During my month of meditation, I was plagued with gut wrenching homesickness. If I had only known how large a dose of home I was going to get a few short weeks later! At the heart of my homesickness was a palpable awareness that all my habitual strategies to self-soothe were not available to me. I couldn’t turn my attention to work for an infusion of the deep sense of meaning I receive from serving others. I couldn’t flip the switch on a device in order to watch Netflix or shop on Amazon or take in an audio book to distract me from painful thoughts or uncomfortable feelings that visited me. I couldn’t jump into my car and run to Whit’s for an ice cream sandwich to drown out the tension or insecurity I was feeling. And worst of all, the beloveds in my life were far away, unable to offer me the comfort of their loving touch or kind words. I was stripped naked to face each moment and each day just as it was.
In this time of extended quarantine in our homes, I imagine that many of us are finding ourselves feeling similarly off-kilter, pining to resume the life we carefully curated, a life we enjoy or at least feels predictable. And maybe you’ve noticed, your usual strategies to experience pleasure and avoid pain are fairly flimsy in the face of the collective trauma of a world pandemic. After all, binge watching Netflix and eating copious amounts of chocolate or (fill in the blank) were always distractions at best, never making the sadness, loneliness, or fear go away permanently.
Pain and discomfort are inevitable. But here’s the good news, friends. Right now, we have a rare opportunity to practice reprogramming the way we relate to it. I’m reminded of an early Chasidic tale wherein a wealthy man from a neighboring town invites the Baal Shem Tov to tutor his son and offers to let him live in his spare house. He accepts the invitation and upon entering the house discovers it is full of demons wreaking havoc, overturning furniture and breaking dishes. The Baal Shem Tov speaks to the demons, telling them they are welcome to stay in the house with him, but they have to live in the attic. Instead of trying to drive them out, he gives them a room where they can do no harm. Could the same be true of the “demons” that visit us? Instead of attempting to ignore or rid ourselves of them, a battle we will surely lose, is it possible to welcome them? Is there a place within us for them to stay where they can do no harm?
Next time you notice you are checking out, think about checking in instead. Identify what feeling is arising and where in your body you can feel it. You may notice that just acknowledging worry, anger, or sadness is present lessens its grip. And then, if it is available, can you surround that painful feeling with love and concern, or just be ok with it until it subsides (and it will). Challenge yourself, because you may find a deeper sense of stability and ease becoming intimate with the “demons” than you ever did by eating or drinking or distracting yourself to avoid them. Wellbeing will come with your wholehearted acceptance that contingency and fragility is built into the system. Certainty and predictability are an illusion though you may not have noticed it before. Life’s transience makes for its preciousness. Let us never take our eyes off that prize.