am alive.

I say, thank you. Thank you for life.

I breathe in ……and I breathe out.

As I sit quietly, I am aware that other people around me are breathing.

Because they are breathing, I know they are alive.

I say thank you. Thank you for the companionship on this journey.

Thank you for not leaving me here alone….

I breathe in….and I breathe out.

And as I sit quietly, aware of my life and the lives of those around me, I feel the walls around me dissolve, and I know that all of the living people and beings of the earth are breathing.

And I know there is life. And that is the gift. And I say thank you.

Thank you for the world, for the living beings and all the goodness of our home planet.

And I breathe in ……and I breathe out…… and I say thank you.

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Brain Fog

From Gregory Bateson: Steps to an Ecology of Mind. p. 26:

After he tells his daughter he uses about a quarter of his brain:

“Daughter: Daddy why don’t you use the other three-quarters of your brain?

“Father: Oh, yes–you see the trouble is that I had school-teachers too. And they filled up about a quarter of my brain with fog. And then I read newspapers and listened to what other people said, and that filled up another quarter with fog.

“Daughter: And the other quarter, Daddy?

“Father: Oh–that’s fog I made for myself when I was trying to think.”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Regulating the Dysregulated

I have been writing about the work of Dr. Bruce Perry because he is a specialist in helping people who are traumatized. And to some extent right now we all are. Dr. Perry talks about the levels of the brain that respond to our experience. There is cerebellum at the bottom, which regulates heart beat, breathing and so on. There is the diencephalon, which regulates sensory and body input. There is the limbic level, which deals with emotions, and there is the cortex where we do our best thinking.

The thing is, all inputs go through the system from the bottom up: “Is it a threat? Is it a problem to take immediate action on? Is it a feeling that means something?” And if all of those are okay, “How should I understand it and respond to it?” The problem is, when we get hijacked by the emotions, or worse yet, the survival fears, we get stuck at the bottom, and we cannot think. Our IQ goes down 30 or 40 points. Amazing, right?

So Dr. Perry says when we are stuck below the level of reason and reflection, we are dysregulated. We cannot think, we cannot do what we need to do, we cannot fully understand our experience. We make impulsive decisions based on fear. We lose our most valuable capacity: the smart part of our brains.

You can stop, pay attention to your own mind, and figure out whether you are dysregulated by noticing how difficult it is for you to do what you want to do: Can you follow your routines to take care of yourself? Can you read a book and comprehend what it is saying? Do you feel calm and problem-solving or do you feel distracted and worried?

Okay, so if you are dysregulated, or if someone around you is dysregulated, you can take some kind of regulating action. It can be very brief:

Distract yourself with movies, stand-up comedy on youtube, or read a simple book.

Move your body. Even 5 minutes of physical movement will shift your state of mind. Put on music and clap to it. Do a two step side to side. Bend in ways your body likes.

–Take some constructive action: clean your room, take a shower, fix or  make something with your hands, write in a journal.

–And the most powerful regulator: Connect with someone else. As a social species we co-regulate. Look for relationships that are reassuring and encouraging. Intentionally connect with those people, even if you don’t need to.

Keep re-regulating yourself whenever you feel dysregulated. In the current situation, we are going to get dysregulated at times. That is not the problem. We need to re-regulate. Practice short bursts of paying attention to your state of mind and your level of dysregulation, and then try different ways of re-regulating to find what works for you.  Practicing getting back on track helps us get better and better at it. After this, we are going to look back and say to ourselves, “If I can get through that, I can get through ANYTHING!”

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

You Only Need One Person

There is a quote by the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh: “When the crowded Vietnamese refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if everyone panicked all would be lost. But if even one person on the boat remained calm and centered, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive.” If everyone is panicked and you have one person who can think clearly, you can turn to that person to regulate the group. Emotion is contagious. We are social beings, and that means we are looking to our group for clues on how to understand the situation and how to respond. This emotional contagion can be helpful or it can be destructive.

Each person can provide leadership to the frightened people around them just with a willingness to maintain equanimity, an encouraging and optimistic view, and a confident pursuit of caring for themselves and others. We all need encouragement and we all need to find ways to strengthen ourselves. We can be deliberate about using our sources of strength. And then we can turn to the other people around us and provide that same strength and encouragement we have nurtured in ourselves. The thing is, we can do it on purpose. We can recognize the power of emotional contagion to strengthen each other instead of frighten each other.

“Keep your fears to yourself, but share your courage with others.” –Robert Louis Stevenson

 

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

People Are Helping

Regardless of borders, economies, or ideologies, people everywhere are joining and helping. Scientists, doctors, nurses, paramedics, public health organizations, community social services. Look at how everyone is trying to help. We are, genuinely, a global community. Our economies are interdependent, our transportation and communication are interconnected, our physical well-being is tied to that of all of the other global citizens.

We are suddenly aware of all of the everyday life tasks and objects that we cannot easily do or have. We realize how much our lives and our well-being rely on the caregiving of the people around us. People who have educated themselves so that they can support us in our lives. People who go out of their way to make things better, safer, and healthier. People who are willing to take risks so that we are safer and more cared for.

Ordinary people are thinking up ways to help. They are delivering food, calling elderly or isolated people they know. People are trying to support workers hardest hit financially by the shut downs. Towns and villages are organizing lists of volunteers to help with what is needed. We are appreciating our friends and families, recognizing the tenuous nature of human life. We are savoring the moments of connection and the encouragement of our mentors and teachers.

Even scientists are recognizing that it is cooperation, not the struggle for survival, that promotes evolution and human well-being. People are helping because people are social creatures, and we know that our strength and our capabilities are a result of our willingness to work together to conquer challenges and take care of each other.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment