These are challenging days. Within a few weeks, our lives turned upside down. Some experience the loss of their job or face financial uncertainty. Others are home with their children, juggling daily chores, their own feelings and home-office all at the same time. Some are isolated, others overwhelmed by the sudden closeness to their family members. With the outdoors no longer available an important resource for well-being falls away. Some people experience a threat to their health, others feel deep concern for their friends and loved ones. A constant intake of news and pictures of empty shelves in supermarkets fuel a sense of fear.
The growth of kindness and support
Amid all the uncertainty, other aspects of human potential show: we can notice acts which based on our shared capacity for kindness, generosity, support and service. The pandemia remembers us of the shared denominator of all sentient beings: we all wish to be happy, safe and secure. We all suffer when we experience fear and anxiety – we share much more than what separates us.
Uncertainty, the inability to know what the future brings, can provoke fear within. While we know that life is full of unknowns, structures, roles and relationships provide a sense of stability and continuity which cover over the basic uncertainty with which we all live. Until a couple of weeks ago life seemed fairly stable or at least predictable.
The uncertainty we suddenly woke up to is difficult to handle. Not knowing what the future brings, the mind uses imagination, past experience and association to create at least a prediction of what is likely to happen. It spins scenario after scenario to prepare for the eventual outcome. Restlessly it searches for either confirmation or negation of these scenarios to turn it into certainty.
Paradoxically enough, the mind prefers the stability it senses in a negative imagination of the future over remaining in uncertainty. Any prediction is better than the unknown. And so, every new article, every conversation, every view has the potential to drive the mind into a new spin. If we follow this pattern painful, endless and often fruitless circles of thoughts lie ahead of us.
There is a simple truth, in accordance to a famous one-liner ascribed to the philosopher Socrates “I know that I know nothing”. What happens when we acknowledge that we just do not know what lies ahead of us? How can we live with uncertainty, the wide-open space which emerges from it?
Loss of trust
The experience of the last days is a wake-up call. Have we ever before seen with such clarity what we base our trust and happiness in? Part of the challenge is to see how fragile they are. The other part is to acknowledge and stay with the sense of grief, loss and groundlessness which emerges from this. Our own hearts hurt, and so do the hearts of others.
How do we meet uncertainty, grief and loss within ourselves and others? What can serve us as a compass within these days? Something which is independent of roles, job, relationships which all proved to be to fragile to provide us a stable ground to stand upon?
Finding new ground
Victor Frankl, a psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor, stated.
“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms—to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”
What Frankl points to is to shift the focus from the result of an action to the attitude which suffuses our action, with which we meet an experience or another. We cannot create life according to our wishes, but we have a choice on which intentions we act upon and what we give our attention to.
There are two attitudes which bring equally much benefit to ourselves as to others, help us to face uncertainty and suffering.
Calm and kindness.
Trust in a calm mind
We often think of calm as a result of an action. Calm results from solving a problem, finding a solution or end a conflict. Hardly ever do we think of calm as something we can actively bring to a situation. And yet calm is something we can create rather than hope for.
In tense situations we underestimate the importance of calm and regularly go for the immediate action. Fear and anxiety, anger and desire demand to act right now. It takes some faith in the power of calm to give priority over reactivity. Regular reflections on the benefits of calm deepens the trust. Calm clears our mind. It cuts through circles of thought, heightens our awareness for our own needs as well as for the needs of others and guides us safely out the realm of assumptions and prejudice, supporting understanding and care. Calm protects us from regret and justification. With a calm mind we start asking more questions, become more curious about dynamics and less ready to jump to conclusions.
Making the gift of calm to others
A calm and steady presence is a great gift to make to others as well. In conversations it helps us to find ways to deescalate conflict, and show curiosity and understanding for the other. Some themes fuel fear and the anxiety. If we wish to contribute to caring relationships, we need to choose carefully what and how we speak. We can make a commitment to speak only what we know is true. A conversation which focuses too much on the negative contributes to fear and despair in all participants. We can mention the encouraging, the heart-warming and the positive to bring balance into the ways of looking.
Calm as a compass
To be able to offer calm to others, we need to make it a priority for ourselves. Calm and clarity can serve us as a compass, which leads us through every action, every conversation, even through the thickets of our thinking mind. Some patterns of thought foster a sense of helplessness or anger. Mindfulness can distinguish whether a thought, an idea or view actually supports calm and clarity.
A clear commitment and a gentle yet persistent effort can guide us back to breath and body. Our immediate experience serves as a refuge, a foothold, a shelter. We learn to trust calm and clarity rather than worries and anxieties.
The many facets of kindness
Love is never inappropriate. In its many facets, it is able to contribute to any situation. Whether active or passive, whether as compassionate action or equanimous presence, love never fails us. Our first instinct is to protect ourselves and those dear to us, if necessary, even at the expense of others. As we do not fully trust into calm presence, we might lose our commitment to relate from a place of understanding, care and love, when push comes to shove.
The blessings of equanimity
The current crisis puts many people on edge. Situations of conflict and irritation are more common than just a couple of days ago. The heightened level of stress, anxiety, and irritation changes the behavior of those around us. They are less able to listen and pay attention and more likely to lash out in irritation.
This is the time where the underestimated power of equanimity can support us. Equanimity is the capacity of our heart to take a step back and create spaciousness around reactivity, whether it is our own, or of another. Our heart-minds have the admirable capacity to see through sometimes plainly hurting and aggressive behavior and reveal the causes and conditions from which they arise. It allows us to communicate that we will not accept abuse, while at the same time leave a door open for healing conversations, rather than succumbing to the blame-game, with its one dimensionality of right and wrong.
To love with equanimity means to love in a way which allows relationships to breathe, heal and repair. It accepts the presence of feelings like overwhelm, fear or irritation, while protecting us at the same time from acting upon these.
Kindness radiates in all directions
Kindness, care and love is a gift we offer to others. It arises from a timeless truth: hatred never ceases with hatred. Love paired with wisdom and mindfulness finds ways to relate to people and experience, without shutting the heart down. We trust that acts of kindness have a ripple effect, with results unknown to us.
Acting from a place of kindness is not nativity or a romantic ideal. It is the one way to interact in the world, which protects the heart from fear, anger and despair. Rather than feeling like a victim of a situation, it allows to pro-actively create the world, the environment, the relationships we wish for.
Within our own limits, we can contribute in every single action we do over the day. There is no action done, no word spoken, no reflection made, which is unimportant. This way we contribute to the well-being of others. But equally important, kindness protects the hearts from helplessness and depression. Despair is not an option, as it contributes nothing, but robs ourselves and others of even the smallest glimpse of happiness and joy.
Time for a deep reflection
The dramatic changes of the last days allow us to reflect deeply on how we want to live in this world. This takes place independent of roles and responsibilities, independent of results or a sense of success. Intentions are the origin of our actions. Kindness and calm provide new pathways which shelter the heart from fear, defense, reactivity or anxiety.
To live life based on such intentions is a conscious choice. We do not need to wait for these to appear in our lives. Rather we bring these qualities to every decision and action, and in doing so, they become the foothold on which we can base our trust.
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