How illness holds within it an opportunity for awakening

Pandemic outbreaks of highly infectious disease like the Plague, Cholera, Influenza and now Coronavirus, sweep through human consciousness like a hurricane. They are like auguries of awakening, not always welcome ones, as the disease and suffering is not welcome, but they have a way to get us to address that from which we have been hithertoo averting our gaze. At the political level they have so often in the past heralded, accompanied or driven major change. At the personal level we might think we can after a while get back to life as normal but so often this is not so: such shocks to our sense of wellbeing can be lasting and profound. Our collective and individual cage has had a violent and unsettling shake. It is our choice whether or not we have an awakening and choose to pay attention and learn the lessons that beckon.

Powerfully existential

In one way, such an event impacts our very survival. The disease could kill us, or our loved ones. It thus directs us to reflect, if we can allow ourself, on the prospect of dying. It might flit tangentially on our awareness, and then we may look directly at the possibility. Many avoid it, not surprisingly, given the core human driver to survive.

I wonder how many of you have been making wills, or discussing with others the practical aspects of your departure. It’s an uncomfortable subject, one that many avoid entirely. In the UK around 54% of people don’t have wills. Also many don’t make practical arrangements for what they would want to happen if they were incapacitated, like a living will. It can be a useful, if unsettling, question to ask oneself: what if I die?

There’s not surprisingly an emotional side to this, to contemplate leaving the earth plane and what that might mean. It can be very scary. Some say that such existential dread underlies the human condition, and explains a lot about human behaviour. There are those who’ve nearly been there, who’ve had Near Death Experiences (NDE’s), or who have had to cope with and come through an event that threatened their survival. There are those who have done this who now have no fear of death. I have before in these pages recommended the work of Steve Taylor who has researched people who have had these or related experiences, and the bliss, joy and contentment that they have found as a result. See for example Out of the Darkness. At some point, many of his subjects broke through to another level of awareness.

Existentialists say that death is a “given”, something we will all face sooner or later. Our challenge is how we do that. We each find, or don’t find, our strategies for coping. It might for example be religion, spirituality, philosophy, or rationality. We might adopt a spiritual or mental practice. Then again, addiction, media and other stimuli can provide substitutes.

Perhaps this pandemic is one of those invitations for us to reconcile ourselves with our ending.

Alone in a lockdown, it’s hard to use others to help us avoid these issues. We’re in danger of being left alone with ourselves. As Oriah Mountain Dreamer says at the end of her poem The Invitation,

“I want to know if you can be alone with yourself and if you truly like the company you keep in the empty moments”

Fear and anxiety are a wake-up call

A lot of us in today’s world live in various states of fear and anxiety. It’s endemic in modern living. Existential anxiety is often linked with other reasons for us to feel anxious, like our job, our relationship or financial issues. Thus, while we might focus on the content of the anxiety, like what we fear might happen and the disaster scenarios that churn around in our minds, we might also use such occurrences as a reminder of what’s really behind this seeming regular visitation from the angel of fear. What has this fear to teach us, probaby one we’re resisting?

Thus visitations of fear and anxiety may also have something useful, much though it can be highly unpleasant to experience. We can use it to learn what positive potential might lie behind the fear. After all, as said in a recent post, fear is simply False Evidence Appearing Real. It’s an illusion.

I have often taught people to use fear in meditation, or simply when we wake up afraid, or encounter it during the day. This is to use it as a tool. What?, you might think, are you crazy?! We’re all crazy in this world! It’s a perception.

Breathe!

In this practice, we use the breath.

With fear you can breathe into it, let go of the thoughts, be present with the fear, focus on the feeling, feel it, and let it dissolve. It’s just an energy. Let it go. Then do this.

Breathe!

Sit if possible, and you could stand if need be. Focusing on your breath, take a deep breath and breathe in deeply, down as it were into your belly, such that you move your belly out, expand it, using the diaphragm. You breathe as it were “into” the stomach, where feelings are often felt. Then breathe out long. Then do it again several times. Not too often as you can get dizzy. As you breathe out, let go and relax. In fact you could say to yourself as you do this

Breathe in (breathe in deep)…(Slight pause)….Breathe out (Now breathe out long)…Let go (and relax)

(Very slight pause)

Breathe in (breathe in deep again)…(Slight pause)…Breathe out (Now breathe out long)…(and when you’ve breathed out and relaxed) And I am good.

Be present with with the understanding that you are good.

Then breathe naturally and in a relaxed state for a few minutes.

Thus in this practice, you focus on your breath and breathing, come into the present moment and simply be aware of your breath. You intentionally leave each end breath with a positive affirmation.

Focusing on the breath is a mindfulness practice, explained on this website. You can practice using breathing as a tool to let go of anxiety and have a positive focus.

Meditators use tools like the breath and they also use a mantra. Often mantras contain some positive element. So’ham or Hamsa (I am That) is a well-known one. If you look at the pages on this site on various mindfulness practices, you can practice using the breath and a mantra. Practice is essential. The benefits come in time.

It’s hard to intentionally focus on the breath and be anxious. Anxiety is a mental process. It is thoughts we don’t need and can let go of. Conscious breathing is a great tool. We do it all the time! So why not be aware that we doing it!

Opportunity

It might be hard to see this pandemic as an opportunity for an awakening and humans, being humans, might not use it as such. My take is that it offers us a painful way but a great way to see through how we are living on this planet and make real, lasting positive changes for all of us. One way is to experience consciousness and aliveness differently, for ourselves, for our planet, for our wellbeing, and for our relationships. As Lao Tzu said,  If you do not change direction, you may end up where you are heading.

To make an end is to make a beginning – a farewell to our friend Mary

It’s been a bit of a week. It started with being in Dublin when Ireland was learning its fate at the hands of the EU and IMF and ended with the death of one of our friends. Sometimes life seems to go like this, a bunch of momentous events. Where we make an end of something we also make a beginning.

Our friend who just died was 82 and had just written and published her autobiography, which it had taken her 4 years to write. I was really impressed that she, Mary, chose to wrap her life up in this way. One, to write an autobiography having never written a book before, and two, no sooner was it published than she got sick and died. It’s like she had brought things to a fitting close.

She was a courageous person. Not all that long ago she organised and carried out her own world circumnavigation, staying with various women in different parts of the world under a reciprocal arrangement and despite breaking her ankle at one point. She had a gritty, gusty way that we might say characterised those raised during the Second World War, blitz and all. A gruff, reserved exterior, she could be shockingly blunt and rude even, but she was kind, caring and heart-felt in her own way.

When people around us die, it can feel strange and unreal at first, perhaps the shock phase of the grieving cycle described by Elizabeth Kubler-Rosse. One moment, there she is and the next, gone.

Of course, from my understanding, she has simply left her body for her next phase in re-connecting with the Whole, but as a human grief is a real and palpable experience, about me and her other friends, and her family, as humans coming to terms with someone going in a totally final way.

The two certainties, existentialists say, about life is that we are born and we die. They are “givens” and some say it is up to us what meaning we make of that. To them however, life ceases at that point. Not for me it doesn’t. But each death still raises once again the challenge of facing the finiteness of life in its material form. To connect with that is to face the fear of ending. No wonder so many of us fear and avoid endings.

TS Eliot wrote,

“To make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from….
We shall not cease from exploration,
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.”
(extracts from Little Gidding)

To me, that’s it: we need to do the journey to really know who we are, which is where we started.

So it somehow seems really fitting that right after, we got this YouTube video clip from a friend, one that is no doubt doing the rounds. Thank you, Richard for this. So I thought you might like to watch it (see the link below). Whatever your religious perspective, there’s to me an affirmation of joy in this chorus from the well-known choral work by Handel, “The Messiah,” in a very unlikely setting.

Joy is who we are. Death is sad and, sure, is feared by us but what we need to do is see beyond the fear to what it has to teach us, through the tears, about life and about what lasts above and beyond the illusion of finiteness.

For the love of our friend Mary. I wish you well on your journey. Enjoy.