Finding Peace in the Time of COVID-19 (part 1 of 3)
Death, Fear and the Virus
Unless you have been off-world or in a persistent vegetative state for the past two months, you will be very familiar with the fact that the end is nigh. Well, if you can believe the media, at least. You know what I am talking about: the arrival of the COVID-19 virus.
A lot of people are scared. Very scared. And that is perfectly understandable. Mostly. The fear in many cases is because of the unknown. What will happen? Will 70 percent of the world’s population be infected, with death tolls in the millions, bringing visions of the plague back to haunt us from our ancestral past? Will I even survive it? What about my elderly parents? My sick relatives?
I am not going to attempt to answer those questions here. That is not the purpose of this writing. Instead I am going to describe a meditative process I call Emotional Alignment. There are three levels to the process, and I am going to share them with you over three posts on the topic. Today I will introduce the idea of Emotional Alignment, and describe the first level, which you will be able to begin today if you choose. The other 2 levels will be outlined in the two posts to follow soon. I will also outline some of the potential limitations of Emotional Alignment in these posts, and discuss some common errors people make using this and similar processes.
I live in Zhuhai, southern China, close to Macau and Hong Kong. Over here we are in a different phase of the epidemic than most other countries, given that the virus was first made public in Wuhan, not too far from, here in late December. We’ve had well over two months to adjust our perspective, and embrace the new normal.
Here in Zhuhai, it is not quite lockdown, despite restrictions on the movements of the general public. After all, I am writing this on my laptop in a lovely, small restaurant in the Tangjia district in the northern part of Zhuhai. Zhuhai is quite a lovely city. In terms of its environment and physical landscape, it’s certainly a very pretty place. It lies right on the coast, and has won numerous awards for its environmental policies and standards. So, it is not a bad place to wait out the zombie Apocalypse.
I suppose I am going to have to be honest, and tell you the truth that Zhuhai and most of the regions around here have not been hard hit by the Attack of the Mini-Monsters. The official figures here last time I checked were that 98 people have been confirmed to have contracted the virus, 95 have fully recovered, two are still under observation, while just one person has succumbed. In nearby Macau there have been just over a dozen cases, no deaths; less than 200 in Hong Kong (four deaths); while Taiwan has had 100 cases and no fatalities yet. Beyond the strict regulation of people’s movements, the low impact around here may be related to climate. These are humid, hot places, and there is some suggestion that these locales may be less favorable to the spread of the virus (though that is unproven at this point).
The Horror, the Horror
But I am not here to promote the Zhuhai region to brave travelers. Indeed, there are harsh restrictions here now. You would struggle to get in, and even if you did, you’d have to undergo at least two weeks of quarantine at you own expense.
Instead, my purpose here is but one. How shall we deal with fear in a time of great uncertainty? I have spent nearly 25 years working closely with my own emotional body, and have also worked intimately with others as they have sought to manage their own troubled feelings and psychological and spiritual issues.
What lies in the following article represents my own understanding. The Emotional Alignment process I detail here is suitable for those who have at least a reasonable grasp on their current mental state. It is not meant to be a substitute for genuine psychological intervention. If you find that you are really struggling with your mental and emotional states at present, or feel unable to cope, I strongly suggest you seek advice from a registered mental health professional. Most of all, reach out to loved ones. Nobody should go through difficult times alone. There is no shame in seeking help.
The Essence: Love your Fear
When I first began to meditate many years ago the very first “message” I ever received was “Love your fear.” The voice came into my head as I sat quietly in the darkness. That surprised me. I certainly didn’t expect to hear a voice while I meditated. But I realised immediately that the message was a wise one. It made intuitive sense. Don’t run away from your fear! I recalled years before reading the classic children’s book The Boy Who Was Afraid. Confront your fear. Don’t run away.
So, I began the process of finding practical ways to embody that understanding. It took me a long time, and I have modified the process over the years, but what you will find below is the most simple and practical explanation of what I have come to understand. Make no mistake. This self-work was not done alone. I got lots of help. The intense inner child work I did with a group of hardy journeyers in New Zealand twenty years ago was invaluable. The teachings of Leonard Jacobson have also been seminal. In fact, his private “alignment” session with me some 27 years ago was not that dissimilar to the process you will read of here.
I am very grateful for such help.
The Role of Fear
Fear has a role in evolution, and that is to alert us to danger and prepare us to fight or flee. The surge in adrenaline is useful if you have to run like hell, or fight off an intruder from another tribe. But with the long burn of stress in modern societies, our biology can be counterproductive, or even harmful, as is well known. In times of prolonged crisis such as we have with the virus at present, chronic fear and anxiety can really spiral out of control. You will be well aware of this, if you have spent any time online lately.
Emotional Alignment is one way to help bring that anxiety under control.
And yet if we take the other extreme, if we reject fear or ignore it we may fail to heed its warning. Further, denial of one’s physiological state can lead to dissociation, and in turn mental and physical health issues. Many mental health advisors see that denial as a prime driver of addiction. So, what we want and need is a way to manage fear, to turn it into an ally, not to be totally rid of it. After all, there are smart actions we all need to take in the time of COVID-19: washing hands regularly, avoiding large gatherings, minimizing social outings and so on. We also need to be accountable to those around us. Our own reckless behavior could endanger not only ourselves, but loved ones and colleagues. Simply eliminating fear and going about business as usual would be foolish.
The Process: Aligning With the Feelings
Though this article is primarily about how to manage fear, feelings rarely arise in complete isolation from other feelings, and there are many feelings that may arise within us that we typically find difficult to accept or manage. Besides fear, anger and blame, grief, sadness, and shame are perhaps the most common. Confusion, a sense of worthlessness, envy and jealousy are others, and may contain a mixture of various feelings.
Fear is perhaps the most primal of all. It seems to be more pervasive than any other of the “negative” feelings. Indeed, for many of us it often sits just at the surface of consciousness. In recent years, there has been a great rise in the incidence of anxiety and panic attacks in many western countries (although this may in part reflect the fact that people are far more likely to report such feelings).
Before You Begin
The process I am suggesting here (and especially in the second and third levels) will not be for everyone. It does require a genuine intention to do inner work, as well as a fairly high level of self-awareness. Most of you should be able to manage the first level, although some kind of mindfulness practice will help. For the final two levels, it would be beneficial to have done some shadow work or emotional breath work.
Of course, you can modify the process according to your particular needs and introspective abilities. Still, if you find Emotional Alignment is not for you, seek some other kind of emotional management process.
Ideally, to adopt the process I am recommending you need a quiet, private space. Unless we are talking about very wise and accepting people, it is difficult to do the kind of vulnerability work I am suggesting in front of others. Of course, if you are in some kind of emotional group therapy session, Emotional Alignment could be done there, but during the current virus situation I am going to assume you will mostly be restricted to self-work.
The First Step
The most important step of this process I detail here is the first. That is, you should simply and gently acknowledge that you are experiencing fear and related feelings, and are struggling at some level to deal with that. If such feelings are affecting your life, work or relationships, begin by simply acknowledging that. Relax with it. There is no shame in being afraid, being unsure. It is part of the deal in residing in the human physiological system, and in case you haven’t noticed, many people are finding things difficult at the moment. You are not Jesus. You are not the Buddha. You are not even your favourite spiritual teacher or mentor. You are not here to be anyone else other than you. Your job is to accept responsibility for the task of loving and accepting yourself, as best you can.
A Quiet Place
I prefer to engage in Emotional Alignment when there is nobody else in the house, but I realise this is not always possible for everyone. The emotional expression which might emerge could disturb others, and if they have never done this kind of process before, or are not familiar with similar modalities, they may not understand. Still, if appropriate, explain to your partner, family members of housemates what you are doing.
Another option is to do your Emotional Alignment work in the privacy of your car, when parked somewhere private and away from observers. When my brother Jerome took his own life many years ago, I really needed to release a mountain of anger and grief. At the time I was staying temporarily with my mother and a few other family members, after my father’s funeral. I knew there was no way I could do my alignment in the house. They probably would have called the boys in white clothes to come and take me away. So, I borrowed my mother’s car, drove out to a remote location and let it all out (this is the third level of Emotional Alignment). It was one hell of an emotional outpouring, given I’d lost my brother and father in the space of a week. The next day I repeated the process, because there was just so much within me needing expression. On the third day I felt no such requirement, and stayed with my mother and family the whole day.
The process of Emotional Alignment does not need to be as dramatic or intense as the previous level three example. Such heartrending events typically occur but a few times over a lifetime. Emotional Alignment is, for the most part, simple and gentle. Yet this does not mean that it is necessarily easy. Still, I do want you to keep in mind that this is not meant to be complicated. In its essence, Emotional Alignment is as simple as allowing your feelings to have a voice, being present with them, and developing a gentle and accepting relationship with those emotions.
Emotional Alignment begins and ends with surrender. Surrendering allows us to relax, and to develop an accepting relationship with ourselves, with others and the world.
It is one thing to experience difficult emotions. But the emotions themselves are probably not the actual problem. After all, small children often experience a roller-coaster of strong emotions throughout the day, and seem perfectly OK with it. That is because, at least when they are very young, and if they have nurturing parents, they don’t beat themselves up about it. They do not dissociate from their feelings.
Yet if we reject ourselves because we experience difficult emotions, it is difficult to find the love that healing requires. So, begin by forgiving yourself. Nobody can stop you from accepting yourself. Of course, it is ideal if those around you accept you, but that is not necessary nor sufficient.
If your emotional difficulties are negatively affecting others, that adds a little pressure to the situation. For if you are lashing out, have a high need for drama, and are dragging others into conflict, then the situation becomes more complicated. But the first step is not that much different. Acknowledge where you are at and admit to yourself your part in what is happening. Make a commitment to rise above that by taking responsibility for what you are experiencing. That is a necessary step towards freedom.
The Emotional Alignment Process
Begin by sitting quietly in a chair, on a bed or even on the floor (preferably with a mat, don’t make yourself uncomfortable). As I suggested above, you can also do this in any private place. I have done Emotional Alignments in cars, in bushland, while wading in the ocean and even by arriving at work early when others are absent.
I am going to suggest three levels of Emotional Alignment: the first one in this article, and Levels 2 and 3 will be outlined in the two articles to follow. Choose the level most suitable for you and your needs.
If you are not very familiar with the practice of emotional body work, then Level 1 is the best place to start. Think of it as being a bit like going to the gym. You don’t begin with an advanced program. That would be overkill. But be mindful that unlike going to the gym, this is not a forceful activity. It is a letting go process, like relaxed stretching with deep breathing.
There is a witnessing process involved here, where you become the observer of your own mind (ego, if you prefer) and its emotions, beliefs and stories. Yet that mind needs time to begin to trust “you” (as observer) again. You have probably been pushing at least some feelings away for a long time, so a gentle easing into the reconnection is advisable.
This is where inner child work is very useful. In that process you separate yourself from the hurt, becoming a parent to your inner child. This allows you to re-parent your “wounded child.” Emotional Alignment is in many ways the same thing, just using a different framework.
As you sit, bring attention to your breath, and relax deeply. Notice any tension in your body, and just bring awareness to that. Breath into that tension and relax further.
Notice your feelings. If you feel fear, anger or some other sensations, where do they reside in your body? In your abdomen? Your shoulders? Your forehead? Bring attention to that, still breathing deeply and relaxing that part of your body.
Your task is to bring attention to the tension, to the feelings, and to be present with them. You are not trying to judge the feelings as good or bad, nor attempting to get rid of them. The relaxation and non-judgment will tend to diminish the fear indirectly.
Sit and do this for as long as you feel you need to. But do so for at least five minutes. The goal is to be able to achieve a sense of calm embodiment.
As you feel yourself relax, as you become more calm, return your focus to your breath. This will help you to finish the session with a strong sense of embodied presence.
I suggest you practice Level 1 Emotional Alignment regularly, at least once a day if possible. During stressful or uncertain times, you might feel the need to do several shorter sessions.
What I have described above is the basis of the first level of Emotional Alignment. This may be enough for you. Many will find it to be helpful in reducing anxiety and regaining some sense of calmness and emotional control.
Yet there will likely be times when such a process brings forth an awareness of deeper emotions and troubling thoughts. Simply being present with the feelings will be helpful, but may not alleviate the underlying issues.
In part two of this three-part series of articles on using Emotional Alignment during the COVID-19 situation, I will describe how to take the process to the next level, and begin working directly with the emotions themselves, and the fears and beliefs that may lie beneath them. There are also some potential problems to look out for as you engage in these kinds of practices, and I will share my understanding of those in the next two articles.
Part 2 will be posted here within a few days. Please feel free to comment or share this article with friends.