The suffering is in the mind. The mind. In the mind. Witness it from your spiritual heart. — Ram Dass
In my nightmare, I was shut in the house with my family and friends. I had cleaned everything — because that’s what I do now — but to my horror, I started noticing strange, muddy paw prints along the floors and walls. How did they get in? I thought, wildly. Countless cat’s feet had tracked mud everywhere. But they weren’t supposed to be able to get in. I looked out the window, into a miserable, grey rain, and there they were: feral cats, hundreds of them. They howled and snarled, fighting and fucking like cats do, circling the house tighter and tighter. There was no way to keep them out. I woke up sweating and cold, convinced I had a fever, completely frozen in the grip of dread.
Fear is nothing new to the human race, although it may be new to us in this current moment. It’s different from anxiety. Anxiety is a low-level hum in the background of our brains that keeps us on edge for reasons we don’t really understand. When we try to pinpoint why we’re anxious, for the most part, we can’t. It might have to do with being overworked or overtired, getting yelled at by our boss or honked at in traffic, or being stuck in traffic in the first place. For some of us it’s a state of being: we’re just anxious because we’re anxious. We forget to breathe, and that cues our nervous system to get even more anxious. Our fight-or-flight response is always on high alert, ready for a bear to jump out of the woods and start chasing us. Never mind that we don’t live in the woods anymore; our nervous system doesn’t know that.
Fear is different. Fear is coded into our mammal brains as a survival reflex. It is a reaction to a real situation. It tells us what to do, though it may not always tell us the right thing to do. For instance, buying enough toilet paper to sink a barge may not be a logical response to fear. It is, however, normal to want to control a situation that feels completely out of control. Given a lack of information and rapid daily change in the global situation, we have little control over anything except our own bodies. But even that sense of control, as any cancer survivor can tell you, is only an illusion. A realization of vulnerability begins to pervade our consciousness.
What I’m learning these days is: I was always vulnerable. But before COVID19 forcibly changed my daily life (just last week, at the time of this writing), I could ignore my own fragility. Unless I was dealing with death head-on, I rarely thought about the end of my own life or those of my loved ones. And now I am beginning to think about those things: the end of life, or of life as we know it. And it’s scary. I didn’t honestly used to feel much fear, not even of death. Anxiety, sure, but not fear. Whenever a scary situation arose I would usually plow into it head-on. This one has me truly rattled, though. Yesterday I had a meltdown because my mother sent me a card in the mail. It held a photo of her and me from a few years back. The moment I opened it, a wail rose up from my belly: What if I never see her again? That motherless child within me poured forth, terrified. Five thousand miles away from my mom, with no way to reach her for a hug, I collapsed and wept.
This is new to me, and it’s new to us as a collective, but it’s familiar to anyone who’s worked with death and loss over time. Cancer, for instance, will strip away any illusions of safety and well-being; it will rob you of social connections and lay bare your immune system; it will rip the financial support out from under you, taking your ability to work, sucking away your energy. Perhaps we can all begin to understand what that might feel like — being cut off from everything you love due to a circumstance you didn’t choose. Perhaps, with all this time on our hands, we can reach out to our loved ones who’ve dealt closely with death, and simply connect.
While we’re at it, this is as good a time as any to begin working with vulnerability and, yes, fear. Instead of resisting it, spend a little time inviting it in. I don’t mean panic. I mean stop running; stop numbing out. Resisting the current circumstance is like resisting the urge to vomit. The longer you do it, the worse it gets, and you’re most likely going to puke anyhow.
For me, I let the thoughts in when they come: fears of losing my parents and vulnerable loved ones. Of possibly being shut in my house for weeks. Losing financial viability. Missing social contact with so many. I marvel at the rapid changes taking place that will likely reverberate for years. I’ve already closed my business and am unsure when I’ll be able to see clients again. I have no idea what life will be like after this. I am, like all of us, on unsteady ground.
But walking on shifting sand is an amazing workout for the spirit. Fear, like anger, can be harnessed for our benefit. Once I let the fears in, once I freely weep any tears that need to fall, then they move on. It’s like having tea with guests. They don’t stay forever. They’re guests, not residents. We finish our tea, and then I open the door and curtsey them on their way. I know they will come knocking again, but in the meantime, I have much to do. There are prayers to be said, and meditations to breathe into. The floors need sweeping and the dog needs walking. I call and FaceTime with friends, send emails, write in my journal, try to take naps and make healthy meals. Then panic arises again and I work with it, cry it out, stomp and yell, turn up the music and dance, call a friend, let the storm pass through.
“We are all just walking each other home.” Ram Dass said this, and it is perhaps the single most comforting, and saddest, thing I’ve ever read. It keeps coming back to me now. I don’t think we will ever go back to the way things were, and maybe we shouldn’t. As I write this, the planet is slowly beginning to breathe again. Skies are clearing over China; dolphins are returning to the canals of Venice.* Birds sing outside my open window, and rain falls softly in the street. There is no rush-hour traffic in Austin now, no cars stacked up on the freeway, no honking horns, no low-level hum of anxiety thrumming through the city as people rush back and forth to work. Instead, people walk their dogs, ride their bikes, and fish in the creek with their children. We wait to see what will happen next. We alchemize fear into love. We slowly, one step at a time, walk each other home.
*This is a fake news story going around on social media. I picked up on it as one of the few rays of hope in the media, and sadly did not check the source. I will be more careful from now on. The skies over China, however, did clear in response to the cessation of activity at factories and airports.