Contemplation and Connection

I said to one of my dearest friends this weekend, “I feel like we are watching everything happen in slow motion, but we can’t do anything to control the outcome.” It is like a bad dream in which you can’t speak. It is like a tidal wave you can see rolling in. He responded, “Like collective paralysis.”

Together, we are anticipating real loss. Some are worried for their own health or the health of dear loved ones. Others are worried about the loss of their jobs, their companies, their way of life. This grief is certainly a real possibility; it is natural to fear it.

I often think: we fear because we love. This has always been true for me. In a harsh world, love is sacred, but also vulnerable because we can lose people. Because people we love can suffer. To be deeply entangled with one another without being able to control illness or natural disasters or violence is risky. And yet, the love we share with others is what sustains us. Connection is the most beautiful thing about the world; at our best, we can nurture each other through heartache, dread, illness, loss.

What helps us cope with the pain of being alive? The fear of loss?

I studied religion, in part, as a way of coping with and understanding life’s suffering. The atheist asks how things work, but the theologian asks what things mean. I figured the scholarly tradition which birthed poetry, history, and medicine might have the most to reveal about the human experience.

Indeed, religion, spirituality, and ethics are the stuff of humanity: love, birth, death and dying, sickness, mercy, justice, liberation, and community. Additionally, we studied suffering – a subject at the core of most religious epistemologies.

In the Buddhist tradition, this is a fundamental truth: life is suffering. We suffer, in part, because everything is temporal. “This, too, shall pass,” is sometimes comforting, but also existentially threatening. In the Christian tradition, the story of Christ’s death and resurrection reminds us that suffering is unavoidable, but life, rather than death, has the final word. Unfortunately, you cannot have new life without pain.

Last week, I shared the verse: “I will make a way in the wilderness and streams in the desert.” Every spiritual tradition has an answer for what to do with your suffering. Buddhists will tell you, for example, about the importance of detachment. Every kind of Christian will honestly probably give you a different answer. But here is what has worked for me.

Contemplation and connection are my streams in the desert. In order to clear the clouds around my heart, in my mind, I have to be silent and to be still in solitude. This morning, I woke up at 3:10 am and could not, though I tried for two hours, to fall back asleep. Instead of lying there and rehashing every mistake I’ve made for the last five years – as I’m known to do in the middle of the night – I crept downstairs and I meditated. In the middle of the guidance, Tara Brach said something like, “What would the wisdom of compassion reveal to you.” You have to be still, I thought. In the midst of all this uncertainty, you have to be still and know.

And then, because I am not a cloistered nun, I also need connection, emotional reciprocity. My husband, my mother, my father, my brother, my friends, my cat. Gratitude wells within.

In my experience, when I make time to attend to fear and anxiety, the fear itself is not all-encompassing. It is just there, alongside love, connection, gratitude. It is just part of my day, along with making toast, feeding my cat, writing, contemplating.

This strange time, in which both love and pain are saturated, offers us the wisdom to find what we need to bloom, if even just a little. Kathleen Norris writes, “The word crisis derives from the Greek for “a sifting” – to jostle, sift and sort things until only what was most vital would remain.”

May you find vitality today: the things which sustain you.