Casey Horner on Unsplash
Using the shutdown to discover something new
In conversations with colleagues and friends – after three weeks in this state of emergency – we often end up talking about how exhausting our daily life has become. After a day at the home desk, interrupted only by a walk and an online yoga class, I am completely spent by the time I hit the sofa in the evening. And I’ve certainly looked healthier.
Though most of us have already begun to accommodate ourselves to this new situation – restructured our work, divided up childcare, emotionally and mentally adjusted to the changes – something is fundamentally different.
We are experiencing a shutdown paired with increased intensity. Our movement is severely limited, our contacts are reduced to a minimum, and those with whom we live together are suddenly more present than ever. Has my partner always been such a voracious eater? Has my girlfriend always been this loud when she’s on the phone?
Confined to a smaller space and surrounded by less distractions, we are confronted with ourselves more than ever. Everything that previously occurred within an extensive network is now comprised within the smallest of spaces. But that’s not all. We are also confronted with an exogenous threat that evokes many and mostly unpleasant feelings.
As in a pressure cooker, from which the steam can’t escape, we are suddenly experiencing ourselves and our feelings in a heavily condensed way. Whoever felt lonely/sad/purposeless/motivated/joyful (add an adjective that applies to you) before the pandemic, is likely to feel that way with greater intensity now. Whoever felt irritated and annoyed by their boss/colleague/partner, is now likely to suffer even more.
We are used to avoiding inner tensions and irritations by being active in the outside world. We distract ourselves, pump out excess energy in the gym, gossip about our boss with friends, and send our children to play at the neighbor’s house.
From Doing to Being
But now, stuck in semi-quarantine, our modus operandi is shifting from doing to being. It’s getting harder and harder to avoid one’s own feelings and sensations. I feel different, the world shows up differently inside me. And, most of the time, it feels duller and more narrow, rather than more spacious and free.
In this situation I attempt to make myself feel “as usual”. In my home office, in front of my screen, I try to attain the same state of mind that I used to be in at the office, surrounded by my colleagues and in direct exchange with a lot of other people.
But this is exactly what’s so draining: if we resist our own experience and attempt to create another reality, we exert ourselves. We often do this without even noticing it.
For example, in meetings: during in-person meetings we experience our colleagues and conversation partners on several different levels: we see, hear and smell them, sometimes we touch each other, we sense their physical presence and the atmosphere of the room. In a video-conference, by contrast, these channels are reduced to seeing and hearing – both of which are in turn reduced to a small screen and a speaker. Our reptilian brain however, continues to assume that it is experiencing the entire spectrum of familiar physical encounters. It thus has to work twice as hard to receive the same level of sensory input. It’s as if we went outside at night and expected to see just as well as during the day. We’d have to strain our eyes to do that. No wonder that many of us are more exhausted than usual after a round of video-conferences.
Here are a few strategies for dealing with this situation:
- I can become aware of formerly unconscious mechanisms, and understand that, in my daily, non-distanced life, I experience the world through various channels (sight, sound, feeling, touch, intuitive perception of space and mood etc.)
- I can perceive more subtly that, for example, during a video-conference, only a limited number of channels is available to me.
- I can begin to notice how I attempt to compensate for the difference between these two ways of perception, and how I exert myself by, for example, squinting my eyes, holding my breath, or leaning in towards the screen.
- I can attempt to soften these tensions and consciously release them.
- What can help me do this is the conscious expansion of my habitual spectrum of awareness, for example, by actively feeling my environment – my home office – instead of being sucked in by the screen. It can be just as helpful to incorporate my own body by, for example, moving around more or concentrating my awareness on individual body parts. Can I feel my feet on the ground, my butt on the chair, etc.?
Just as with our last blog post, this one is also about embracing change instead of (unsuccessfully) wasting energy on restoring the old status quo. What’s needed for this is the capacity to really be with what’s happening right now, regardless of whether it feels good or challenging. In one sense, this can be exciting: it’s an invitation to sharpen the senses, to really observe what’s happening on the inside, how you experience yourself and the world. This step contains an enormous potential to get to know yourself better and to find innovative answers to the current crisis.
Far from being specific to the corona crises, this movement – to continuously embrace yourself anew – is at the core of human development, and it has been memorably articulated by many philosophers and poets, such as by Goethe in the West-Eastern Diwan:
Und so lang du das nicht hast,
dieses Stirb und Werde,
bist du nur ein trüber Gast
auf der dunklen Erde.
And as long as you don’t have it,
this dying and becoming,
you are but a dreary guest
on the dark earth.
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Joana Breidenbach, Bettina Rollow, Rivka Halbershtadt