Learning to stay when all you want to do is run
By Chris Johnson, Guest Contributor
Saturated with Loss
We’ve been saturated with loss... for a long time. While loss is as much a part of our human condition as the deep connections we feel with loved ones, the expanse of loss over the past few years, well, has tried our patience and even our character.
We just hit a stunning one million lives lost to covid: sick patients, nurses and docs, front line health care workers, actors and musicians, public servants too. The loss made all the more poignant as the virus and treatments became politicized, polarized, poisonous.
A ripple effect of this loss extends out to those who remain, families, communities and workplaces all reveal lives upended, careers and professional identities unrecognizable, gone.
The loss of George Floyd two years ago still reverberates across communities, a clarion call for justice.
Climate events from wildfires in California and Texas and Florida have burned and scorched over 1.5 million acres this year alone to sea levels along coastal cities that ravaged communities with flooding and are expected to rise 10-12 inches in the next 30 years.
Add to all this the rending of the shared fabric of our civic lives, something we’d once leaned into as common ground, to a place where voicing concerns and a point of view provoke anxiety, anger and more loss.
And then, of course, there’s the ongoing war in Ukraine.
My heart breaks each night as I watch at the news in disbelief and horror.
What’s on my mind
Honestly, I’ve been struggling lately. Oh, it’s not that there aren’t positive experiences to share – it’s a sunny spring day in Chicago that smells of new possibilities, the fascinating research about how our brains triage our emotions while we sleep, or that we’re looking forward to a few days of respite over the July 4th weekend.
But all of that, interesting as it may be, isn’t really what’s on my mind.
What’s been on my mind is that we’ve collectively lost reference points for our lives, what might’ve constituted some sort of ‘normal.’
With heaps of loss on top of loss, we’ve tightened up, our collective breath now shallower, our vision of what’s possible narrower.
Writing teacher and author, Natalie Goldberg, encourages writers to “be willing to be split open,” to write about what disturbs, and what provokes because it’s there that one can plumb the depths of their own experience, and dare to speak of those places of darkness, loss, outrage, helplessness.
Yet, who wants to go there? Really?
Yes, more of that - it's where the juice of being alive lives.
Some part of me can get easily sucked into a tendency to blame someone, somewhere, for all the chaos and tragedy and loss. It seems to be how we’re wired. Yet when I succumb to blaming all it does is just zap my energy and leaves me feeling more helpless and bad.
Perhaps the biggest struggle I’ve noticed in myself this past month is a listlessness. I vacillate between my desire to be an informed citizen, connected to current events, and being really tired of it all.
And it’s not just me, I know.
Our prolonged, collective exhaustion has deepened into a shared state of burnout—that slippery slope of being so spent of energy that we become disillusioned, even cynical about life.
We’d love to find a bit of certainty in the chaos--even though it’s long been clear that certainty isn’t possible.
When it comes down to it, our sense of how we knew ourselves BC (before covid) has shifted, and now we’re fussing to regain our footing, to re-establish our sense of ourselves.
“Growth comes at the point of resistance. We learn by pushing ourselves and finding what really lies at the outer reaches of our abilities.”
The Art of Learning, Josh Waitzkin
Instead of blaming or wishing it were all different than it is, we can transform the impact of the losses by noting that even during tragedy and helplessness, we do indeed have a deep capacity for hope, even fearlessness.
These past two years have given us a run, but we can find what lies at the outer reaches of our ability to be hopeful by being willing to practice a pause, choosing to note, to sense into, the extraordinariness of each moment we’re in.
I feel more hopeful when I remember, with a smidge of awe, that everything is ordinary and extraordinary. It’s my mind that determines – by choosing to be either open or closed – how I see what’s in front of me.
What is hope if not some unexpected ease awaiting around the corner, refreshing like the luscious smell of baking bread that wafted my way on my morning walk past the neighborhood bakery. Or, back from my walk, as I reach the door when I note a shaft of light spotlighting the bright purple irises in my garden this morning.
Of course, it’s sometimes even something not so great, like waking up and realizing I’d forgotten to drop the check off or mail the birthday card. Yet that, too - such an ordinary event – reminds me of my humanness, my limits and strangely grounds me too.
Learning to Stay
Beloved Pema Chödrön, Buddhist nun and bestselling author, teaches that, “The source of our unease is the unfillable longing for a lasting certainty and security, for something solid to hold onto.”
It’s very human to want something certain, knowable, solid to hang onto.
Yet, there is no life raft to spare us from reality. There is, however, a practice; Pema speaks of this as ‘learning to stay.’ Staying is a mindfulness skill we can develop and practice to increase our ability to work with ourselves in moments we’d rather not look at at all.
It’s simple, really, though not easy, this ‘learning to stay.’ Take a few minutes to read through the steps and consider using them the rest of the week as an experiment.
- Acknowledge a situation where you’re stuck or triggered by trauma or loss. To be human is to be triggered.
- As you reflect on this situation, pause to notice your breathing. Note the quality of your breath – is it short, jagged, even or smooth? Fully feel the energy of your experience.
- Get curious about your sensing self by dropping into every one of your senses: taste, smell, sight, hearing, touch, and your inner, or interoceptive sense too.
- Notice what thoughts arise? In other words, how you’re talking to yourself.
- Ditto with feelings.
- Stay with your experience, noticing any itch to move away from it. Feel your energy, noting its ebb and flow. Be with it, embrace this experience fully (it doesn’t matter if you like it or not, as it’s already occurring in the present moment).
- Lastly, choose to release your experience, letting go of any tension with your next exhalation (your stuckness, discomfort, thoughts).
When confronted with loss, instead of looking for someone to blame, or becoming engulfed and overwhelmed or numb, or turning away in hopes of distracting – all of which come at the cost of our energy - remember that you can practice ‘staying’ in order to work your edges, so you can continue to feel the tender, sometimes charged, energy of feeling alive – even in the midst of loss.
So yes... and a bit of awe
Yes, you’re tired. Me too. Yet it’s important to note that we’re more than our fatigue, our exhaustion.
Not long ago a client told me about some of our earlier, years-ago, work together. ‘What you did for me then, back when I was on the edge, was hold the hope for me when I couldn’t do it myself.’
How could I possibly have done that for her, I wondered?
Then I realized that it was because I could stay with her painful experiences yet see her in her precious beauty, her ordinary struggles, her extraordinary pull towards life even in her own deep experience of loss and disorientation.
So yes, I’m tired, but I’m way more than that and so are you.
Isn’t the hope we’re looking for about paying attention to the ‘more’ a skosh more often? By asking yourself ‘and what else (AWE),’ we can keep our minds and hearts open to life.
What might this look like?
Yes, you’re a tired, successful, stressed-out Vice President, but you also love the after-dinner walks with your partner around the neighborhood too.
Yes, you’re an exhausted, over-extended Director, but you love your late-night chips and salsa as you wind down the day.
Yes, you’re tired. And, there’s always another perspective, a more inclusive view of who you are amidst the loss of the world.
©Chris L. Johnson, PsyD.
Dr. Chris Johnson is the founder of Q4 Consulting where she partners with individuals and organizations to design and implement training programs that access intuition, surface internalized patterns and mind-sets, and address the road-blocks inherent in change.
Her new book,The Leadership Pause: Sharpen Your Attention, Deepen Your Presence and Navigate the Future is available on Amazon.