TREVOR WELTMAN’s honest appraisal of life in lockdown, with his wife and two young daughters in busy Bangkok, is a refreshing look at how to navigate and transcend the expectations and tensions that surface when we are thrown together for months on end in close quarters without all our normal support structures. Best of all, the outcome is positive and inspirational!
Anything we ever said, ‘I’ll deal with that later.
I will feel that later.
I will think about that later,’ will come up in meditation,
because by meditating you are saying to life,
‘OK, later is NOW. Bring it on.’”
—Dr. Lorin Roche
Oftentimes we use metaphors from our daily life to elucidate concepts in meditation or spirituality that are ineffable or abstract – from the term “enlightened” itself to “summiting the mountain,” “walking the path” to “accruing inner wealth.” Even the great saint Kabir is able to distil the enormously important but difficult concept of cosmic mergence into the ever-accessible “drop of water joining the ocean.”
In this way, metaphors are the lighthouses of understanding and the security blankets of language: when faced with what we don’t know or cannot fully comprehend, they balm our intellect and guide our consciousness safely back through the abstraction to more familiar harbors.
But what happens when what we’re experiencing is truly novel? What if it is without comparison? How to make sense of something that virtually no one alive today or in the recent past has credibly experienced?
What happens when we are without metaphor?
I believe this has been one of the most difficult parts of COVID for me, and I would venture for many others as well. As the second wave of the virus intensifies around the world, and as its health, economic, and social impacts all deepen, we are truly in uncharted territory.
Certainly there are lessons we can learn from the 1918 Spanish Flu, the 2008 Great Financial Crisis, and the Ebola and SARS crises respectively, to help us better manage the current pandemic. However, I find these past examples don’t do much to help us understand how to feel about what’s happening, and that’s problematic. For none of these previous crises has unilaterally disrupted the lives of most of the seven billion people on planet Earth at the same scale as COVID, nor led to what will in time be looked back upon as the impetus behind the great rethinking and reorganizing of our international politics and national economies.
This time period will also be remembered as the great reorganizer of our homes, our families, our priorities, and – as I’ve come to see – our expectations for ourselves and our loved ones.
So, without any external event to help me make better sense of COVID in a holistic way, my theory at the outset of lockdown was simple: begin actively seeking parallels between my spiritual life and what I have experienced in meditation, to help me better understand my experience of the pandemic.
Before I get much further, though, I must admit that this “lofty” idea was born of much less glamorous and enlightened circumstances. In fact, it was an essential coping mechanism. The rigors of isolating in place with two children under four in a country that neither my wife nor I call home was taking a tremendous toll on our marriage.
I’m not suggesting that the emergent term “COVID-divorce” was a foregone conclusion; far from it. Rather, we were not in sync as the newness and stresses of lockdown, and the greater uncertainties surrounding COVID, had created and exacerbated new tensions between us.
Or had it?
It was then I began to realize that lockdown – like Dr. Roche’s quote about how meditation tells life to “Bring it on” – wasn’t actually the cause of the issues we were experiencing. Instead, it was a focusing event, like meditation, that was forcing us to confront the myriad issues we already had, all at the same time.
On the surface, these issues seemed interpersonal. She was angry that I was on back-to-back Zoom calls all day long, while I was incredulous at her saying she didn’t have time for herself when she was managing to watch a few hours of Korean dramas and choosing to bake complicated recipes every day.
Couldn’t I see she was under water managing the kids?
Couldn’t she see I was doing all I could to ensure our continued livelihood and that of all the staff who depend on me?
Yet, as the comparison of meditation and lockdown crystallized further in my mind, the truth I came to realize was that these issues were actually just personal to each of us. Deeply so.
In other words, deep inside me and deep inside her resided two very different sets of ideals and expectations of what it meant to live well, as well as a raft of expectations for the other person to change and fit these ideals.
Thing is, these expectations and ideals, such as support, time management, balance, and even home tidiness, were all based on normal operating circumstances pre-COVID: kids at day care 5+ hours a day, me at the office, access to yoga, the gym, days out, days off, and a weekend that actually felt like a weekend etc.
But even then, we still managed to fight and disagree about these differing expectations every single day! In fact, in retrospect, these unspoken and unasked expectations for daily things were the largest source of pain in our marriage.
Meditation is in no way separate
from anything you do during the day,
all your relationships,
and your whole purpose on Earth.
Many of these expectations couldn’t have been more incongruent with our situation during lockdown. And yet, we were both muddling through a kind of passive despair over what was happening to us, instead of embracing one of the most profound lessons taught by meditation, namely, that our experience of lockdown, as does every experience, was in fact happening through us.
Dr. Roche builds on this idea in the same essay when he writes:
“Meditation is in no way separate from anything you do during the day, all your relationships, and your whole purpose on Earth. In every meditation, you will have to sort through all the stuff in your mind and heart, and if anything is out of balance, you will feel it intensely. If you have wronged someone, or left an important conversation unfinished, you will find your attention going to it again and again. If you want to go any deeper in meditation, you will have to bring some resolution to your outer situations, otherwise your meditation will start to feel stalemated. So you’ll find yourself adjusting your behavior in daily life to be more ethical, to minimize the amount of your meditation time that is taken up by processing the residue of the day. In other words, in meditation every day you will have a small degree of the insight people have on their deathbed, where they wish they had lived their lives.”
In the same way meditation isn’t separate from the rest of our life, lockdown isn’t a separation from our pre-COVID life either. It is an intensified continuation of it. Akin to “marriage” or “parenting” or simply “life” on “hard mode,” we found ourselves without our ritual distractions of the gym, or yoga, or work, or whatever to hide behind when tensions flared.
Thus it drew our expectations out into the open. As we began openly asking each other for the kind of support we needed, lest we kept suffering in silence or exploding in anger, we were able to work through the “residue” of our marriage that existed pre-COVID and ultimately go deeper into our relationship as a result.
But, like meditation, it isn’t easy. Speaking so plainly with your spouse about what you need or don’t need as support is difficult. You may get that support, or a multi-day argument, or you may need to give up an expectation to preserve equanimity, or realize you are being unrealistic, which also hurts in and of itself. But, by doing so there is at least a more honest foundation to grow into and through (there are also fewer desires floating about, which is healthy in its own right, and could be the subject for another article).
So, no, we didn’t choose to go into lockdown and cut ourselves off from our families and social and professional networks for months on end, but – like how we choose to meditate to work on ourselves – we have improved our relationship during lockdown by choosing to hit pause, accept the situation, reorient our expectations, and take responsibility for how we feel.
As hard as it is to write about a shared global experience, I am attempting to do so, because I find many strong, resilient people I know are now at their wits end. Lockdown was manageable for them when it seemed it would be just a few months. But faced with the prospect of another six months, or more, of severely limited movement, and mounting worries about income and jobs, they are starting to cave in to the loneliness, the feeling of being cooped up, and the feeling that life is fully beyond their control.
Make no mistake about it, I believe this is all going to get worse before it gets better. So, to gird our sanity as this intensifies, we need to help each other find those metaphors from our life before COVID, wherein we succeeded, excelled, grew, and proactively took charge of our lives.
For those with experience in meditation, lean into it as I have. Make it your metaphor. It is the perfect training for dealing with the challenges of uncertainty and isolation posed by lockdown, because it teaches us to address how we feel without brooding, so we can take responsibility for our feelings without succumbing to them. In these troubled times, this is a precious experience to have, and, as my wife and I found out, a critical skill to navigating the uncertainties.
Article by TREVOR WELTMAN
Illustrations by GAYATRI PACHPANDE
September 30, 2020
September 29, 2020
September 29, 2020