It happened one day a few weeks after I returned home from Australia. One morning I woke up and I couldn’t get out of bed. Eyes swollen, head throbbing, I called my doctor. It must be the virus, I told him. Has to be.
We went through my symptoms. No sore throat. No fever. Yes, I could smell. And yes, I could taste. I did have a cough – but my doctor asked, Have I taken my allergy medicine? No, I forgot. I forgot about my allergies. Forgot it was allergy season. (I didn’t want to admit but there was a lot of was forgetting lately. Like sleep, for instance.)
Anyway – the diagnosis? I was just really tired. Geesh. He might as well have just called me a failure. Like I failed the pandemic.
Except really, it was me I was failing.
Because instead of pausing to take my own pulse, I went right into my pattern of doing, fixing, and taking care of everyone else but me. And turns out, I am not the only one. I’m actually surrounded by a whole bunch of doers, fixers, and caretakers – with lots of empathy and compassion for others, yet surprisingly little for themselves.
It seems someone needs to tell all of us that it’s ok to take care of ourselves. It’s ok to sleep more and do less … it’s ok to feel scared and grateful – at the same time … and it’s ok to feel like there are times we’re just barely keeping our head above water. Because it’s not that we can’t swim. It’s that the waves just got really, really big.
So really, you don’t need my permission any more than I need yours. But in the spirit of kinship, maybe we can just give it to each other anyway – to invite a little more loving-kindness into our lives by allowing ourselves permission to do the following five things.
Allow Yourself to Feel
While everyone else shared a sense of optimism during a friendly Zoom chat session, my friend was having a particularly tough day. And rather than dress it up as something more cheery, she told the truth. “I’m feeling a lot of grief and disappointment today,” she shared.
The group went awkwardly quiet. Until finally someone spoke. And quoting from the Yoga Sūtras, one person tells her, “You must learn how to let go.”
Besides this being a total misuse of the term, vairāgya (non-attachment), it is also incredibly unhelpful. Because emotions are not something we choose – they are feelings we experience. And feelings that are neither good nor bad, they just are; it is the mind that colors them one or the other.
And why it is perfectly okay to feel whatever you are feeling – whenever you are feeling it. In fact, anyone who tries to tell you otherwise is actually the one struggling to let go.
Because to practice vairāgya is to take root in this moment. To stay resolutely present rather than escape what is or strive for what isn’t. We sit with the best and sit with the worst.
Which leads me to number two: you don’t have to sit alone.
Lean Into Others
Companion planting is a gardening approach that maximizes growth by planting complementary plants next to each other, where each one provides for something the other one needs.
For example, the three sisters of the garden are corn, squash, and beans. All three crops are quite different but also, mutually beneficial. Corn acts as a pole for beans to climb; squash shades the soil, holding moisture and reducing weeds; and beans add the necessary nitrogen back into the soil. And why when grown together, these crops grow best.
Same goes for us. It’s one of the many benefits of living in a shared world – we do not have to go this alone. We all need kinship – friends who provide support, encouragement, and a sense of belonging. Though physically distanced, now is not the time to allow yourself to be emotionally isolated as well. It’s ok to let others fill in our blanks.
This crisis has left most of us feeling cracked wide open. But remember, it is through our vulnerabilities that we are able to connect with one other – not our strengths. For it’s only through the cracks real intimacy grows.
So why not drop the facade? Dare to be honest; let others know what you need and how they can help. Then ask how you can do the same.
Permission to Grow Slow
— Edward C. Smith, The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible
Wilted leaves, dying branches, and stunted growth are all symptoms of transplant shock – a condition that is caused when we move a healthy plant from one place to another without allowing it to gradually get used to a whole new set of conditions.
Because sudden and rapid change is stressful. And not just for plants. But instead of allowing ourselves time and space to acclimate and transition, many of us responded by speeding up to catch up.
For example, it happened almost overnight. In response to our sudden lockdown, it seemed every in-person yoga class and workshop was quickly moved to a computer screen. And this has come with its own form of shock. It’s called Zoom fatigue. And lemme tell you – it’s real.
But we didn’t stop there. There was even an IG home practice challenge – as if practicing at home isn’t challenging enough. I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.
And then came the brand new podcasts along with tons of live streaming, and even online retreats. The pressure to keep up for me was strong. I talked to others. They felt it too.
Because social comparison is also very real. As a species, we figure out how we are doing based on how we stack up against others.
And based on my informal research (i.e. scrolling), those first few weeks of being home, I was lagging way behind. Plus, I was exhausted. So while the rest of the world was growing full speed ahead, I was drooping and losing my leaves.
But in talking with Meghan, I realized all the extra projects I had taken on since coming home. Seems I’d actually increased my productivity by like 200%. But of course, that’s what I do. Until I can’t.
In a recent podcast, Brené Brown describes the two modes many of us go into during a crisis situation: over-functioning and under-functioning. As for me (and I suspect many others), I was vacillating between the two. Until I realized, there is a middle way. It’s called slowing down.
As it seemed everyone else’s pace of production went up a number of notches, I made the deliberate decision to ease up. Yet here’s the interesting thing … my slowing down was only slow in comparison. Because really what I did was find a normal and relaxed pace, one that I could sustain and one that I enjoy.
Bottom line: Ignore what the rest of the world is doing and grow at your own pace.
I remember once hiking the Avalanche trail in Yellowstone – which, btw, has that name for a reason. It was early in the season and my husband and I got to a place where the trail disappeared into a big heap of snow. The decision seemed an easy one; neither of us had any inclination to either climb over or dig through. So we put the map aside for a moment while we looked for a different way around. Then when the trail was once again accessible, we got back on.
Makes sense, right? There are times you have to lose the map and go off-trail. Because a map cannot take into account the weather or the inevitable changes that occur over time. It cannot predict exactly how long it will take, how many breaks you will need, or a number of other changing variables that are par for the course on any given trail. That is all for the individual hiker to discover and decide.
What is it about those of us who practice Ashtanga yoga that we so often confuse the map for the practice? Because the method is just that – a map. Nothing more, nothing less. It’s a tool, a guide, a generic set of directions. All of which is extremely helpful.
But you know what’s not helpful? Finger wagging, right and wrong tutorials, and a rigid adherence to a piece of paper that can never factor in the individual human experience. I find none of this helpful. And in many cases (like right now), it’s actually hurtful.
Because right about now, many of us are trying to navigate some really challenging terrain. And this map we’ve been following is a wonderful tool but it simply cannot take into account all the many obstacles we are suddenly encountering – like my increased anxiety or lack of sleep. Just like it doesn’t account for individual anatomy and abilities.
A map can’t account for all the individual variables. But we can.
Besides, there is no such thing as THE way – only A way. And ultimately, we all will need to find our own.
It’s OK to Struggle
Before Siddhartha became the enlightened Buddha, he sat through a long dark night of solitude that lasted seven weeks. Similarly before Jesus began his ministry, he spent forty days, alone in the desert. And so as we enter our own seventh week or 40 some-odd days of social isolation, I figure we are almost there.
No. That’s a joke. (And probably not a funny one).
But the point is, there is always darkness before light. And sometimes that darkness lasts a really, really long time.
Which is something I think we forget. Especially when we are in the midst of our own dark spell. We love to focus on the light with silver linings and happy endings. So we go in search of the formula that will bring an end to our struggle. Case in point, consider kapotasana, everyone’s favorite struggle pose. All one has to do to garner lots of interest and likes is to promise a way to make this one easier. I know because I’ve done it.
Though here’s something important to ask: How does one learn this magical remedy? Is it from someone else telling them or did they learn through the course of their own struggle? I’ll speak for myself – I learned through my own struggle. And I still struggle, meaning I’m still learning.
Because there is no magic formula. No universal remedy that like a vaccine, can eradicate all struggle and suffering.
But I get it. That’s what we want. And why when faced with the decision of whether to teach all he’d learned in the forest, Buddha was not inclined to preach it:
“Enough now with teaching this Dhamma that I have reached only with difficulty. It is too profound, hard to see, hard to understand, peaceful and sublime, subtle, unattainable by mere reasoning to be experienced by those not willing to struggle.”
So you see, struggle isn’t a sign of failure. If you’re struggling, it doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. Buddha struggled. Jesus struggles. Struggle is the condition for insight. It’s how we learn.
So it’s not just ok to struggle, it’s quite possibly a sign you’re doing something right.
B. Alan Wallace tells it like this: Imagine you are walking along with an armful of groceries when someone bumps into you and sends you and all your produce sprawling. And just as you are about to yell at the person, you look up and realize – the person who has bumped into you is blind. Immediately what was anger and upset turns to compassion and concern.
Well, that’s what it’s like right now – for all of us. We are all blind.
Because none of us have been through a pandemic before. This is new terrain for all of us and we are all just doing our best. At the same time, let’s try and include what’s best for us.
Begins May 8th:
“This was the first time I actually related to the Yoga Sūtras. Presenting them in the way that you did in the workshop made them click for me – they aren’t just words Patañjali wrote down thousands of years ago, but actual relevant tools. The “homework” assignments provided just enough structure. For the first time I felt comfortable enough to finally begin studying myself. The exercises reinforced all of the discussion and concepts from the workshops, in a real and meaningful way. I got exactly what I needed from this workshop: permission to start, a guide and a toolkit. Studying myself is my new practice – awareness, journaling, questioning and non-judgment are my new tools.
Thank you, from the bottom of my heart”. – Lauren B.