In this third week of isolation, I find myself swirling in a soupy confusion of grief and gratitude. I’m thinking a lot about death. And about love. And about life’s meaning.
Each small task I used to do with little thought now seems weighted with import. I gather the mail from my crooked little box and wonder what it carries besides news. I restart my computer after the lightning storm, anxious in my knowledge that now a loss of power means I am cut off from outside contact. Last night, I fried onions to top off a casserole of leftovers. As I scooped from the rapidly declining store of flour, I wondered when and whether I’d be able to buy another bag, for flour and yeast have joined the list of hard-to-come-by items. Perhaps it is a good thing that mundane tasks have captured my attention; after all, awareness of the wonder of moment-by-moment experience is the foundation for that magic bullet of mindfulness practice that promises inner peace.
While my awareness does glitter each moment into the felt experience of life right now, it also swerves into overwhelm sometimes. Though I’ve practiced mindfulness meditation for years, I still slide often into memories of the past or questions about the future that can easily send me far away from reality. I recall learning from Pema Chodron, a Tibetan Buddhist teacher and nun, that this experience is called shenpa. Shenpa is a getting hooked and stuck—a thought, an experience, or something someone says or does triggers a tightening in us. This breeds thoughts that can spiral us ever farther from being present to our experience in the moment. Chodron says shenpa is like an itch that we’re compelled to scratch. Well, I’m really itchy these days.
Take, for instance, yesterday’s opening of my email. I am practicing living mindfully, so I focused on the sensory experience of this task, from feeling my fingers on the keyboard, hearing the clicks as I typed, seeing the images and words on my screen, even smelling and tasting my morning’s coffee in the process. Then I saw the reply from my friend, S, with whom I’ve I had a few exchanges in the past week. (Shenpa explosion.)
In a previous email, S had let me know he was very ill and uncertain as to whether he’d be able to continue communicating, so seeing this new message hooked me. Before I even opened it, I felt relief—he was still well enough to reach out! Then thoughts spun off so fast and furiously on so many different scenarios of past and future that by the time I opened S’s message, I read it through a fog of fear- and anxiety-generated narrative worthy of a post-apolcalyptic film. I won’t bore you with the sequences my imagination generated, lest my post read like a poor imitation of Joyce’s Ulysses; suffice to say, I was no longer present. I found myself grieving for my lost friend even though his email was right there in front of me, grieving for all the suffering and losses I’m hearing about from others I know, and from the news, and from my own experience. This is what the pandemic is doing to me, maybe to many of us. It’s invading our minds, and this causes us to suffer exponentially more than what we feel in this present moment of our own experience, whatever that may be.
So, I sipped my coffee and focused on the sensory experience. I took three slow breaths. I felt my feet on the floor. I hummed a little. I looked at the giant catalpa tree outside my window, and at the rainbows the sunlight created as it shone through Shimmer’s fish tank. I returned to the present where nothing much alarming was happening in the physical moment even though my emotions were tumultuous and mostly miserable—pain, yes; fatigue, yes; feeling cold, yes (all these familiar constants for me). I laughed at myself with as much compassion as I could muster because, yet again, I’d become hooked… shenpa’d. The truth is that we humans tolerate shockingly intense experiences of moment-to-moment existence and move through them. Yes, we suffer. But the places our thoughts take us, and the emotions those thoughts arouse, make everything worse. It is for this reason that mindfulness meditation does offer us something like a magic bullet for what ails us.
I have tried and failed for days to write something about this state in which I find myself, if only to wrap my hurting heart in a protective blanket of words for a little while, and maintain a semblance of mindful presence. One cannot help but be present when writing. The post I was going to write about death, love, and the meaning of life turned into this post about mindfulness instead. Perhaps I shall be able to winnow the mass of reflections I’ve written about my intended topic and add a new post soon. In the meantime, I’m mindfully aware that I’m grappling with some of the core concerns of being human..
May you live with ease in your present. Be well, dear readers.