“Are We There Yet?”
This age-old lament of children in cars could be one of the siren-calls for these times of the Covid-19 pandemic and social unrest. Sometimes a parent or driver can respond, “In one hour”, or the famous, “Go to sleep and I will take a short cut”. In my experience only rarely does the parent have to say, “I have no idea, I had to take an unexpected detour” or even, “We are lost, so I don’t know.”
These days however, those last answers are the ones we are stuck with. The best we can do when our children or friends or loved ones ask, “Are we there yet?” is to say, “Not really. But we will get there.” We are tired, we are worried, we are grieving, we are so done with quarantine. Yet we know that social distancing and mask wearing and really being careful is still the best we’ve got until we are “There.” “There” being that we have a well-tested working vaccine widely available. Being stuck in uncertainty is one of the more profoundly disquieting and uncomfortable emotional states to be in. We crave the certainty of knowing, we are wired for it. We even see some of our leaders acting as if they know things for sure, since they can’t tolerate both the not knowing themselves, or looking like they don’t know.
Can Dark Times Bring Gifts?
Both good self-care and good parenting means enhancing our ability to live with uncertainty, and yet carry on in our lives with more equanimity, more compassion for ourselves and others, and an enhanced ability to tolerate uncomfortable emotional states without unraveling. Poet Mary Oliver wrote, “Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me many years to understand that this, too, was a gift.” Spiritual teachers across time and cultures tell us to look for illumination paradoxically within the heart of darkness. When we reach deep inside ourselves, the darkness contained both within us and without can be illuminated.
How can we find the hidden gifts in the times of darkness? As hard as it is, without the darkness we cannot fully appreciate the light. The role of the unknown and of the mystery is an integrel part of the creative process, so perhaps we can tap into our own creative spaces at this time to learn things that have been waiting in the depths of our souls for enough space and quiet to be discovered. Fear can hijack our imaginations and create even more frightening scenarios. Fear and worry wear us out and use up our precious inner strength that we could be putting to better uses. Faith and courage are about going forward even without all the paths being clear. They are not about the absence of fear, but rather moving forward with your highest values and your life purpose in spite of the fear.
Our “Window of Tolerance”
There is a psychological concept in trauma treatment called the Window of Tolerance. This concept implies is that we all have a certain threshold or window of our emotional states within which we can still function well. However, if our personal window is too narrow, then when our reactions and responses get outside of that window we go to the unhealthy extremes of “too much” or “too little”: Too much or too high outside our window and we get anxious, angry, act out, addicted, harmful to self or others. Too little or too low outside that window and we are prone to depression, sadness, isolating, numbness or dissociation. Healing and living with uncertainty require us to learn better skills to tolerate these common yet uncomfortable emotional states, and/or to learn to expand our window. Resilience is the ability to bounce back from difficulties, and the more skills we have to ride out the uncomfortable emotions, the better our resilience. Tuning to our values and to our life purpose help us to tolerate uncomfortable feelings and to expand our windows.
Mindfulness Skills and Resilience
Some of the skills of mindfulness help us with resilience. Learning to bring our focus on our breathe, to notice the in-breathe, the out-breathe, and the pause that naturally happens between the two is one form of slowing down and calming down. “Externalizing” or putting your internal thoughts and obsessions and ruminations outside of yourself, instead of inside of your head also help us get some healthy distance from them. For example, when you notice yourself in a worry cycle, name it, “Ah, worry”, and then have an image of putting the worry outside yourself, perhaps in one of those thought bubbles we see in cartoons, to clear the space in your head. You can then float that bubble away, or at very least, examine it more dispassionately as you now have some distance from it. It is outside of you now, rather than inside of you.
Shifting your focus and attention to the sound of the birds, or the smell of our coffee or the beauty of the sunset or flower allows us to find a haven of peace, a home base of comfort and calm within turbulent times. For example, I was on a zoom call with a client last week. She was sitting on her porch at home and I was in my home office with the windows open. In the midst of discussing her insomnia and the stress it was causing, a cardinal broke into song outside her porch. And as if hearing it in response, an answering trill of cardinal notes sounded outside my office window. We could both hear the birds at each other’s respective homes – and were able to pause in that momentary synchronicity and enjoyment before going back to problem solving about her sleep and processing her nightmares.
Dream Sharing to Find Home Again: Expanding Our Window
As well as an epidemic of Covid-19, we have been experiencing an epidemic of upsetting dreams and nightmares. Rather than ignoring them, we can “lean in”, as Cheryl Sandberg would tell us, and find the hidden gifts and knowledge that they are bringing. This is another way of expanding our window.
Tuning in to our intuitions and synchronicities; both forms of waking dream states, as well as our nighttime dreams, allows us to process and thus metabolize the worries and fears rather than simply be overwhelmed by them. And when you share your dreams with others, you have the benefits of two or three or five ideas being better than one. We can all resonate with each other’s dream and learn something for ourselves from the dreams of another. This is one of the powers of working in a dream group or dream circle. And since dreams are such a ubiquitous topic these days, you have even more permission and social acceptance than usual for discussing your dreams with both friends and professionals.
So, even if we are not “there” yet, we can continue to dream it forward, to practice mindfulness skills, to tune in to our intuitions and to expand our windows of tolerance. In doing so, we can also expand our tolerance for others and ourselves with greater and greater compassion.
Wishing you deep and healing dreams,