The Coronavirus pandemic still feels like a dream I’m waiting to awaken from.
The snooze button might be my most frequently touched surface. I am sleeping and dreaming more.
More memories have come to the surface. The polarized responses in the world are adding to my unrest. No one is immune to the virus, but the effects seem so divisive at times. Moving forward is messy, and I’m having my own struggles with dealing with all of it. But I am learning what works for me—what is helping me navigate the waves of change in these times.
I humbly offer some ideas on how we might each do our part in navigating this time, based on what I’m learning through my own struggle:
1. Remember we’re in this together.
I live in a small, rural town, but I happened to travel to New York City in September 2001 (a couple weeks after 9-11). I took a deep breath before leaving my hotel to walk to my workshop that first morning, bracing myself for the emotional climate I was stepping into. Times like that—and these—shake us out of our usual inertia, and business-as-usual mentality, and require a more sacred mindset.
Walking the streets in New York, my eyes took in countless pictures of missing loved ones. It seemed poignantly clear those lives were likely already gone. Grappling for the right relation to the images before me, and the emotion behind them, I felt like a voyeur but also a witness. The sliver I felt of all that grief was overwhelming to me, but perhaps my empathy helped hold it—my caring part of a collective prayer.
2. We’re each finding our own way.
I was in New York that day to study focusing. That’s the name Eugene Gendlin gave to a process that unfolds when sitting with a bodily “felt sense” (an inner awareness or thought that has not yet been consciously realized, yet can be felt physically within the body). He was a colleague of Carl Rogers, who identified the core conditions for change in therapy—empathy, genuineness, and unconditional positive regard. In those conditions, attention to a felt sense is where the action can happen.
Focusing on a felt sense is like listening to a gut feeling that whispers a nonverbal language, or a pregnant pause when you’re out of words but have more to say, sitting on the tip of your tongue. Hearing it clearly requires stillness and friendly curiosity, the way you might listen to a child. A word, or phrase, or image can be a “handle” that helps hold the “whole” of a felt sense, which contains all the details.
A felt sense arises like a tide where the currents of a life in progress meets those in the environment, seeking a new direction in the mix. Focusing is like quietly surfing those waves inside, and listening for whispers of “yes, this way” or “no, I don’t think so” or “okay, but proceed with caution there.”
My experiences within this pandemic can find a handle like this, holding all of it for me. Yours would be specific to your situation and circumstances.
3. Healing images might be collective ones.
When Gene Gendlin offered a live demonstration of dreamwork to my training group, we were thirsty for his wisdom. A dear colleague volunteered a dream, which emanated a sense of familial struggle. She was Jewish, I believe, and never uttered the word Holocaust—but the intensity of what she shared made me wonder. A dream like that needs a whole room to help hold it, and maybe it showed up at that time for just that reason.
Gene tuned into something more subtle, though, and approached it with friendly curiosity. It was a young person sitting at a piano, full of promise, his whole life before him. It carried the quality he looked for most in a dream, the “life forward edge.” His intellect didn’t know the pianist was so important, but his body felt it. That image was like a container of hope itself. Precious. Collective. Hope.
4. Listen for the inner yes or no.
Our bodies know how to find the way toward something that eases the inner tension of a felt sense. Listening inside is like a process of elimination sometimes. No. No. No. It’s like kissing toads. Nothing happens. A “yes” feels like fresh air. Go there.
5. Know that conflict is growth trying to happen.
In times like this, I hold onto a gem of an idea from my couples counseling training in Imago therapy. A power struggle is growth trying to happen. I think there’s an implicit desire for trustworthy direction in the fray of debates these days about cases, curves, masks, and jobs. For the growth to have a prayer of getting somewhere, though, we need to be humble enough to lay down our weapons and connect with our vulnerability. The ABCs of power struggling—attacking, blaming and criticizing—make too much noise for a felt sense to form.
Social media magnifies the battle. People on my newsfeed every day are like that box of chocolates Forrest Gump’s mom taught him about. No, maybe the jelly beans Harry and Ron ate on their way to Hogwarts is a better analogy. Some are like tutti-frutti, providing laughter and lightness. Some are like heart-melting marshmallow, with their stories of courage and kindness. Some are more like vomit or rotten egg, spreading things that seem harmful or even hateful. I can unfollow them, but the aftertaste remains.
6. Face your own shadow.
As it turns out, my own psyche is more like that box of jelly beans than I like to admit. My best intentions of sweetness can come out rotten, especially in times of stress. I do believe our strengths and weaknesses are flip sides of the same coin. Believing it is easy, but sensing my own shadow take the lead in a crazy tango I’ve lost control of, is much more humbling. When the music stops, I’m left beside myself with two choices: I can stay stubborn and stuck, or I can face and release my shame, creating space to let the light in.
7. Hint: shadows aren’t good at hiding in times of crisis.
My initial reaction to the pandemic was an amped-up sense of responsibility. I cleaned like there were lives depending on it, scurried to transition to telehealth counseling, stressed over how to be an adjunct teacher online, and freaked out about groceries. I noticed that not everyone shared my fear about spreading or contracting the virus. I tried to contain my fury about that, but “containing” is a feeble strategy.
My rising anxiety crested one afternoon as I tried to engage my kids in a talk about how to do work and school under one roof. They were in no mood to take me seriously. There was no sense of in-this-togetherness. I felt like Charlie Brown’s teacher, only more afraid and alone, and I lost my sh*t, loudly: “People are dying all over the world, this isn’t a vacation!”
8. Lighten up or tighten up.
After blurting the very words I was trying not to say, I apologized, but my kids fortunately didn’t seem to let my anxiety affect them much. As I faced and released my shame, I saw the folly of treating work, education, and a pandemic with equal seriousness.
I remembered a T-shirt I once had, which summed up the world’s religions as variations of, “sh*t happens.” Mine was “sh*t won’t happen if I work hard enough.” Hard work won’t stop a pandemic any more than guns or other things I judge as ridiculously unrelated to the problems at hand.
Daniel Siegel wrote in The Mindful Therapist that mental health is a matter of integration. Chaos and rigidity sit at the poles of a continuum, which is a useful framework for finding balance when we’ve lost it. We might need to either tighten up or lighten up. For me, it’s usually the latter, but I often need help getting there.
9. Students can be teachers.
They say when the student is ready, the teacher appears, but it also happens the other way around. A faculty member at an institution where I used to work shared an open letter from an anonymous student on social media, right when I needed it. Her words were raw, but respectful, addressing her professors who were trying too hard and expecting too much. Her words filled in the gaps of what I’d been interpreting as resistance from my own students, and my children. I especially needed to hear these words: “Stop. Just, please, stop.”
I slept on the effect that letter had on me, and then made some changes my students and children seemed to appreciate. As I lowered my standards of productivity, I tried to think of it as raising the bar on kindness all around. The inner response I got to that idea was, “Yes, please, yes.”
10. Find what reflects your light.
I rerouted my anxiety in a direction more directly helpful to the pandemic by sewing masks and donating them, which became surprisingly satisfying. I gave them away, but I received much more, in spades of appreciation. It caught me off guard. My need to contribute in ways that mattered to my community ran deeper than I realized. It’s as if the pandemic made me a little desperate to know my existence on the planet could have a positive impact. I needed to shine at least little light into the darkness around me.
An image from a dream I’ve had recently came back to me with a similar theme. It’s more meaningful now, because my friend Shirley, who has since passed away, helped energize the best symbol within it. In the dream, a vibrant speckled stone shone through some rubble with an unmistakably good feeling sense about it. More than a token for my troubles at the time, I knew—the way you just know things in dreams—that it was something wonderful I would not have found any other way.
I think the stone represented myself, shining brighter for the darkness I’d wrestled through; it still had some speckles of darkness left to work on. I still remember the sense of encouragement I felt when I held it, along with the deep feeling that I mattered.
11. Be kind.
I took a break from compulsively cleaning one afternoon—even washing stuffed animals—and scrolled through Instagram. I paused to read a story about a man who survived the virus and then met the doctor who’d helped him through. They hadn’t communicated in words before, but he immediately recognized the doctor’s eyes.
With a virus the medical profession is still figuring out how to respond to, I bet kindness is the best complementary medicine. Daniel Siegel mentioned kindness in one of the free virtual gatherings he hosted during the pandemic. Kindness builds resilience. If you have trouble connecting with your felt sense, or finding next steps, just go with that. Be kind. To yourself and others.
12. Practice gratitude.
Focusing is sometimes taught in steps, the last of which is being grateful for whatever came. I’ve rediscovered the film “Castaway ” lately. It ends with a similar theme of being grateful for whatever may wash up on the shore.
So here I go …
Thank you to the strangers who wanted and wore the masks I made, or asked for more, or shared one with an elderly neighbor.
Thank you to the anonymous student whose bravery stopped me in my misdirected tracks and helped me find a better way.
Thank you to my kids who didn’t take me seriously when I was stressed out of my mind, and who motivate me regularly to be a better person and mom.
Thank you to my favorite professor, for encouraging my journey and energizing my desire to write.
Thank you to my niece for sharing that ultrasound of your baby on the family Zoom call.
Life moving forward images in a pandemic don’t get much sweeter than that.