I woke up feeling quite out of sorts today: restless and cooped up indoors but too tired and flat to go out; totally indecisive as to where I would want to go anyway, not wanting to be on my own but even less wanting to meet anyone or speak to any friends on the phone; not wanting to write this blogpost or anything, or read any of the interesting books and articles I’ve come across, or listen to any of the available podcasts etc.. I went to the kitchen just now and was completely unable to decide whether I wanted to drink tea or coffee or Wake-Cup or anything at all … argh, in a completely messy soup of a state of mind!
I’m glad I write this down as I can laugh at myself now in disbelief – I couldn’t actually objectively speaking wish for better conditions to weather this confounding world situation, and could fill several notebooks with my blessings – but still I periodically end up in the mood described above. I just remembered early on in the full lockdown phase reading something along the lines of ‘our ancestors were asked to go and fight on the frontline; you’ve been asked to stay sitting on your sofa – are you up to the challenge?’ Clearly not, as it shows so starkly how we truly create our world with our minds, doesn’t it? It’s not really so much something or someone out there being difficult, the bigger problem most definitely lies ‘in here’.
One helpful take on the situation I randomly came across in my frustrated spin this morning was a shamanic teacher likening this phase to the chrysalis stage of the butterfly’s life cycle – where the insides of the small being literally turn into a messy liquid soup – and this state of affairs can apparently last up to two years for some species! But as the wise woman said, although at the time it looks as if it’s game over for the heedless little caterpillar which has grown fatter and fatter and finally gorged on itself with no regard for the consequences, instead it’s the formless phase of a deep transformation process, where ‘imaginal cells’ gradually build up what will eventually emerge as a graceful butterfly. If the soupy formless stage can be used wisely I suppose, feeding our unruly imaginations with helpful and nourishing things rather than the toxic and maddening variety of content out there, especially in cyberspace. For in the case of us self- reflective human beings, ‘what we contemplate, we become’, as an ancient buddhist teaching would put it.
I feel relieved now about having made myself sit down to write – it turns out that there might be more coherent substance in the soup of my mind than expected. The best and most thought-provoking thing I’ve seen these past few weeks was the James Baldwin Arena programme ‘I am not your negro’: http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/m000kbk6 via @bbciplayer. What struck me most – alongside the sheer courage and bright wisdom of the man – was something he said towards the end of the programme:
To my mind that’s a good two line summary of psychoanalytic thinking too, which I have been very grateful for as one of my guiding lights to try to steer through the encroaching chaos by – that and the buddhist teachings as my bedrock. My colleagues and I are becoming increasingly concerned that because of that radical and uncompromising stance, psychodynamic work and thinking is increasingly attacked and sidelined in our workplaces – the issues needing to be faced feel too painful and frightening, so the preferred option for most is not to look too closely or deeply, to stay safely on the surface of crisis management instead; fretting about tick box checklists and red, amber and green risk ratings etc, rather than really listening to and delving into the meaning and significance of our young people’s fragile states of mind – and our own. But if we do listen closely and can bear to sit with moods like the one described above for a while, talking ourselves and others through them in a spirit of friendly enquiry – ‘What’s happening, what’s the matter?’ – this can be of great help, and yield surprising insights into the complex connections between our internal worlds and how we perceive life and the world out there.
But that method takes courage and patience – not the most valued qualities right now, when everything is about keeping our environment and our bodies 100% safe and sterile; where moving around freely and interacting with others in real, shared space has become a dangerous threat to our health – and the urge is to quickly fix this with a magic vaccine, inoculating us against our vulnerability to illness and death; where world-beating tracking and tracing systems have become a most desirable thing, rather than something to be quite wary of, due to their obvious implications for our individual freedom. Quite apart from the fact that there is no cure on the level of the rational mind for our vulnerability to illness and death – it’s a non-negotiable part of being alive, and we need to learn to live with that, to face the knowledge that one day we will die, and we don’t know when or how that will be. I remember a buddhist teacher a few years back suggesting that instead of admonishing each other to ‘stay safe’ which was not possible, we should encourage each other to ‘take a risk’. That sounds like sacrilege of course in the middle of a pandemic; and I’m not dismissing the need to look after ourselves and each other as best we can right now, especially with those in mind who are especially vulnerable to suffering serious illness or death from this particular virus. But I also think we do need to keep a balance; not to allow fear to erode the very quality of our lives. On gradually emerging from the collective shock of our lockdown withdrawal, it’s only by engaging creatively and sensitively with each other and the world again that we can find new, as yet undiscovered ways forward together – probably not one right magic answer, but many different, unique paths?
I quite like how chrysalis sounds a bit like crisis; an anxiety-provoking but necessary step along the way of humanity turning from the very greedy caterpillar stage to developing into wise and compassionate, responsible adults? If only things were that linear…to be continued.