The air freezing. Wind gusting. Tumbleweeds rolling down my street. That’s what winter during a pandemic looks like in my mind.
I’ve read all the lists to prepare for a likely second wave of COVID-19. My workout routine is solid. Therapy is going well. I’m thinking about getting a flu shot. (Should I? Aren’t I just going to be alone inside all the time?)
But none of it feels like enough. Part of me is terrified about being even more isolated. Another part of me is in denial, like that meme with the dog saying, “This is fine,” as the house burns around him.
So I’m planning ahead — emotionally.
I know you’re busy with juggling work, family, and paying the bills, all while trying to survive a plague. But a little preparation will pay off come January when it’s 28 degrees and dark at 5:00 p.m.
Here’s how I’m preparing to emotionally weather the storm:
1. First, I’m keeping a list of emotions that come up when I think about winter.
There’s a teaching in Buddhism called “the two wings.” Just as a bird needs two wings to fly, we need insight and compassion to not only survive but thrive. We can’t rely solely on our thoughts or emotions.
Starting with the first wing — insight — I want to think clearly about the emotions.
The strongest feeling is loneliness. I’m already isolated because I’m single, because of COVID-19, because of our capitalist society. What will it be like alone on a Friday night in December? part of me worries.
The thought is terrifying. So, that’s another emotion: fear. I’m afraid of the unknown. So much so that part of me is that dog in the meme.
There’s also a sense of, I need to get this right. I need to prepare so that I never feel afraid or lonely. Part of me expects to be perfect. I’ll call that anxiety.
There’s also anger. I’m pissed at Trump, Mitch McConnell, Nancy Pelosi, and other political leaders for not taking better care of me and my friends. The government’s pandemic response has been socialism for the rich and capitalism for everyone else. That’s unsurprising — but it’s bullshit.
If I’m being honest, there’s also a tiny bit of curiosity. As an introvert, part of me enjoys the thought of extended time to myself. No pressure from social commitments. No unexpected visitors. What can I do with all that alone time?
There’s my list: loneliness, fear, anxiety, anger, and curiosity.
2. Next, I’m trying to accept that I feel these emotions.
This is the second wing: compassion. Psychologist and meditation teacher Tara Brach writes:
“We’re not trying to transcend or vanquish the difficult energies we consider wrong — the fear, shame, jealousy, anger — since this only creates a shadow that fuels our sense of deficiency. Rather, we’re learning to turn around and embrace life in all its realness — broken, messy, vivid, alive. This is the way out of trance: mindfully recognizing and bringing compassion to the parts of our being we have habitually ignored, pushed away, condemned.”
By “trance,” Brach means our tendency to avoid feeling the feelings. We numb ourselves with alcohol, food, masturbation, and other habits. We overwork, overeat, oversleep. We act out by getting aggressive or suppress our emotions by staying quiet.
Who wants to feel lonely, afraid, anxious, or angry? Who wants to feel all of them at the same time?!
So, I feel each one at a time. I feel how loneliness shows up in my body — a tenderness in my chest. What fear does to my vision. What anger tastes like.
I try my best to follow the advice of the 13th century poet and Sufi mystic Rumi:
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
3. Then, I’m asking myself what each part of me needs to feel okay.
As Rumi says later in that poem, “Be grateful for whatever comes. Because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.”
What does the part of me that’s lonely need to feel? I ask myself. The answer that comes up: connection. I don’t necessarily need someone beside me all the time. But I regularly need to feel connected to something larger than myself. The lonely part of me needs nature, adventure, new food, art, mystery.
What does the afraid part need to feel? The answer: That it’s okay to be afraid. It just needs be told that everyone’s afraid right now, even if they aren’t showing it.
What about the anxious part?The part of me that wants to get this 100 percent perfect needs to be given some new projects. Particularly, projects where I’m a beginner and so perfection can’t be expected.
And the anger? This part of me needs to be engaged. How can I channel that anger into fighting for political and economic justice?
4. Finally, I’m using all of this to plan ahead.
To nurture my lonely part, I booked a couple weekend getaways to do some hiking. I’m also buying a fire pit for my backyard so I can have friends over when it’s cold.
To calm my fear, I wrote this blog post to see who else is worrying about the winter. If you got this far, you’re probably afraid too.
To soothe my anxiety, I’m buying a steel guitar so I can learn a new instrument. I’m finding new recipes to try. I’m setting some goals for researching my family history.
And to channel my anger, I’m getting involved in the local Democratic Socialists of America and planning to volunteer at food banks in my neighborhood.
It’s almost like there’s a little family inside of me that I have care for. Sure enough, there’s a form of psychotherapy called Internal Family Systems (IFS) that says just that. I’m a huge fan.
I’m trying to remember that the point of all this, as Brach wrote, is to “embrace life in all its realness — broken, messy, vivid, alive.” I’m not going to get it right.
We’re not going to get it right. And that’s okay.
I’m a writer, meditation teacher, and host of the Meditation for the 99% podcast. If you’d like to work with me on your meditation practice or being more mindful, reach out. Get my writing straight to your email inbox here.