Finding Calm Within The Storm
In this time of staying home, physically distancing and slowing down all the ways we keep ourselves distracted and busy, we are becoming aware of some deep and very challenging realities.
Everyone on earth is acutely aware of the extreme fatigue, fear, and anxiety that comes with this coronavirus (COVID-19) disease - a silent and almost esoteric force that by its very nature represents uncertainty. Uncertainty of where it is at all times, who you love may be exposed, what might happen to those who are exposed, what will happen tomorrow or next week or next year.
And in some ways, the lasting economic outcomes are even scarier and less visible from this here and now: what will happen if or when the delicate webs of commerce, food, housing, and work begin to unravel? The possible outcomes are scary and veiled in that darkness of uncertainty.
Nothing challenges us as humans the way uncertainty challenges us, which is why people’s minds love routine, control, and structure. But these very gifts of the mind (routine, control, and structure) can also be a great enemy during times of challenge until we can begin to find some balance through faith, self-compassion, and gratitude. In other words, how can your heart meet your mind in equally-balanced harmony?
The silence on the streets of the earth is a stark and visible reminder of the possibilities of space and spaciousness. And this silence starts inevitably to find root in our hearts- growing into unusual and extraordinary flowers that are quite beautiful if we can train our eyes to see that possibility. The practice in these times is the practice of the heart: cultivating faith, self-compassion, and gratitude.
Like many people, I have spent some time in the past several weeks tending to my garden. In order to transfer a small plant into the earth, you must break apart the roots and then you can place that plant into the ground so that it may take space, expand, and grow. Just as it can be scary and damaging to agitate those little roots, breaking the tiny fibrous threads that have crowded so densely into their small structure - so sure but also so vulnerable, it’s a vital measure that actually allows that plant to take up the space of the ground and move its nourishment systems into more extensive networks so that the plant can eventually flourish.
I want to explore the possibility in this article of why this agitation at our roots might be a beautiful blessing for us in this time. I would love us to notice our rooting and how it is possible to expand into that which is spacious in this very moment: your skin connecting into the earth, your breath, and the simple and ordinary acts of life close to home - cooking, cleaning, tending to the actual earth and workings of the home base. How does the body, the densest, physical, and rooted aspect of our existence, support us in this time?
Most of us crave deep moments of silence. We try all sorts of things to get there - some things that are healthy for us and some that are decidedly not. The ways that we find to focus our minds are close to infinite: we can focus on any object from artistic expression, to the subject matter of our jobs, academia, religious ritual, to our small private obsessions and addictions. But overall, one of the best tools of awareness is the physical body. Athletes love to exercise because they access “the zone,” a state of spaciousness and concentration that feels pure and free- alive, connected.
Most ancient technologies and traditions looked sincerely at both the ability of the body to anchor our awareness, bringing us to states of peace, tranquillity, and stillness, and how the body does this (the practice). The body is the physical avenue that we follow when we turn inwards, and it contains and reveals so many points of interest as we draw toward the stillness at our centre.
Through the body, we have such tools as physical movement; breath; the perception senses of the skin, sight, sound, or taste; the energetic and subtle body centres; the satisfaction of exerting will, boundaries, or intention.
Now, as a long time yoga practitioner and teacher, I absolutely love the body. I think it’s an amazing tool to bring us into focus. I love moving my body. I love to sweat, I love to breathe, and I love to feel the challenge in my muscles in every possible range of motion.
Bones, muscles, the spark of flow in the blood, heat under our skin. These are beautiful feelings that ground our attention that make us return to our practice again and again, like an athlete that craves running, swimming, skiing, or dancing.
In yoga, this layer of the self is sometimes referred to as Annamaya Kosha (or alternately the “Deha” layer). Quite literally, the layer made of and supported by food and physical matter.
But if you think that simple exertion is the final answer, then you are cheating yourself of the more profound experiences available in this form. Like the proverbial finger pointing to the moon, the body offers us an entry point to ultimate stillness. This state eventually transcends the body or any kind of physical perception altogether.
This is known by practitioners of the inward path. This is a path of self-inquiry. Of taking what we have (for example, we have a body) and following these forms to their deepest roots, tendrils that twist and turn and are thick and woody or thin, whispy, and pervasive. A tendril that probes the ground of our operating consciousness just to pop up and bloom in unexpected ways, causing us great joy or great anger, grief, or fear.
I urge you to find that thing in your body that you love the most right now. Is it your ability to hear music? Your ability to feel your blood moving as you walk, hike, run, or stretch? Your ability to stop and feel the waves of your breath? The object in your body that you settle on as your focus is less important than the focus itself: how committed can you be to noticing what you notice? The great practice of Dharana, or highly focused concentration, is in many ways the ultimate practice in the science of the mind. This is the very practice that agitates the tight roots we have wound around our habits, our pain, our hearts, and that when combed outward can start to release layers of disruption that we didn’t even realize we carried for so long. Sometimes these patterns have been operating for so long we can’t even remember how or where they started.
The body is an appropriate and necessary anchor for our attention. And you really don’t need to do anything to make this vessel more available to you: it’s already there, it’s already talking to you all time, it’s already coursing with its own aliveness.
So do this: notice what you notice. Choose one thing in your body - the thing you find natural that you already love. And stay with it. With compassion, with faith, with honesty, not running from fear if it appears. Not turning and trying to escape the unpleasant things that arise, but simply expanding your heart to hold it all. For you will discover that your heart can hold it all simultaneously and with room for everything, even paradox, even opposites, simultaneously.
Don’t do two things at once: don’t go for a run AND listen to music. Choose one. And send all of your attention into that one thing. Stay with it until you can follow that little root tendril to every part of your physical body and every part of your energetic body and your pain body. Just notice it. Let your heart expand to hold that thing, which, after all, has been there all along anyway, so you may as well turn toward it with stillness and compassion.
It’s important to name the fear, anxiety, and loss that we are experiencing in this time as a human family, but it’s also important to look at the opposite truths: those that are filled with new possibilities, and maybe if we allow ourselves a healthy dose of courage and self-compassion, an emerging into much deeper states of consciousness that tune our understanding of the heart, the connectivity of all life, and the silence that supports all the movements that occupy us and keep us distracted, rushing, and in pain. By breaking apart our deepest assumptions, perhaps we can grow outward into new territory and expand in ways that would not have been possible without this extreme agitation.
How long has your heart been whispering to you? Now is the time to listen.