Several years ago, I read an account of a psychological test performed on Israeli soldiers. Three platoons were marched into the desert. The first platoon set out with no instruction and marched for 20 miles not knowing when it would end or what the point of the exercise was. The second platoon was told they were going to march for 10 miles but once they had completed that first 10 were told they then had to then march a second 10 miles. The third platoon was told from the very beginning they were going to march 20 miles in the desert and were updated along the way about their progress. These were all soldiers of equal physical ability and stamina, but the effects of the uncertainty had a powerful and potent impact on their well-being. The third platoon, the one that knew how far they were marching from the very beginning and saw that promise kept were tired, as we all might be, but otherwise fine. The second platoon, the one that knew the distance for each leg, but had the initial promise broken on them were tired but also experienced anger, frustration, betrayal. The first platoon, however, the one that just marched without knowing where they were going or for how long returned to base demoralized. Not just physically tired but psychologically wasted. All of these soldiers marched the same number of miles, but the uncertainty of the journey impacted them far greater than the physical aspects of the exercise.
Depending on how you measure it, we are now entering the fifth or sixth month of quarantine and many of us are beginning to feel the demoralizing effects of uncertainty. We have been forced into an isolation that few of us have ever really experienced. There is no one to tell us what to do, how to behave, what the future will be like. We are marching into the desert with no compass. And it is not easy.
Many of us living in the West have come to expect a certain amount of control over our lives and almost overnight we have been forced into a destabilized realm of confusion and unpredictability. If for no other reason than death is much closer than it felt only a few months ago. Our very mortality and the mortality of those we love is an ever-present concern. Additionally, due to our relationship with control, with being able to make plans and having a reasonable expectation of realizing those plans, we have focused heavily on the external dimensions of our lives. And the pandemic has pushed the inner dimensions to the fore creating a range of reactions from compulsive and dangerous behaviors to deep soul searching.
In every crisis, there is an opportunity. Intuitively we know this. And many of us understand this explicitly. Our culture is littered with little phrases of encouragement like; courage is not an absence of fear, but feeling the fear and going ahead anyway. The promise inherent in this little phrase is that you become a courageous person if you face the fear. There is an opportunity. So what is the opportunity that comes to us when we face uncertainty? In part, I think there is an opportunity to befriend the inner or intimate dimensions of our being.
Perhaps the insight of the serenity prayer has never been more important. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. The key to a successful life is found in the last bit: the wisdom to know the difference. The big stuff: the pandemic, the politics, the behaviors of other people are not in our control, but we can control how we respond. Even in these times of uncertainty, there are things you can control, changes you can make that will help you. Principle among them is establishing a routine. Knowing what you are going to do and how long will tame some of the uncertainty. We are settling into a long relationship with this isolation and fixing a routine is going to be very important for our mental health.
Adding meditation to this routine, bracketing your day either at the beginning or the end (I recommend the beginning), with meditation helps to channel the emotional and psychological stresses brought out by the uncertainty. Giving ourselves intentional time to explore the inner world gives us agency. We are dealing with it anyway because it is being forced on us, but by adding it to our routine allows us to respond instead of react.
Now, I don’t want to oversell meditation as a panacea of our collective ills and many people have a fantasy about what mediation actually does. And they often stop when they realize that not only is it not like their fantasy it also can reveal what has been hidden away within. For some people, turning inward can be distressing, at least initially, because they come to see how much anger, fear, hurt, and woundedness has been living in there unattended, or not consciously anyway. And their meditation feels deeply uncomfortable. But the discomfort is actually always there, we just have piled so much onto the external veneer of our lives we have been able to convince ourselves otherwise. Which again is one of the reasons this isolation is so distressing. The inner world is coming to the fore in a way that we cannot control and we don’t like what we’re seeing, what we’re experiencing coming out of us.
But if we establish a routine, and in that routine we consciously make time to witness the inner movements of our lives, four things begin to happen. First, we are able to orient ourselves in a real way around the wisdom of differentiating the things we cannot change from the things we can. Second, by using simple techniques we can identify where we need to practice release. A body scan will help us identify where we are holding tension physically and breath work or mantra work will help us identify the habitual stories of our suffering that are just constantly running in our minds. Third, by cultivating these first two steps we are able to identify what is valuable, what gives our lives meaning. And finally, when we are able to experience some awareness around what brings meaning to our lives there is an opportunity to align the inner and outer landscapes so the plans we make no longer smother our inner longings but seek, instead, to realize them. This creates harmony in our lives and brings us happiness. But we have to take time to look.
By creating a routine and adding meditation to that routine, you give yourself the chance to see what it is you are feeling. Unlike those poor soldiers in the first platoon just wandering mile after mile in the desert hoping that at some point it would make sense, you use this time to discern what is valuable. And when you understand that life becomes easier.
If you have any questions about meditation, how to get started, or if you would like to join me for meditation I lead a public sit Monday to Friday every day send me an email and I send you the zoom links. I would love to help in any way I can.
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