After the shelter in place orders came down in March, the committee inside my mind – composed of pretty rational, staid types – joined hands and collectively dove into an abyss. After having been a daily meditator for more than 25 years and having spent those years touting to others the power of mindfulness to help us navigate the challenging moments of life, I decided to run away. Nothing in my life or my practice had prepared me to deal with a lethal pandemic that seemed to have swooped down on my reality like a COVID-shaped meteor heading straight for me. I went through the full gamut of painful emotions – my mind routinely immersed in feelings of loss, grief, panic, impatience, anger. I was a complete mess.
An inveterate news junkie all my life, I suddenly shunned all outside input, dreading the next shocking headline from CNN. I obsessively washed my hands, spritzed bleach solution on doorknobs and handles, got into arguments with my partner about the right kind of mask to wear, insisted on cooking all our meals during the week, and with relentless focus shopped online for toilet paper, rubbing alcohol, and dish soap. I meditated every day, but my practice didn’t seem to help at all. A week went by. I was still a mess. My partner and I worked from home and frequently got in each other’s way, and my emotional brittleness made things more tense. When she would come in from a walk and begin to share the latest shocking news about the pandemic, I put my hand up and told her that I didn’t want to hear about it. That in itself was a huge role reversal for us; usually, I was the one who gave her news updates, and she was the one who said it was too much. Then, as a way to combat the anxiety of not knowing what the latest headlines revealed or the current progress of pandemic curve charts, I began reading potboiler detective novels so that my mind could find a place to escape. I literally read nothing else for weeks.
Another week went by of more fear, horror, cooking, remote work, seemingly ineffective meditation sessions, online shopping, and detective novels. I was still a mess. It seemed as though my meditation practice had completely let me down, that I was incapable of cultivating any redeeming awareness at all. Instead, I sought refuge in distraction, avoidance, fantasy, things we mindfulness practitioners are encouraged not to do. Move toward the difficult, we are told by our sage teachers. But I was having none of that. I relished my comfort food, my novels, my avoidance.
Some time around week three, I noticed that I appeared to be a little less of a mess. Don’t get me wrong. I was still a mess, but what I noticed is that the part of my mind that was aware I was a mess was somehow more aligned with my sense of self. All of a sudden, my window of tolerance was more open, and I experienced more space – more awareness – for being with things they way they were, and for seeing the fact that “I was a mess.” Somehow, without my noticing, the freaked out committee members in my mind had slowly, gingerly, crawled up from that oozy abyss and had begun to look around to see if it was safe. More days passed, and while I still washed my hands frantically, I was generally able to relax more as well. Little by little, I began taking in some news, and I was able to talk to people about what was happening. I was still a mess, but also not a mess. Maybe a 50-50 mess. It almost felt normal.
After three weeks or so, the idea that “I am a mess” seemed to have retreated. While I had assumed my meditation practice – of being with things the way they are, with mindful awareness – had abandoned me during those incredibly stressful early days of the pandemic, in actuality, I discovered, my practice had been working all that time. It was actually serving me, even though it didn’t look pretty, even though it was downright ugly at times. I realized that just because things are really hard and we’re responding in a less than perfect way, it doesn’t mean that we’re not practicing with it. It just means that things are really hard and we are doing the best we can. With this understanding, I realized that my practice had held me in this challenging time, even if I didn’t know it. Like others, I am a work in progress, navigating this crisis with the tools and the conditioning I have. In retrospect, avoiding the news and reading potboilers was skillful means to calming my nervous system. While meditating every day, which had seemed so ineffective for weeks, nevertheless kept me at least partially connected to the realm of awareness, so that when my nervous system did begin to calm down, I was able to notice the thought “I am a mess” not with judgment but with self-compassion and interest.
More than ever I realize that our practice doesn’t need to look “good” in order for it to be working. We don’t need to have radiant smiles like blissed-out people on magazine covers. Our practice doesn’t need to be perfect, and above all, we don’t need to be perfect. We just need to commit ourselves to practice itself, whether good, bad, or ugly, and do the best we can. With that commitment, the fruits of practice reveal themselves in their own way for each of us.