Stillness & Stagnation
As I sit down to write this, we in the United States are 520 days into the global pandemic related to the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, and there is no discernable end in sight. Many of us hoped the vaccines would bring the promise of lifted restrictions and a return to normal life but, with cases again on the rise and public health officials across the country instituting new restrictions, that does not seem likely. Being a human and a therapist during this time I’ve had the unique opportunity (challenge?) to feel all of my own reactions, frustrations, anxieties, and despair, while also joining other people in navigating theirs. There have been countless responses to the shutdowns, mask mandates, and CDC proclamations, to say nothing of the other headlines of the year, but I’ve also seen similar topics and feelings rise to the surface. One of the most common conversations I have with friends and clients is about the pervasive feeling of “stuckness” so many of us have been confronted with over the past year. This shows up in various ways for different people but is characterized by what organizational psychologist Adam Grant describes as, “a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield.” He aptly labels the feeling as languishing and offers a few of his ideas about how to jump start your brain towards flourishing in his New York Times article titled, “There’s a Name for the Blah You’re Feeling: It’s Called Languishing”. While I appreciate his take on what many of us are feeling, I can’t fully agree with his primarily behavioral approach to this season. The quarantines and contained lives that we have all been living in for the past 500 days have forced most of us to slow down and confront ourselves in the mirror of daily life. I think we mostly have struggled with what we’ve seen in this mirror and have been shaken by our powerlessness. Rather than fighting the moment and attempting to find activities that distract or draw us away from the now, I suggest we open up and receive the lessons in stillness that Life is offering us.
Human life in the first 2 months of 2020 was the fastest, most connected, busiest, and loudest we as a species have ever before been. We have experienced almost a century of non stop innovation, growth, and expansion. It seemed like this trajectory might continue steadily upward indefinitely. Then, all once, in March 2020 the entire world ground to a halt. Do you remember what those first few weeks were like for you? I remember being glued to my phone’s screen refreshing the case numbers, reading headlines about toilet paper shortages, texting friends and family asking if they could still taste and smell. The days stretched into weeks, months, and now years. I began gardening again, learned some new therapeutic techniques, and dreamed about what my life would be like when all of this was over. Sometimes I felt claustrophobic and pressed, like I might be squeezed to death by a dull pressure I couldn’t see or name. I knew from my conversations with my community and my clients that I wasn’t the only one and I had no idea how to shift out of this slow motion death process. For no particular reason, in the beginning of 2021 I picked up When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron. Though not a difficult read, I felt compelled to read it slowly and over the next couple of months I began the work of combing and separating the stagnation I was experiencing, from the stillness that was being offered to me.
Pema Chodron, through sharing timeless Buddhist wisdom and her own personal story of how her life fell apart, presents a quiet confidence that the only way to feel alive and even flourish in adversity is to open to the fundamental human tenderness or sadness that underlies every conscious moment. She shares how challenging it was for her to reckon with this idea from her teacher, Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, in the Tibetan tradition, but how over time and with much experimentation, she arrived at a similar conclusion as him. To be alive is to be vulnerable, choosing in each moment to stay open to the tender sadness that we experience most clearly in moments of stillness. I began to look back over 2020 and notice my own wrestling with this vulnerability, with the feeling of waking up into a life that felt directionless and static. I resisted and I resisted and when I couldn’t resist any more I just collapsed into a stagnancy, stuck in a sort of numb lifelessness. I saw myself mirrored in the words of Trungpa Rinpoche when he said, “
Sometimes people find that being tender and raw is threatening and seemingly exhausting. Openness seems demanding and energy-consuming, so they prefer to cover up their tender heart. Vulnerability can sometimes make you nervous. It is uncomfortable to feel so real, so you want to numb yourself. You look for some kind of anesthetic, anything that will provide you with entertainment. Then you can forget the discomfort of reality. People don’t want to live with their basic rawness for even fifteen minutes. When people say they are bored, often they mean that they don’t want to experience the sense of emptiness, which is also an expression of openness and vulnerability. So they pick up the newspaper or read anything else that’s lying around the room—even reading what it says on a cereal box to keep themselves entertained. The search for entertainment to babysit your boredom soon becomes legitimized as laziness. Such laziness actually involves a lot of exertion. You have to constantly crank things up to occupy yourself with, overcoming your boredom by indulging in laziness.
I began to see how this mode of operating was standard for me and that it was only in the pandemic that I was forced to look it so clearly in the face. Rather than gradually turning towards this tenderness I, and the rest of the human world, were thrust from our busy and distracting lives into direct experience of reality. Like falling into icy water, we experienced first shock, then panic, and finally the numbness I’ve described above. Chodron reflects on this and traces her own similar response, one that seems to be a normal part of being an ego laden human being. But rather than subside into stagnation she suggests that this moment, the very numbness, and the tenderness it seeks to cover over, can be the tools of waking up more fully to our lives. Hard medicine indeed. I began to see these uncomfortable, painful, terrifying feelings as an opportunity to come alive rather than the curse of being frozen in time.
Since that time I’ve shifted my orientation towards this season. Rather than seeing it as something that simply needs to be pressed through and overcome I’ve begun to wonder at how this time, this moment might be the exact teacher I (we) need to make contact with the healing and connecting place of stillness available to us. For me, this isn’t a spiritual or psychological sanitation of loneliness or pain, but rather a shift in perspective that challenges me to open up to the places I want to reject and protect myself from. My feelings of uncertainty about my future (and the future of the planet), my honest human loneliness, my inability to process the complexity of the world around me, my doubt in any of our systems or explanations, all of it can be opened to and accepted rather than rejected. It's a daily work, and one I expect to do until my body no longer continues, but it's a satisfying and grounding work, an experience of being here in my life and accepting my reality for what it is. There is no action to be taken in this place, only a witnessing and a presence, a pause in the rejection of myself I find so habitual.
It is possible in this place of stillness for something new to happen, something unexpected and challenging to my system. My favorite poet, Rainier Maria Rilke, says in his Letter to a Young Poet, “Great sadnesses…they are the moments when something new has entered into us, something unknown; our feelings grow mute in shy perplexity, everything in us withdraws, a stillness comes, and the new, which no one knows, stands in the midst of it and is silent.”
2020 and now 2021 sat most of down with the great sadnesses of our lives. All of the unfinished parts, the fears, the anxieties, the doubts, all of this caught up with us and very few of us had the skills developed to stay open, to welcome ourselves with a fierce tenderness, refusing to shut down in the face of reality. Even now, most of us, including myself in many moments, are simply bidding time until we can get to the next place of direction, clarity, and a feeling of purpose. All the while, we miss out on the ever present and available sense of purpose open to those who commit to staying present to themselves, opening to each new feeling that arises in them. The good news is that it takes very little for us to begin to practice this. Essentially, taking a breath in which we focus on the sensations of in and out bring us back into awareness of this place. The hard truth is that this is work and is a journey that involves welcoming our pain rather than running or hiding from it. Whether in my own daily life, or in my work as a therapist I believe without reserve that it's worth it.
Your journey of opening up to yourself will be as unique as you are. No one can prescribe it or give a 7 step plan to make it happen. As I talk about with my clients, committing to stay present is more of a north star than turn by turn map directions. I hope you turn towards it though and that you find relationships that encourage you in moving towards that light on the horizon.
If you’re looking for a therapist at this time please send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and we can start a conversation.
Let this Darkness Be a Belltower
Quiet friend who has come so far,
feel how your breathing makes more space around you.
Let this darkness be a bell tower
and you the bell. As you ring,
what batters you becomes your strength.
Move back and forth into the change.
What is it like, such intensity of pain?
If the drink is bitter, turn yourself to wine.
In this uncontainable night,
be the mystery at the crossroads of your senses,
the meaning discovered there.
And if the world has ceased to hear you,
say to the silent earth: I flow.
To the rushing water, speak: I am.
Sonnets to Orpheus II, 29