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A sample from “What I learned In My Cell: Taking a Contemplative Stance in a Time of Pandemic.”

Introduction

It is April 10, 2020 as I write these words.  And these last long weeks have—in some ways—been the strangest days I have ever lived through.

A virus they call COVID-19 has made its way across the globe.  People—especially the vulnerable—are dying.  We are isolating, together.  Nearly everyone in the entire world.

Isolating together.  It’s kind-of funny.  We are alone, together.  We have cut ourselves off from contact with the world outside of ourselves.  And we have done it in the name of cooperative living.  The people who are ignoring the instructions not to gather are the least cooperative and collective of us.

Many of us are not working.  And the endless days bleed into endless nights.  Many of us who are working are working twice as hard as we ever did.  The hospitals are overwhelmed.  The stories are running out of the things our lives depend on.

It is so scary to go out into the world.  It is so scary not to go out into the world.

It is April 10, 2020 as I write these words.  And these last long weeks have been — in some ways—just the same as all the days I have ever lived through.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  There are willfully ignorant people who say that this is all nothing.  I am not saying that.  This virus will change us as individuals and as societies.  It is a big deal.

It is an Armageddon.  But I don’t mean what people often mean, when they say Armageddon.   I am not imagining fireballs and laser beams, destruction on a huge scale.  Originally, the word ‘Armageddon’ meant “uncovering.”   That’s what this is: an uncovering.  The dynamics that have always been at work among us are suddenly revealed for what they are.  I am thinking about how you can manipulate the light and darkness, and shape your hands just so, and it creates a shadow play, an illusion cast on a screen.  Up until this time, we have all been watching the screen.

Now, we have an opportunity.   Somebody just turned the lights on.   We will see the hand that has shaped itself in just the right way to resemble a duck flying, or a soldier marching, or whatever it was.  We will all gasp, “ah.” As we come to understand the things that have always been going on.

It first came into my head that writing this book would maybe be a thing worth doing a few days back.  I was sitting at home, and I had just dropped some THC under my tongue, and the mourning came on me so deeply.  It was so sudden, so intense and unexpected that all I could do was moan.

Mom died about five years ago.   And if you had asked me five months ago… five weeks ago…. Five days ago, I would have told you that I was in a place that I had released my anguish about this event.  And yet as I sat there, in the pandemic, here it was, so fresh, so vital, so acute.

And it was lovely in a way I can’t describe.  I was and am thankful for this opportunity to mourn for mom again.  There was this stuff in me that I would have told you I put away.  But I hadn’t put it away.  I had just covered it up.  Then this Armageddon came, and it uncovered it.

It uncovered so much.

This virus has uncovered more than I will be able to explain.  I am writing from the very middle of this thing.  Later, I will probably have some other things to say.  Distance will give me a certain perspective.  And that perspective will have a value of sorts.  But here in the middle of it?  That closeness is valuable, too.

I am an introspective person with a love of writing and a set of spiritual practices that allows me to see things in a way that I think is helpful for people.  I have a sense that the most helpful my insights will ever be is now, while we are still in the middle of this crisis.  I have some experience writing, publishing, and selling books on spiritual practices, so I have a little background in how to do this efficiently and quickly.   Before I say more about this thing that I am trying to do, I want to be clear about the things I do not want to do here.

I do not want to say this is worth it.  It’s not.  People are suffering and dying.  It is the height of insensitivity and callousness to say that it will end up being a good thing.  If this whole affair was some sort of transaction, the price we must pay is not worth the item we are purchasing.

I do not want to be opportunistic, and benefit from this thing that is happening.  All I can say really, about this later point is that today is Friday.  That mourning came at me on Tuesday.  The idea of writing these words occurred to me then.  I have spent these last several days carrying this concern, weighing my thoughts, weighing my heart, wrestling with this possibility.

Can I be honest with you?  I am only pretty sure that this is the right thing to do.  It is only most of me that has motivations that are pure enough for me to be proud of them.  There is a time I would have expected myself to be positive.  There is a time I would have told you that I searched my heart and it was 100% in the right place.

I wouldn’t have known I was lying at that time.  I would have believed the words I was saying to you.  But that would not have made them true.  The time that mom died was this time of transformation for me.  Even if mom hadn’t been dying, I would have been leaving the evangelical church I had been part of for the prior decade.  The fact of her cancer and the feelings I had about it, they brought a certain urgency to that transition.  My journey out of the black-and-white moralistic Evangelical church has been one into an airy, Christ-centered mysticism.  My experience meditating every day is probably the biggest single action I have taken to help position me to understand this great uncovering.

 

It’s funny how I have this sense that I am getting ahead of myself when I keep getting sucked into wanting to tell you about the things that are in my past.  I guess that is part of the point.  This Armageddon is a Great Uncovering that is giving me a glimpse beneath the surface of things in more than just the present.  It has uncovered some of my past.  It has uncovered some of my future.  I am writing this because I think we ought to be sharing and talking about these uncoverings.  I don’t think these will fully redeem this suffering.  But if we get a little something out of this time, then at least it won’t all be for nothing.

Let me tell you about day-to-day life.  A few weeks ago, I was a Special Education Teacher.  I have taught at my place of work for over a decade now.  I have picked up a few extra gigs along the way, like mentoring the new teachers and coordinating the school’s technology.  Most of the time, I love my job.

I am asthmatic.  I average about one hospital stay a year, whenever the Spring rains bring more mold than my hyper-allergic system can handle.  I was worried, therefore, when the earliest reports made it clear that people like me with respitory vulnerability were at risk.  The school at which I teach is residential. Most of the kids don’t just spend the 8 hours of the school day together.  They spend their nights their too.  And the students I teach aren’t kids who are always receptive to being taught to practice good hygiene.  There was a lot of stuff working against them.

It is a testament to my wonderful place of work that they were willing to validate my concerns.  I had been flirting with a variety of administrative tasks.  We worked out a few preliminary projects for me to do at home.  When the public schools began closing, my assignment began to shift.   The fifty kids who were bused into my school from the homes where they lived with their families were going to need to be educated remotely.  I became the lead on that.  Many of my healthier colleagues continue to show up to their teaching jobs every day.  Our school is one of the few that is not closed.

Dear God, I miss my classroom.  It’s only been three weeks.  How could it only have been three weeks?

            What’s next

This book will be structured into chapters.  Each chapter will be made up of an introduction, a series of reflections, and a gathering of spiritual practices that relate to the topic of the chapter.  The introduction will, of course, explain the importance of the theme of the chapter.  Each of the meditations will conclude with a few questions to encourage exploration of those ideas in the reader’s own life.  If the spiritual practices were practiced daily, I believe firmly that you will benefit greatly from this investment.

The first chapter will focus on the power of the lament.  It will recognize the meaning and depth of our suffering at this time.  In a way, that chapter will be focused on the things I am learning about this pandemic by using my contemplative practice as a lens to understand the world around me.  The second chapter will turn the lens around.  This chapter will explore the things I am learning about my contemplative practice by the things that are going on with this pandemic.  The third chapter will be a deeper dive into the nature of isolation itself.  The fourth and final chapter will try to sketch out some of what these meditations and this time in history means, for myself as an individual and for contemplative practice as a whole.

 

 

 

 

Chapter 1: Laments

One of the almost-forgotten gifts of many of the world’s great religions is the lament.  Laments, of course, are deep sorrows.  Sometimes, they can almost seem like too much.  Perhaps you are a kinder person than me.  But if I am going to be honest, here, I would confess something:

There is a part of me that can watch a person lament and doubt the whole thing.  Is it so bad, whatever it is you are bemoaning?  I can usually put this skepticism away very quickly.  But it is there, nonetheless.

As a look at the idea of lamenting through the lens of this pandemic, as I recall that this a Great Uncovering, there are a few things that I notice.  The first is that the answer might be “no.”  It might be that whatever the actual thing is that a person is mourning, maybe it isn’t as bad as all that.  Maybe it’s not worth the wailing and the tears on its own.   But this is not a reason to invalidate the sufferings someone is expressing.  On the contrary, it is a reason to recognize what a powerful force lamenting is.  It can be a kind-of spring cleaning.

There was a family member I hated going to see movies with when I was a child.  She would cry in the movies.  Not little tears, either.  She would engage in this shoulder-hitching, gasping-for-breath sobbing.  At the time I felt it was embarrassing.  She once said that she liked going out to movies and doing this.  She said she got to cry about the movie, but she was also letting herself cry about all the other stuff in life that is worth crying about.  At the time, I felt that was all weird.

Now, I see a deep wisdom in it.  This is what I am trying to say about laments.  Perhaps they are only about the thing being mourned on the surface.  Perhaps the lament is an opportunity to mourn for all the other things we haven’t properly mourned.

Perhaps that cynical voice within me only appears to be about the other person.  Perhaps when I wonder if some of this isn’t just for show, I am really trying to deny my own mourning and loss.  And maybe, I am also trying to distance and separate myself from the person, too.  I am trying to other them.

When I watch a person physically suffer, I want to alleviate their suffering.  But also, I want to make sure I can’t and won’t suffer in that manner, too.  Next chapter we will explore this topic of contagion.  For now, let’s just say that if I can distance myself from a person who is hurt, I can feel safe and comfortable, holding onto the delusion that I won’t ever be in their position of deep lament.

This chapter will explore the losses we are mourning.  Sometimes we will be missing the things that we are losing now.  Other times it will really be about some wound that runs older and deeper.   One of the reasons that this pandemic is so difficult is that it manifests itself in so many different, sometimes even diametrically opposed ways.  Let’s begin with noticing that.

 

 

 

Reflection 1-1: The Many Different Manifestations

It is difficult to imagine a catastrophe which would hit us more universally.

Every corner of the globe is in some stage of preparation and action.  Every person we know is having their lives shaped by this thing.

At the same time, while it is certainly impacting each one of us, it is hitting us all so very differently.  It is hard to imagine a thing which could have produced a wider variety of impacts.  At the very most general level is the question of how endangered we are.  Those of us with homes, health, responsive and respectful workplaces, effective governments, and robust social networks are hit by this in a certain way.  People without these resources are hit quite differently.

For some of this is largely preventative and theoretical.  Others of us are literally fighting for our lives.  Some of us find that we are laid off with too much time on our hands.  Others are now asked to work twice as hard for twice as long.  Some of us have a low desire for social contact and find this isolation partially invigorating.  Others of us long for connection and find ourselves so very lonely.

The thing is, we mostly chose the lives we had before.  But the circumstances we are in now?  It is all quite random.  It is quite likely that there are at least some elements of where we are that someone else would like a whole lot more than we do.

How do you do with people grieving and mourning?  What do you wish people would do for you when you are lamenting?  What are the things you are missing and mourning right now?  To what extent are your feelings about what is actually going on now, and to what extent are they about things that are from your past?

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