Six Feet of Mindful Separation
By Melissa Zehner, LPC, Professional Psychotherapist, and Mindfulness-Meditation Practitioner
As I go for walks during our time of quarantine, I’ve started to see a sort of peacefulness come about our movements. The way people have slowed down a bit as they follow a mindful code, offering a respectful space between one another. Like grazing buffalo, there’s an understanding that we are all here together but we are also within our own, roaming space. As another person approaches and starts nearing the invisible 6-foot barrier, one of us will ever so politely step to the street allowing the other person to pass. There’s often a gentle nod of the head, accompanied by a warm hello. There’s a gracefulness in this kind of interaction that I very much cherish. At first this 6-foot barrier seemed like a strange, frightful avoidance of one another. But being the adaptive creatures that we are, we’ve quickly come to understand this new movement amongst our herd. We are incredibly resilient creatures when you stop to think about it; how quickly we are finding ways to deal with the new challenge in our habitat.
Other days I go for walks and I abhor my surroundings. I start plotting for when this quarantine lifts and we can move out of here. And I mean a total relocation. I’m sick of concrete and crowded spaces. I really don’t mind isolation, it’s the alienation from nature that gets to me. I love to walk, to lose myself, and blend into the vibration of life around me. But here, it’s all hard, the landscape has been eroded by its inhabitants, and I want out (so I tell myself). I pass by people on the street and I can’t bring myself to smile or even to share a gaze. I am angry and like a charging bull I want this intruder off my path. I want out of here. I see people everywhere wearing masks and gloves and I begin to feel like my own species is alien to me. When I’m in these moods there is a familiar line that replays itself again and again in my mind: “Then come my Black Days. MAD. And loud. I howl. I growl at every cloud” (Dr. Seuss).
This is the current emotional pendulum I’ve been swinging from since the COVID-19 virus settled into our world. By my nature, I am a helper and my initial reaction to the crisis was to do whatever I can to contribute a positive, soothing voice in the sea of uncertainty. When these morose moods come about though, I feel like a sham, unworthy of helping anyone but my own family, and sometimes I feel too small for even that. Then I remind myself to sit with all of these feelings. As important as it is to give rise to the joy, gratitude, love, and optimism at this critical time I must also honor the despair, the growing frustration, the grief, the helplessness, the fear. It’s the encompassing of all these internal experiences (the whole damn lot of them) that will keep me grounded; rooted in the here and now, whether I want to be HERE or not.
Placing one hand on my abdomen and the other across my chest, I tune into the breath, feeling the rise and fall of my hands as the breath moves through me. I do this, just this, for a few moments, allowing for all that arises to be here. Settling into my body just as it is, feeling every sensation throughout the entire body. Then I move towards emotions that are present, paying attention to where in the body these emotions are surfacing. Often, frustration, annoyance and anger manifest as a burning high in my chest, accompanied with a strong visceral sense of wanting to flee. Rather than acting on this impulse (to flee) I allow myself to feel the vibration as it courses through my muscles and quickens my breath. Both are signs that my sympathetic nervous system (aka: fight or flight response) has been charged. I keep breathing with it, creating space for all that is here. Even when the thoughts, “I don’t want to be doing this” surface, I acknowledge that resistance is here as well (and usually a tightening in the jaw). I keep breathing, making room for resistance to join in. As I do this, I notice a lump in the back of my throat. With that acknowledgment comes a warm fluttering behind my eyelids, and tears well up. Ah, sadness is here too. As I ease into the sadness with a calm steady breath, grief makes its presence felt somewhere deep within my chest. It’s heavy, bearing down on me. A thought follows: “a lot has been lost and there is more to come.” I breath into all these sensations and thoughts and greeting them with a gentle tone, I find words that speak to this precise moment. I repeat this caring mantra to myself again and again until I feel calmness settle in. “This is hard but I’ll find my way.” This is hard (on the in breath) but I’ll find my way (on the out breath) This is hard (on the in breath) but we’ll find our way (on the out breath) Whenever you feel overwhelmed or stricken with strong emotion, try the above exercise. Give yourself the offering of five still minutes and with a curious mind, see what follows. Notice the tendency to want to flee and allow for that impulse to be present. Notice the restlessness, the boredom, the agitation as you sit still. Identify where and how you feel this in the body. Allowing for it all to be here (the good, the bad, and the ugly) while tenderly telling yourself, it is okay to feel this, it is okay to feel this… Breath with it, make space for it. To be soothing like this, to be patient, to be loving toward oneself, to honor and make room for one’s whole lived experience, this is where unity lies. Or in the wise and whimsical words of Dr. Seuss, “But it all turns out all right, you see. And I go back to being me.” At this time, I don’t know exactly what it means to “go back to being me…” Or (most importantly) go back to being we… but we will find our way. We are incredibly resilient creatures. This I do know even on my blackest of days.
With Love … *My Many Colored Days by Dr. Seuss, Steve Johnson, et al., Aug 20, 1996