Some of us are spending this time of social distancing alone, and some of us are crammed into houses full of people unable to get a moment to themselves. We’re all learning about our needs for and relationships with each other.
As we re-open and find more opportunities to interact with others, we must not lose sight of the desire we felt for community, and the ways we sought community, while we were shut in.
I write a lot about meditation in my new book Resilience: Handling Anxiety in a Time of Crisis, and I position meditation as a way to predict, prevent and manage episodes of anxiety. But meditation is often portrayed as a self-centered, self-absorbed act during which the meditator focuses only on themselves.
That happens all too often. People lose sight of the fact that meditation can forge connections and make those who meditate more available to help others, as well as help themselves. As I write in the book:
“Even acts that keep us focused on ourselves as individuals can open us up to include the world.
Practices in focused attention like walking, standing and seated meditation work best when we save some of the focus we direct for others. The helpless loneliness that exacerbates anxiety can become comfort when we join a circle. Even on-line. We are the witness to each other’s suffering. We are the salve for each other’s wounds. We realize we must continue on together.
It will be tough. Anxiety will trap you inside yourself and make you feel worthless or dangerously inconsistent. You’ll be afraid to reach out. You may fear being hurt even more than you fear confronting one more day with this irritable, trembling negative energy. But in a crisis almost everyone is fearing that. We can best cope in a crisis, we can best soothe our agitated minds, by making connections. As the methods in this book give you some secure space to act, reach out to others. Help them. They need you. Ask for help. You need them.”
How can sitting alone in a room, your focus on your breath or some mantra, prepare you to better interact with others and find a helpful, inspiring role in society? Maybe it’s just perspective. Maybe the fact that some see meditation as a means of connection and others see it as a means of separation has to do with how meditation is taught.
I think that meditation done skillfully and with effort opens up the meditator to new experience and empathy. From that open place understanding of others becomes easier, even natural. Meditation should be an expansive experience that takes us away from the mindless, distracting chatter in our heads and prepares us to truly notice the world around us.
This world includes all of the people in our lives, the ones close to us and the ones we merely pass on the street. I write in the book:
“Once you have found a place of peace, strengthening connections and building community even in disturbing times can help us handle the uncertainty that contributes to anxiety. This outward focus is a great complement to all the inner work we can ever do.
Certainty can be found in a future that seals your fate with those you care about, those you aspire to be with, and those you depend on. If you’re lost within yourself, turn to others. The world is in turmoil and we know nothing about how this will end and what will be left for us. Don’t give up. Part of handling anxiety is looking outside toward the future as part of a group willing to search together. We must be sure to bring along the least of us.”
This pause forced upon us by the pandemic gives many the opportunity to explore new things like meditation. Resources to learn are everywhere (find a great on-line meditation course here). But as you learn to meditate, if you’re not encouraged to use your practice to find compassion for everyone, not only for yourself, seek another teacher.
It may seem counter-intuitive, but time spent alone deeply focused on one thing can be opening and drive us to truly connect with others. This is nothing new to people who pray.
People who meditate can find themselves in the same place of caring and service.
I’ll be spending the next few weeks discussing this and other ideas from my book in virtual events in the US and the UK. Find a list with links here.