The pandemic has spun my ongoing existential crisis into a force 5 hurricane. I’m practicing mindfulness to cope. The practice offers me many moments of calm in the storm, but I possess an overly busy brain, and I’ve continued grappling with big issues of human experience—suffering, death, love, and meaning—and I spin out into the winds and rain more frequently than I wish. In my last piece about mindfulness, I wrote: “The truth is that we humans tolerate shockingly intense experiences of moment-to-moment existence and move through them.” I chuckle at my words today because, for me, there is little that’s more annoying when you’re suffering than having someone tell you the equivalent of, “This too shall pass.”
Those words are intended to offer hope, and it’s true that things do change over time. Still, I find hearing them more ominous than hopeful. I suppose this may be a result of my traumatic past. When one is born and grows up the way I did, the default response to “This too shall pass” is, “Pass into what?!” The answer my imagination usually generates is, “Something worse.” Worse pain, worse suffering. Death. It’s a stinky mindset to live in, and I’m working on rewiring my damaged brain through mindfulness, meditation, and work with a terrific psychotherapist. I have more moments when I feel calm and present and trust that even if worse happens, I’ll still feel calm and present. But the pandemic is not helping. Or, maybe, it is.
Before Covid-19 spun the world into crisis, I’d been contemplating suffering, particularly the extent to which we bring it on ourselves, and how so much of it is rooted in fear. At one point last summer, I had a breakthrough. Like most of my small epiphanies, it excited me for a while and then I got distracted and forgot about it. I would be a much wiser person if that didn’t happen, and I wish it didn’t, but it does. The pandemic, however, has shone a searing spotlight on it. I want to talk about death.
On a sweltering afternoon last July, I lay on the mattress in the ping-pong room at White Cottage Farm, looking through the skylight at the clouds. My conversation with M. had begun by text, then my phone rang. “It seemed like we ought to just talk to each other,” she said.
I felt deep concern and compassion for her; she’d had profound challenges in her life, particularly in caring for her son, now in his twenties, who is severely autistic and has a life-threatening seizure disorder. I raised children, and weathered more than a few crises that had me frightened for their lives, yet my friend lives this crisis every day. There was more. She had shared with me her diagnosis of rheumatoid arthritis. I’d recently learned that her nephew succumbed to muscular dystrophy. Her husband was ill with colon cancer. M. suffered deeply as she witnessed her loved ones suffer, but her suffering was intensified exponentially by her anxiety about what was to come, about what she should be doing to make things better. I wanted to take the heavy load from her, to give some relief, but I couldn’t.
As we shared the various awfulness of was happening in our lives, I became aware that despite living in our respective crises, here we were talking and laughing (albeit ruefully), and taking comfort in connecting with each other. It was an emotional equivalent of my pain management protocol.
I live with chronic, nearly constant pain that cycles from around 3 to 10 on the pain scale many times each day. I have learned to cope with overwhelming physical pain by doing three things nearly simultaneously: 1) be present to the pain by feeling it without fighting against it, and breathe through it; 2) remind myself that right now, in just this moment, I am not in danger (pain does not kill you); 3) tune my awareness to some place in my body, even the tiniest spot, that doesn’t hurt. It’s basically a mindfulness practice focused on physical pain. The practice doesn’t cure the pain, but it does invite a more nuanced relationship with my body and mind and helps me find calm within the storm. When I’m not so caught up in fighting to escape pain and the whole cascade of fear responses it causes, I become more present. I find places that don’t hurt, I’m not overwhelmed by it, and I get through it. My talk with M. helped my emotional pain (I hope it helped hers too)—we focused on what was hurting, reflected on the bizarre experience of how we were carrying out day-to-day routines and responsibilities amidst crisis, and acknowledged how good it felt to be friends.
I’ve known M. for almost forever, and for some reason, we seem always to cut swiftly through social niceties and dig into each other’s depths. This kind of friendship that isn’t afraid to get to the heart of things is a profound gift. This kind of friendship makes living more than just getting through, more than just surviving. It makes pain bearable, because it balances out the dark places of personal suffering with the light compassionate connection brings. Sometimes, even with mindfulness, we can’t do it all by ourselves. We need people.
We talked about our grief for recently lost loved ones, our relationship struggles, our worries about our kids, our efforts to find healing for our physical illnesses. We talked about exhaustion of body and soul. I think we agreed that the worst thing about life is its uncertainty. It’s the not knowing what will happen next that exacerbates whatever suffering we’re experiencing in the moment. We want to know what might happen so we can do something to mitigate the worse that might come. And we don’t want to know what might happen because we’re afraid of the worse that might come. So we play a kind of peek-a-boo with the future cards we imagine, and debate with ourselves how much of our current resources we ought to put into the karma kitty in a gamble that we and those we love can end this particular round with enough to keep playing.
We spin out scenarios of the future, naively believing we can prepare ourselves for, or avoid, whatever eventualities our fertile imaginations create. Some people call this realistic planning; others call it catastrophizing. M. and I talked of our feelings and fears as we played out scores of “What if?” scenarios and strategized on what we could do now, what we would do in the future. At some point, as the crazy-making activity began to reveal its fruitlessness, one of us said, “I mean, really, what’s the worst that could happen?”
Death. That’s what we landed on. That’s the taproot that feeds all anxiety. If you follow any fear-based thinking to its conclusion, you will find death. There are lots of layovers along the way—loss of relationships, financial ruin, illness, physical and emotional pain, etc. Lots of suffering. Many of us have survived these places or love people who have. We’ve experienced or witnessed the truth of “This too shall pass.” Yet we still feel fear. Because death, the ultimate uncertainty and the most certain fact of life, is the end. It’s a this that doesn’t pass.
“It’s weird how it’s really pretty simple,” I said to M. “You either get through it, or you die.”
[Let me interject here that I am well known for stating the blatantly obvious. I get embarrassed about this. It’s not that I don’t know things; it’s just that often what I know in my head suddenly blossoms into a deeper knowing—a heart-knowing that feels all new and amazing—and I blurt it out. And then there’s a silence when people are trying to decide whether to laugh, or say, “Duh!” or pretend, just to be nice, that I’ve uttered something unique and profound.]
The obvious reality that we either get through life or die sunk in to my heart during my conversation with M. It reduced all the scary potentialities cluttering my consciousness at the time to a simple binary that felt like a tremendous relief. I would get through it. Or I would die. M. would get through it, or she would die. It didn’t ultimately matter what parts of our catastrophic scenarios did or didn’t happen because we would either get through them, as we were doing with our present situations, or we would die. Wow, how easy is that?
Except it isn’t. Because there’s that death thing.
Fear of death is hardwired into every human; it is the nature of being an animal with survival instinct. Being a human animal, however, comes with a highly tuned, wonderful and horrible ability to remember the past and project into the future. While all animals experience fear, we humans get the bonus experience of anxiety. Fear is a physiological reaction to perceived danger, while anxiety is a physiological reaction to conceived danger. We perceive danger when our physical senses home in on sensory signals in the moment that alert and motivate us to act—a snarling animal, a raised fist, a gun, etc. Sensory information perceived as dangerous initiates a well-known cascade of physiological responses that increase our chances of survival. It’s known as the fear response.
Anxiety, on the other hand, arises from a concept of danger. While perception is always present and sensory; conception is intellectual, idea-based. In other words, our minds can cook up scenarios that elicit the same physiological responses as fear, except the danger is not immediately threatening to our physical being. I’m not saying we’re delusional; most of our conceptions of danger are shaped by memories of past experiences, and awareness of potential threats that exist around us in the present. They’re reality-based, and our responses are real, not imaginary. If you are reading this post, it means that you are not in immediate, life-threatening danger. Yet your physiological system is probably pretty activated into the fear response as a result of the omnipresent reports of worldwide disaster. This is anxiety. It causes us a lot of unnecessary suffering.
I should probably stop now. I should end by saying that anxiety increases suffering, and the answer is to practice mindfulness meditation because it eliminates anxiety by teaching us to be exclusively present in our immediate experience which, mostly, is not immediately life-threatening. And even if it were, if you’re really, really good at living in this mindset, you can still be calm at the moment of death.
I’m not ending my thought deluge there, though. Apologies. I’ve been practicing mindfulness/meditation for a long time and I still have those little voices in my head that argue against the wiser voice of presence and make me suffer. “You’re here now. You’re safe. Be in the moment and experience the moment. Abide in lovingkindness. Yada yada yada,” my meditative sage self tells me. Immediately, there’s a chorus of plaintive and anxious voices arguing otherwise. “But what about?…But what if?…but, but, but.”
In my last piece, I wrote about shenpa, the getting “hooked” by thoughts that take us out of our current experience in the moment and cause us to suffer exponentially more than we would if we could stay present. We all have a lot of noise in our heads, a lot of shenpa that lures us away from feeling grounded, calm and centered. Yes, one does have to plan for what’s next. We need food and shelter and whatnot, and that doesn’t magically happen. Jesus’s whole deal about the birds in the air and the lilies in the field was metaphorical. I’m pretty sure that what he meant was that if we can accept our own mortality without fear, even when our death is imminent, then all anxiety dissipates and we can live in the moment calmly experiencing only what is, living without struggle, without effort. The point is that we suffer more when we try to avoid the things we most fear. And what most of us fear most is death.
There’s something awesome (in the word’s true sense) about honestly acknowledging what we fear and seeing clearly how much we’ve made ourselves suffer in our efforts to avoid it. Once we do it, the path to follow usually reveals itself quite quickly.
I think most of us are not much different in our adult avoidance strategies than we were as children terrified of monsters lurking in our bedrooms. I remember often sleeping inside my toy chest because I was afraid of the night monster under my bed. Despite being cramped and stifled inside the chest, afraid to get out to use the bathroom or get a drink of water, I convinced myself that I liked sleeping there, that I was doing the right thing to keep myself safe. The shelter it provided felt better than going face-to-face with what I feared. Finally, it occurred to me that I’d been fooling myself that I could hide from it; the monster would get me in the toy chest if it wanted to. I was making myself miserable in my extraordinary effort to avoid it. I suddenly realized it wasn’t really the monster I was afraid of; it was dying that scared me. The thru-path was clear: I had to look under the bed. Somewhere in my young consciousness I knew that I had to face up to death, or I’d continue to feel miserable by trying so hard to avoid it. I climbed out of the chest and looked under the bed, facing my own demise with surprising calm, knowing that if it didn’t happen now it would happen some other time. I didn’t die. I felt immense relief that led to joy, and I slept comfortably and soundly in my bed. A lot of other monsters have shown up in my life over the years—one of the current ones being Covid-19—and I do best when I remember what I learned that night.
Every one of us employs a shifting cache of strategies, consciously or not, that feeds our false belief that we can control what is uncontrollable, avoid experiences we don’t want to have, prevent feelings we don’t want to feel. It’s what anxiety is all about—avoidance.
After years of meditation practice, after years of managing pain and crippling exhaustion, after weathering many big and little crises, after that conversation with M. when I uttered that blatantly obvious statement, I am re-realizing yet again how much I increase my own suffering. I run myself ragged with effort to avoid facing my many fears.
I think most of us spend most of our time and energy doing things we think will make us and/or others happy when what we’re really doing is fleeing fear. How do we know the difference? It all has to do with effort. When I face what I fear, I suddenly feel the relief that comes with not trying so hard all the time. I’m finally understanding why Yoda’s dictum appeals to me so much that I hung a cheesy poster in my bathroom—“Try not. Do. Or do not! There is no try.”
It took me a long time to make some sense of Yoda’s wisdom (likely culled from the concept of wu-wei, or “effortless effort”) because I live in a culture that values trying, striving, reaching for more and better than what is. Trying is deeply future-oriented. It causes a lot of anxiety because fundamentally it’s a mindset that assumes potential failure. Doing/not doing, on the other hand, is present. Doing is living in the now. I don’t mean the kind of doing that most of us spend most of our time doing—doing this so I can feel that, or achieve that, or avoid that—that’s just trying cleverly disguised as doing. I’m talking about doing as being. Just being. It doesn’t mean that we don’t act, that we don’t go to work or walk the dog or celebrate Auntie’s birthday. We can do with intention, but without effort. Effortless doing means we act without the attachment or aversion to what comes next, because we are focused only on experiencing the present moment of our alive embodied being.
Doing is living—living in the present. When we are doing, we’re not afraid of death (or anything) because death is just part of doing; dying is part of living.
Since that conversation with M., I’ve evolved into less binary thinking about life and death. It’s no longer, “We’ll get through it, or we’ll die;” it’s “We’ll get through it and we’ll die.” It’s a both/and reality. I’m finding that the more frequently I remember and accept this, the less anxious I feel. I can just be until such time that I cease to be.
It sounds dark, but it’s quite liberating.