Insights from a Challenging Year
Until recently the numbers “20, 20” were always used to describe clear vision at a distance but this past year has changed our associations with this number. Looking back, I see that my eyes did adjust and saw certain things a little clearer after gaining some distance (or looking really closely). As you read my collection of insights, see if any of these observations spark “aha” moments for you, too.
Concerning the Body
In May I grew tired of being tired. My stamina was low and my sleep was often disrupted. It started out as an experiment to track possible factors for my insomnia but it grew into a healthy habit of walking nearly every day. Between May and December I averaged 2.5 miles per day. I started just walking in my neighborhood and used my phone to track my miles. At first just 1 mile was a big accomplishment, but as my stamina grew I yearned for more. I walked farther in my neighborhood and took road trips to more demanding terrain, including the Appalachian Trail in Georgia and the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina. I still have some nights of sleeplessness, but it’s more of an exception than the norm these days. Maintaining my physical well-being includes walking and hiking and this year clarified how important that is.
Concerning the Senses
When March brought the pandemic to my part of the world and we were told to isolate I wasn’t too upset. I’ve spent a good portion of my life recharging my energy in solitude, so I saw the alone time as a bonus for me and my fellow introverts. After a while I started to notice a shift in me. I would watch a show on TV, made pre-pandemic, and grow nostalgic when scenes of people gathering and touching each other appeared – the sounds and sight of it overwhelmed me at times. When I did go out I grew almost desperate to ensure my fellow mask-wearers saw my eyes crinkle in a smile as we passed each other from a distance. The sense of smell became so important as it was related to symptoms of the virus, so walking past a bakery and enjoying the aroma through my mask had the dual benefit of evoking positive images of fresh baked bread as well as a confirmation that I am still healthy. These sounds, sights and smells remind me that my rich sensual world is tied to my well-being and that even though I am an introvert I do enjoy others company.
Concerning the Mind
What happens when I let my mind wander untethered? In normal times, I watch my mind tell me stories and I’m able to sift through them and discern which ones are true and which ones are nonsense. But during a year that included a nesting doll of crises: pandemic, wildfires, public racial tension and election misinformation, my internal fact-checker was overwhelmed. I sat in meditation nearly every morning and sometimes at night before sleep, too. At the start of the year I believed that sitting was the positive action I needed to take to be the change I wish to see in the world, to paraphrase Gandhi. Crisis after crisis I sat and meditated and still people were dying, people were conspiring and so many people were suffering. Sitting had its benefits and eventually helped me see that I had to do more than just sit. Sitting was the opening act, the overture to the concert… but I needed to act. I am not an activist by nature, but this year taught me that meditation alone would not put out the fires – both figurative and literal, and taking care of others is part of my well-being.
Concerning the Intellect
The muscle of empathy has been worked out this year, more than any other of my 50 years of living. The aphorism, “Hurt people hurt people,” rang through my heart almost the entire year. I read Resmaa Menakem’s book, “My Grandmother’s Hands” and learned how trauma begets trauma unless we do something to stop it. I was also reminded of how subjective reality is, something I studied when learning about the Kleshas in yoga philosophy. Understanding different realities, intergenerational trauma and my own biases only got me so far. The real work comes with opening myself up to new versions of who I am. I looked around my new neighborhood in Florida and saw people who cling to old versions of themselves, their families and even of this country. The flags that people fly are a good example of this: they hoist banners depicting the first colonies, ones from a defeated civil war and more recently, ones from a defeated presidential election. Looking into my own roots helps me appreciate my own and other people’s cultures, but clinging to my roots is not going to help me or the world evolve. Whenever I see these outdated banners I think of a snake’s shed skin and how I can admire that skin without giving it life. What does the flag of the new version of myself look like? I hesitate to visualize it as white because that has the connotation of surrender, but maybe it’s multi-colored, like the rainbow effect on the surface of a puddle of oil, and those multiple colors are just waiting to be shaped into whatever the future version needs them to be. Staying open to the colors, to the symbols and the versions that I can’t yet identify is a practice and one that keeps me on a clear road forward, even as the pavement continues to be made.
Concerning the Soul
In July I wrote about the lifecycle of a crisis and the graph shows that recovering from a crisis happens when we accept and find meaning in our crisis. This is where personal growth happens, often at great cost. In this country alone we said goodbye to over 300,000 people because of the pandemic. Often, those goodbyes were by proxy, as medical professional held the hands of dear ones leaving their bodies. At first I followed the rising numbers of COVID cases daily, then weekly, then I stopped following them altogether because the loss was too great, the sorrow too heavy for me. With perspective I see that the tragedy of the pandemic arrived hand-in-hand with joy… The small joys of nature, art and shared smiles as well as the big joys of acts of love, pets on Zoom and examples of life adapting and going on. During this time a question bubbled up in my meditation: What remains after a loss? I looked at the broken relationships, the illnesses and the disconnects and wondered how long the ghosts linger and how we will be impacted by these losses in the long term. Simultaneously I began to question the criticisms that appear when I grow quiet and let my mind wander in meditation. I realized that these words were not my own and that they were not part of me at all; at least, they were not the part of me that continues on after my body stops working. The part of me that is in the winking stars, the rustling leaves, the rushing waterfalls doesn’t speak the same language as the inner critic and the outer loss. The mantra so hum (“I am that”) reminds me that I am connected to all these things that were born before me and will continue after me and the air that I expel with each exhale lingers in the world for lifetimes. There is much of me that remains after my body goes. There is much of the people who have died in the past year that remains. I walk the same ground that my neighbor who died of COVID walked, and my feet look for his footprints on the road. Remembering who I am, how fragile my body is but how enduring my Self or Soul is now part of my self-care practice.
In the Katha Upanishad, a yoga philosophy text that deals with the meaning of death, there is a parable of the chariot that is mapped as:
Body is the chariot
Horses are the senses
Reins are the mind
Driver is the intellect
Passenger is the soul
Taking a look at the past year from a distance I see that the chariot was dysfunctional when the pandemic arrived: my body/chariot was in disrepair, my horses/senses were running wild, my mind/reins were not directing my actions, my intellect/driver followed no particular path and my soul/passenger was distracted or asleep. Now at the end of the year I feel directed, hopeful, skillful and connected. All the pieces fit together and the path forward is a little clearer now, so if I were commanding the chariot I would say to my horses: “Walk.” I think I’ll go lace up my shoes and obey.
May you all have an enlightened 2021!