The coronavirus crisis has me feeling all kinds of feelings. Fear, about getting sick. Worry, about my asthmatic dad. Anger, towards the Trump administration. Even a little schadenfreude, about people who adored our capitalist, individualist, lift yourself up by your own bootstraps, “free market” society now having to eat crow.
But a friend posted this quote on Facebook the other day, and it reminded me that emotions — as shitty as they can feel — are a good thing. It’s attributed to White Eagle of the Hopi Nation of indigenous people in northern Arizona, and it goes like this:
“This moment humanity is going through can be seen as a portal and as a hole. The decision to fall into the hole or go through the portal is up to you. If you consume the news 24 hours a day, with little energy, nervous all of the time, with pessimism, you will fall into the hole. But if you take this opportunity to look at yourself, rethink life and death, and take care of yourself and others, you will cross into the portal.”
(What a quote, right? If you want to donate to the Hopi Reservation, which is an extreme food desert, you can do it here.)
The English portal derives from the Latin porta, meaning “gate.” The Old English geat means a “door, opening, passage.” A portal is transformative — it takes you from once place to another.
As hard as it is right now to imagine a different future, this pandemic can be a portal — if you turn towards your emotions. Again, as shitty as they can feel.
“Normal” has changed, maybe forever. Who knows what’s going to happen with your job? Who knows what’s going to happen with your family? Who know what’s going to happen in your marriage? Who knows what’s going to happen with the economy? Who knows what’s going to happen in the November election?
The Buddhist meditation teacher Pema Chödrön writes something similar in her book “The Wisdom of No Escape”:
“The purpose of your whole life is not to make a lot of money, it’s not to find the perfect marriage … It’s not to do any of these things. You have a certain life, and whatever life you’re in is a vehicle for waking up. If you’re alone and you feel lonely and you wish you had a mate, that’s the vehicle for waking up. If you have a huge family around you and wish you had a little more free time, that’s the vehicle for waking up. Whatever you have, that’s it. There’s no better situation than the one you have. It’s made for you.”
You’re probably thinking, okay, sure, but how do I step into the portal, how do I wake up?
First, pause. Take a break from all the breaking news, the social media, the Netflix, the routines. What are you feeling? What’s the loudest voice in your head? Anger, fear, worry? Restlessness?
Next, stay with the emotional discomfort — as long as it isn’t too overwhelming. Don’t distract yourself as you normally would. If you notice yourself trying to think your way out of the emotion, let go of the thoughts and come back to the emotion. When we’re feeling intense emotions, rational thinking is often beside the point.
If you notice any judgement — about the emotion, about yourself for feeling the emotion — release it. Whatever you’re feeling right now is acceptable. I promise you that you’re not the only one.
Then, feel your body. Where’s the tension? Is there a clench in your stomach? Are your shoulders tight? Is your head pushed forward? What does the middle of your chest feel like? Tingling, a burning sensation, tenderness?
When you find a clench, soften around it. Let it grow and expand. Ask yourself, how big can this get?
Finally — and this is probably the most important step — hold your experience with compassion. Rather than making the emotion wrong, rather than beating yourself up inside, rather than wishing you felt differently or that this whole crisis would go away, just be with yourself like you would a close friend or a little kid.
Hold space for yourself and listen — be curious. Ask yourself, what does the part of me that’s afraid, angry, whatever need right now?
Experiment to see what soothes the emotion. Read a novel that moves you or a book by a spiritual teacher. Go for a slow walk in nature. Put your hand on your chest and take five slow, deep breaths.
You’ll know when you land on what works. The clench will soften and sometimes even melt away. The space around you will feel more spacious.
“Whether it’s anger or craving or jealousy or fear or depression — whatever it might be — the notion is not to try to get rid of it, but to make friends with it,” Chödrön writes.
“The more you open your heart, the more you make friends with your body, speech, mind, and the world that’s inside of your circle — your domestic situation, the people you live with, the house you find yourself eating breakfast in every day — the more you appreciate the fact that when you turn on the tap, water comes out. If you have ever lived without water, you really appreciate that. There are all kinds of miracles.”
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