The coronavirus crisis is pushing each of us up against our edge, says Jeremy Mohler. By bringing compassionate attention to our fear and anxiety, we can learn to respond instead of react.
The Covid-19 outbreak is unprecedented, but by chance I’ve been preparing for it for months.
Since mid-January, I’ve lived alone on a farm near the Potomac River in rural Southern Maryland. Outside of occasional trips into Washington, D.C., to visit friends and lead meditation groups, I’ve had little human contact.
Acclimating to country life after more than a decade in the city has been as bumpy as the mile-long dirt road that leads to the farmhouse. I’ve had to learn to become comfortable with solitude, a valuable skill now that we’ve been told by public health experts to practice social distancing.
My mind is normally a churning soup of anxiety, but coronavirus has put it in hyperdrive.
My days here are not that different than those during a meditation retreat. I used to awake to the sound of an ambulance or someone picking through trashcans in the alley. Now, it’s a woodpecker drumming on a red oak or squirrels foraging in piles of leaves. I stretch and then meditate by a window overlooking two sprawling fields of winter wheat. I scramble eggs or cook oatmeal and then write, taking breaks to feed the chickens and put wood in the fireplace.
When I forget that I’m surrounded by nature, a familiar loneliness rushes in. I’m suddenly eight years old again, wishing someone would play video games with me. Except now there’s social media, and so I mindlessly scroll through Facebook, Instagram, and dating apps. Part of me knows that likes, comments, and matches won’t soothe my loneliness, but another part takes the steering wheel in my mind, longing for connection.
Then there’s the fear. As the house darkens at night, all I can hear is empty, mind-bending silence. My mind imagines the sound of glass breaking, or a door being kicked in. Images from TV murder mysteries fill my mind, and I lock my bedroom door before trying to sleep. I know the odds of someone burglarizing a house this far out in the woods are low, but when triggered into intense emotions, rational thinking is often beside the point. The scared part of me grabs the steering wheel and won’t let go.
We’re all afraid right now. Many of us are taking the crisis seriously, socially distancing, buying extra food, and checking in on friends, neighbors, and family. Others are taking it too seriously and buying every roll of toilet paper on the shelf. There are those putting their head in the sand, pretending that it’s no big deal, while others continue to work on the front lines, risking their health for the rest of us. Some people are turning towards the comfortable dualistic thinking of racism, blaming other cultures for the crisis, while some are fearing the worst in the coming months because of the color of their skin. We’re witnessing a global fight-flight-freeze response like we’ve never seen before.
My mind is normally a churning soup of anxiety, but coronavirus has put it in hyperdrive. Does this runny nose mean I have the virus? What’s going to happen to my job? Are we headed towards another Great Depression? Will grocery stores have food on the shelves in a week? How am I going to manage spending weeks, or months, in one place?
What’s helped me with the intense anxiety of this moment is bringing attention to my fear. When we’re lost in worrying, fearful, or angry thoughts, our mind is often off in the future or the past. We imagine the worst possible outcome, catastrophize, and add unnecessary fuel to an already fiery situation.
Whatever you’re feeling right now is acceptable.
Alone on the farm, turning towards fear has allowed me to notice how my neck and shoulders tense up when the sun goes down. Noticing this has helped me accept that I’m afraid. My gut reaction isn’t acceptance, of course, it’s shame: I’m 34 years old, I shouldn’t be afraid. Or, I should be a man like my dad who seems to never be afraid. Instead of criticizing myself, I try to simply accept that part of me is terrified in this moment. In the words of Buddhist teacher Tsokyni Rinpoche, I see the fear as “real but not true.” It’s real to me, but it’s not necessarily based in reality.
Most nights, after moving into this accepting posture, my neck and shoulders relax. As Tara Brach writes in her book Radical Compassion, “When we are lost in the forest, we can create a clearing simply by pausing and turning from our clamoring thoughts to become aware of our moment-to-moment experience.” Turns out, the scared part of me just needed to be seen and held with compassion — like a frightened child. When I deny that I’m afraid by wishing that I wasn’t — or worse, criticizing myself — that part of me will continue to be afraid because it doesn’t trust my other parts to provide safety. It will keep taking the wheel and causing me to freeze up.
Whatever you’re feeling right now — fear, anxiety, anger — is acceptable. This crisis is pushing each and every one of us up against our edge. The more compassion you muster for yourself amidst negative emotions the less likely you’ll ignore or get lost in them, and the more likely you’ll be able to respond rather than react. And the world will need more people responding rather than reacting in the days ahead.