Living in Overwhelming Times
Living within a pandemic is often a struggle, one forced on us by living out of synch with the rhythm of life. For those not working in “essential” jobs, we remember having regular appointments like tea with a friend on Wednesday, and breakfast on Sunday with a family member or a haircut every six weeks or so. With those everyday anchors gone, we are unmoored, yet stuck at home. Sometimes we don’t even know what day it is. For a species so dependent on contact for our sanity, the isolation, the absence of a social life, gives us fewer opportunities to calibrate our behavior.
For those who have been going out all along and working every day, there is very realistic fear of exposure and illness. And many I know who are just starting to go back to work in a physical, though mediated way, are facing a “new normal” that doesn’t at all seem normal.
Everyone I know is overwhelmed.
What is it that distinguishes overwhelm from the occasional pre-COVID-19 panic? Two things, I think. First is the feeling that our resources are too depleted to face daily life. Every day can feel like climbing a mountain in a storm, with so much coming at us. Many of us have so many more caregiving responsibilities with our children at home. Plus we’re often worn out from chasing the truth and worry about the right actions to take. Secondly, we don’t know when this is going to end. We believe we can tough it out for a little while, or even a long while, if we have an end date to focus on, but we have none. You don’t have to be alone to feel lonely when everything about your life seems overwhelming.
I observed that when Insight Meditation Society, which I co-founded, started holding classes online shortly after the nation went into lockdown. We experimented with a home-based meditation retreat, scheduling four hour-long dharma talks and meditation sessions throughout the day and were excited when nearly 3000 people signed up. People wrote that they were meditating in the bathroom, or in a walk-in closet, so they would not be disturbed by their housemates or family members. And we got messages from people who wrote how much they wished they we’re not alone. They yearned for someone to talk to after they came out of these sessions, someone to share a meal with. Whether they were alone or surrounded, many people had the same question most of them had the same need: to find a way to deal with how overwhelmed they felt.
When those feelings of overwhelm start to rise, a good place to anchor ourselves is in compassion. In acknowledging the power of a caring heart, we create a barrier between ourselves and fear of what comes next by skillfully approaching the here and the now. We can pause for a moment to experience compassion for ourselves in this time of struggle, and for all the people we know who are having trouble sleeping, who find themselves crying for no identifiable reason, or getting spun out in dire scenarios of the future. And please, think of those people who have been going out to work every day so that we can have food, or health care, or transportation. These are difficult times, times when accessing previously untapped empathy can truly help.
Sitting quietly and focusing on the breath is a way to strengthen that boundary between ourselves and the forces that overwhelm us. Centering ourselves is looking within, to the fact of the breath as it moves through the body, the feeling the preciousness of life, the gift of that. Gratitude and compassion for our struggles expands to those qualities for the people around us, and the hope that, even in small ways, we can bring more of those out into the world. Just a few moments spent this way go a long way to restoring perspective about the reasons to worry and also the truth of what we cherish about the lives we have.
As we slow down and center, then expand through the breath, we stabilize, and it becomes easier to disentangle our feelings. Sitting quietly and allowing those feelings to arise one-by-one gives us a chance to have a new response to them. You can feel fear without utterly believing it. There are plenty of reasons to be scared but we don’t have to list them repeatedly, or argue with them, or try to justify them, all of which will just accentuate them. Acknowledge these feelings by observing how each emotion effects your body. Is the fear a tightness in the chest, a tension in the digestive system, a literal pain in the neck? Feel the body work through these strong feelings by breathing into them. As one emotion departs, another takes its place and the cycle starts again, one by one acknowledging and releasing these feelings. This doesn’t mean that they will never come again, but it does mean that we don’t have to be overwhelmed by them. As they rise and disperse, we have a chance to put these experiences in perspective.
Strong emotions are always a complex mix of feelings. Mindfulness is knowing what we are feeling and recognizing that probably many strands of emotion are clumping together. In pandemic times, emotions may not come in a subtle blend of qualities, but rather in terrifying surges. Pull them apart to try to recognize the components of each of them.
Anger, for example, is often a mix of sorrow, loss, fear, yearning and helplessness. I find that if I can sit and just be with my anger without judging it, explaining it, condemning it or holding onto it, I can come to directly see that place of helplessness.
Once I see that, I can resolve to take action…even if the action seems fairly small or insignificant, it is a path to personally heal from a sense of overwhelm and the way to forge a stronger connection to the world.
Early on in the pandemic, before New York City shut down but as intense anxiety was rising, I was at an event sitting next to someone who was incredibly apprehensive. Little did I know then that we were just at the beginning of this overwhelm. I kept suggesting ways to quell her anxiety, like taking a walk or deepening her meditation practice, but I could see by the way she was listening that none of these seemed like her answer. She lit up when I suggested she go grocery shopping for an immune compromised friend. She wanted to do something for someone else, in addition to whatever she was doing to handle her reactions.
Part of what was overwhelming for her was a sense of frustration and futility. But no action is too small compared to taking no action at all. And creativity may be called for as normal avenues of engagement, like shopping for a friend, may be cut off. But that in itself becomes a link to a broader sense of possibility, a move into experimental territory, and a reminder that we get through together, step by step.
This essay was featured in the August 2nd edition of The Sunday Paper. The Sunday Paper inspires hearts and minds to rise above the noise. To get The Sunday Paper delivered to your inbox each Sunday morning for free, click here to subscribe.