Living in Lockdown times…
I feel myself to be in a very privileged position at the moment as this crisis has forced me to work on-line in a way I have resisted for years.
And here I am, day after day, hour after hour, speaking with people who are locked down in their homes in Italy, Spain, Poland, Belgium, France, Germany, America, Africa and all over Britain. Some are stuck in flats in the city without gardens, forbidden from going out at all, some have open spaces; some are allowed to go for walks and are enjoying their walks more than ever before; some have their teenage kids or young children, cooped up all day, and are in family situations which are hugely demanding; some are meeting their aloneness in spades; some are having more precious quality time with their loved ones than ever before; some are hitting crises in their relationships with no escape routes; many are meeting a sense of failure and inadequacy as their work is taken away from them, and they wonder what is left when they cannot do what they were doing.
What all these people have in common, is that they are on a journey of awakening and are reaching out for support to meet reality as it unfolds; they are interested in being here as fully as possible for what is, and giving up the fight against how things are. They are interested in practicing, in an ongoing way, how it is to come out of their minds and into their bodies; and being willing to not know what will come next.
And this is the privilege: to be called to accompany people who are facing the unknown (as we all are), perhaps more than they ever have done – and are interested to be here for the challenge of that. None of us know how this is going to unfold of course. But it makes all the difference in the world, if we are willing and interested in not knowing, rather than lost in a determination to fix it or figure it out, even if that means presuming the worse and driving ourselves crazy with fear about something we cannot control.
Years ago my teacher Adam introduced me to the concept of Freedom Within Limits. We tend to presume that freedom means freedom from limits, and many of us rail against the limitations which life naturally imposes on us. But we need to recognise that we will never be free from limits as long as we live in (and as) this body; this body gets sick, and eventually dies. And we don’t have wings to fly, or lungs which breathe underwater. And we have to face that we cannot know all that we want to know; we cannot always get the love we want or realise every dream we have. And that we are limited by the resources we have in any moment, and the conditioning we have, the character and body we were born with and developed, by the limits of the people around us; and by living in a world which is often – if not mostly – not as we would like it to be. How amazing to take in that we are all up against so many limits – even though some are more limited than others – and yet we could, whatever our limits, be utterly free in the midst of them.
I heard a story 20 years ago which really touched me about Terry Waite who was taken hostage and imprisoned for 4 years in solitary confinement in Lebanon after going out to secure the release of other hostages. Having thought he was going for a dialogue with the captors he was then captured and imprisoned himself. He was confined to a tiny space, alone, for years, with no idea if or when he would ever be released. As the story was told to me – he prayed and prayed. He prayed for his release and that of the other prisoners, he prayed for the captors to soften, he prayed for deliverance. It was only at the point when he finally submitted to the reality of his own imprisonment, his powerless, and his utter inability to do anything to better his situation, that he experienced a level of freedom he had never experienced before. It was a massive awakening for him.
One of the most powerful books I have ever read is by Etty Hillesum, a young woman who died at the age of 29 in Auschwitz. Her writing is astounding, particularly so in letters she sent out to friends which somehow found their way out of the camps (Westerbork and Auschwitz) in which she lived in for the last year of her life. What comes through is her absolute devotion to love in the midst of hell. It comes from a real experience of awakening and as such the realness of what she says pulses through the pages.
“Many feel that their love of mankind languishes at Westerbork because it receives no nourishment – meaning that people here don’t give you much occasion to love them. ‘The mass is a hideous monster; the individuals are pitiful,’ someone said. But I keep discovering that there is no causal connection between peoples’ behaviour and the love you feel for them. Love for ones’ fellow man is like an elemental glow that sustains you. The fellow man himself has hardly anything to do with it… it’s a little bit bare of love here, and I myself feel so inexpressibly rich; I cannot explain it.”
I do not mean to draw a comparison which makes what we face now seem meaningless compared to these. And yet for me these extreme examples point to a spiritual reality which is absolutely not dependant on external circumstance. How free I feel on the inside is not dependent on my life situation. And it can be that the very restrictions on outer freedom, when surrendered to, can be the doorway to a more profound realisation and a deeper freedom.
I have had an extraordinarily fortunate life. I have never gone hungry, I have almost always felt loved, I have had shelter, space, freedom, education, friends, lovers, partners, children, good health; I have had the most exquisite spiritual teachings handed to me, and had people come to me for guidance which has allowed me to feel a very fulfilling sense of purpose and fulfilment. I can only imagine what it must be to live in terror for my life, in extreme pain, without the intellectual, physical and spiritual freedom which I take for granted. And yet I do know that every limit I have had imposed on me has offered me a choice. These limits could be my own lack of understanding or capacity, my neurotic tendencies, the constraints of imperfect relationships, my economic situation, being a single parent at the end of my tether, simply facing my own powerlessness in the face of the suffering of those I love or the planet I am part of – or the fact that I am ageing, I get sick and one day will die. Whatever the limits are, if I cannot relate with them, if I cannot accept those limits in myself, others and the situation, I am at war with reality. And that is suffering.
So I have been sitting in a room, in front of my computer, holding one-off group sessions, single sessions, and four or five day ‘online retreats’. The intimacy and aliveness and juiciness of being with the groups I used to run ‘in the flesh’, is no longer available. I loved it. We would be together, live together as a community for 4-8 days, cooking and eating together, resting, and most importantly, exploring what it is to be alive on the edge of the unknown, with a shared love of getting closer to the truth of who we are beyond our habits, roles and conditioning. This is an incredible thing. To live this, breathe it, dance with it, make mistakes, meet the awkwardness of not knowing how to relate healthily with one another, and yet again and again finding new possibilities. And we could do this in an atmosphere of acceptance and enough safety which meant each one of us could take risks. Risks which allowed us to know ourselves and each other more deeply and trust our shared humanity more than we did. This is hard to do justice to if you haven’t experienced it. And over the years we witness gradual awakenings, integrations and transformations in ourselves and each other.
Now I find myself attempting to do all of this by relating with people through a small computer screen in a room. This is a very interesting situation for me. All kinds of technical hitches have happened, the kind of thing which I have found so daunting as to have avoided this kind of outreach for years. And yet this is what is available. And I am immensely grateful for it. I love the people I work with – the bond which opens in this kind of enquiry is beyond price or description. And here is a way, albeit limited, of keeping the connection alive, of being reminded in our meetings – again and again – of what is most precious, of the power of love, of what it means to surrender our need to be right or to get what we want, and meet reality in the here and now. Now and now and now.
And to be willing to have no idea of what will unfold as we come out of this time of lock down and face a new world when we emerge, a world where so much has crashed around us; where people may quite possibly move back into their daily lives more afraid than they were; where the world is not what it was and most probably never will be.
Especially for those of us whose livelihood and living spaces are hanging in the balance, this will kick off survival responses in us which tend to make us less than reliable.
In other words, when we are up against it – and what has held us together appears to be at stake – we tend to revert to our most basic instincts and tendencies to fight, seek enemies (which could include ourselves) to attack or blame, escape, distract, deny, collapse, and/or control. And this happens individually, collectively, and in our political leaders and systems.
I am touched by how often in these relatively short meetings on the screen,
people feel relieved, touched, and connected up again, just with the simple reminders to be where we are as we are, and to hear other people share their struggles, difficulties, realisations and discoveries. To be reminded that in our aloneness we are not alone; in our struggles to relate to our loved ones healthily we are not alone, in our longing to live as love and be loved, we are not alone; in our sense of loss and fear, we are not alone; in our imperfections and often-felt clumsiness in navigating the restrictions we face, we are not alone. Although it is true in an essential sense that we are alone – nobody is likely to ever get us and know us completely or be able to reliably tell us what is the right way to go – and yet we are not alone. In fact we are intimately connected with everyone and everything. And although we face increasing limits on our freedom, yet we are free within that; and although we can never perfect ourselves, yet we can develop more capacity to meet ourselves and each other. To be reminded of all of this, and to sense the truth of it in a visceral sense, is most profoundly supportive and connecting.
It seems to me that now more than ever, we need to feel this sense of support and connection to a wider community and – more fundamentally – to life itself, so that we can access our innate resources and not simply fall prey to knee-jerk survival mechanisms. And in that, all kinds of creative responses emerge in the face of crisis and fast-moving changes.
As tends to be the case when something is lost either temporarily or permanently, we realise more fully how much we value it. Often I have read that as people are dying their biggest regrets are not that they didn’t achieve enough in the world, but that they didn’t love enough, or value those close to them enough.
I hope this crisis will underline more deeply in us all how deeply we need each other. We need all of ourselves. We need to keep realising our freedom within the limits of our lives. We need connection, a feeling of belonging to a bigger community, and to recognise we cannot do this thing called Life in isolation from each other or anything which arises in our world.