Initially the idea of working alone, on your own schedule, might have been exciting. No colleagues to interrupt your flow. Freedom to work on your own schedule. Freedom to stay in your yoga pants. But now, the allure to individual freedom has lost a bit of luster. We’re stuck with our own thoughts and emotions all day, we continue to have most of our “social” interactions through our screen, and we’re tired of taking the same walk by ourselves around the block. What most of us really crave right now is the ability to connect. So how can we do that when we can’t physically be together in the same way?
In your own little bubble, it’s easy to feel like you’re the only one feeling the way you may be feeling — and if you’re not careful you can lead yourself down an even more isolated path in your mind. When each of us experiences a stressful or traumatic experience, we have one of three ways of responding: fight, flight or freeze. Over the past year, I’ve come to realize that I’m definitely a freezer. I rarely lash out and don’t often completely run away from a situation but instead I freeze and become completely immersed in the “story of me.” My perspective of the world around me spirals down into a tiny tunnel where I can only see what I’ve convinced myself to believe. I’m completely disconnected from anything and everyone and it doesn’t feel good.
During a recent tunnel vision episode, I came across an article that redefined social distancing as “expansive solidarity.” The reframing of this term immediately jolted me out of my fixed mindset. Suddenly, my focus was off of me and the isolated nature of the global situation. Instead, I was reminded that we’re all in this together, pandemic or not. Everyone experiences feelings of anxiety, fear, craving, love, sadness, jealousy, inadequacy, joy, pain. These are all of the things that make us human and that connect us to one another, whether we’re 6 ft apart or not. As Elizabeth Markle pointed out in the article, “We’re right here, in this together… spaciously.”
This simple awareness allowed space and suddenly my tiny tunnel became a more free-flowing interstate of interconnection. Although I was still alone in my apartment, my perspective shifted. I became aware of the expansiveness of all the things I’m connected to. The trees outside my window. The plants on my desk. The messages from loved ones and dear friends popping up on my phone. From being connected we can begin a communion, the beginning of a loving relationship with ourselves and the world. The communion can move to a union where we see how much we depend upon one another for life. And this union can move to a deeper awareness that all of life supports all of life. Who doesn’t want this kind of connected, loving world?
“I believe in the possibility of a world where our interconnection is a deeply known and motivating force, where no one is left out, where the innate dignity of every person is acknowledged, and where hatred and fear and greed can be tempered.”-Sharon Salzberg
A Loving-Kindness Practice for Interconnectedness
One practice I’ve found especially helpful in dealing with feelings of disconnection is a loving-kindness meditation called Tonglen.
According to Pema Chödrön, “Tonglen practice, also known as “taking and sending,” reverses our usual logic of avoiding suffering and seeking pleasure. In tonglen practice, we visualize taking in the pain of others with every in-breath and sending out whatever will benefit them on the out-breath. In the process, we become liberated from age- old patterns of selfishness. We begin to feel love for both ourselves and others; we begin to take care of ourselves and others. Tonglen awakens our compassion and introduces us to a far bigger view of reality. It introduces us to unlimited spaciousness.”
When you do Tonglen as a formal meditation practice, Chödrön gives these instructions:
1. First, rest your mind briefly, for a second or two, in a state of openness or stillness.
Settle your mind by bringing your focus to your breath. As you breathe in, be present with breathing in. As you breathe out, be present with breathing out. Acknowledge distracting thoughts and emotions as they arise and keep coming back to the breath.
2. Second, work with texture.
Breathe in a feeling of hot, dark, and heavy-a sense of claustrophobia-and breathe out a feeling of cool, bright, and light-a sense of freshness. Breathe in completely, through all the pores of your body, and breathe out, radiate out, completely, through all the pores of your body. Do this until it feels synchronized with your in- and out-breaths.
3. Third, work with a personal situation-any painful situation that’s real to you.
Traditionally you begin by doing tonglen for someone you care about and wish to help. However, if you are stuck, you can do the practice for the pain you are feeling and simultaneously for all those just like you who feel that kind of suffering. (This is what I do when I have a bad case of tunnel vision…) For instance, if you are feeling inadequate, you breathe that in for yourself and all the others in the same boat, and you send out confidence and adequacy or relief in any form you wish.
4. Finally, make the taking in and sending out bigger.
If you are doing tonglen for someone you love, extend it out to those who are in the same situation as your friend. If you are doing tonglen for someone you see on television or on the street, do it for all the others in the same boat. Make it bigger than just that one person. If you are doing tonglen for all those who are feeling the anger or fear or whatever that you are trapped in, maybe that’s big enough. But you could go further in all these cases. You could do tonglen for people you consider to be your enemies-those who hurt you or hurt others. Do tonglen for them, thinking of them as having the same confusion and stuckness as your friend or yourself. Breathe in their pain and send them relief.
“Tonglen can extend infinitely. As you do the practice, gradually over time your compassion naturally expands, and so does your realization that things are not as solid as you thought. As you do this practice, gradually at your own pace, you will be surprised to find yourself more and more able to be there for others even in what used to seem like impossible situations.”-Pema Chödrön
After all, we’re all in this together.