Learning to Stay

At least here in the Washington, DC area, we’ve entered our fourth month of mostly stay-at-home, shelter-in-place, quarantine—however you want to label it. And no matter where you are in the world, more than likely you’ve felt a mixture of emotions, thoughts, motivations, intentions, challenges, successes, etc. around this new reality of a worldwide pandemic. We don’t know when this will end, or if/when we may have to cycle through more stay-at-home orders over the coming months. We’re figuring this out as we go along. We can be insulated from each other, and yet this pandemic is shared by all to some degree. There are significant differences to be sure, but we are all facing the threat of disease. No one, literally, is immune to the virus or its broad socioeconomic impact. So how can we keep going when we feel like throwing in the towel?

During graduate school one of my jobs was to collect and then rate doctor-patient interviews. (It was really the doctor interviewing the patient.) In all, I rated a total of about 1500 interactions. I remember at some point early on, thinking, “When will this end?!” Looking at the entire log of to-be-rated interactions was daunting. It was spring time, and I wanted to be outside. I was already a meditator by then so I decided that this would be my training in boredom. Another variable in all of this, was that two people had to rate each interaction simultaneously—so I couldn’t just rely on myself. We had to cooperate. I had to learn to be with my rebelling mind and its boredom, frustration, restlessness, as well as another human being, etc. Basically I had to learn to stay when I really wanted to go. I learned to lean into patience, grit, determination, my rating partners, loyalty to the principal investigators, curiosity, and more. I learned that I could do it, however messy it was at times. Without mindfulness and compassion for myself and my rating partners, it would have been much more difficult.

This year, and probably until there is a vaccine or cure for COVID-19, we’re learning similar lessons, although the stakes are much, much higher.

This “mostly stay-at-home time” is a crash course in encountering our minds (and if we live with others, their minds too!) with all their imperfections. We can employ mindfulness and adopt an attitude of welcoming the ever-changing nature of awareness because it can be a catalyst and tool for genuine awakening. This pandemic, and even the worldwide social protests, are opportunities to learn about our tendencies of mind, and can alert us to when we’re being skillful, e.g. being compassionate or fiercely compassionate (the motivating, protecting, resource-seeking side of compassion). We’re encountering the uncertainty of not knowing when and how the pandemic will end, along with the positive turbulence generated by people from around the world seeking justice such as the Black Lives Matter protests, rights for immigrants, indigenous peoples, Uyghurs, refugees, the Hong Kong protests, and many others.

By being mindful of what’s happening in us and around us, we can explore ways to stay in the thick of things in a compassionate way, and use skillful means to support our efforts.

Questions for contemplation:

How do you notice unpleasantness? What are the physical, emotional, and mental indicators that tell you you’re getting bored? Restless? Anxious? Tired? Frustrated?

Can you notice the beginning impulse to want to “shift,” to get away from, what is unpleasant?

What’s beneath the unpleasantness? Boredom? Restlessness? How does the mind react to these discoveries? Judgement? Fear? Aversion? Compassion? Equanimity?

What do you run to when you can’t stay with unpleasantness? Food? The  internet? Meditation? Tea break? A walk outside?

What (or who) can you lean into for support, that is, a skillful means? Amplify mindfulness? Call a friend? Apply soothing, comforting compassion? Band with others and access fierce compassion? Practice RAINN (recognize, allow, investigate, non-identification/nurture)?

How do you access skillful attitudes or wholesome responses—patience, determination, curiosity, self-appreciation, compassion etc.?

And could you keep your heart in wonder

at the daily miracles of your life,

your pain would not seem less

wondrous than your joy;

And you would accept

the seasons of your heart,

even as you have always

accepted the seasons that

pass over your fields.

~ Kahil Gibran


We are grateful for your dana (generosity)

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