Day 83 of quarantine,
It’s safe to say that things have gotten worse. I mean, things are okay at home. But in general, things are definitely worse.
I spent the last few days wondering how I was going to get a newsletter out. Everything I tried to write felt trivial and childish. If I’m being really honest, I’ve been paralyzed by my own voice the last few weeks. Everything I want to post, write, say, seems inconsequential and naive. Everything feels wrong.
The only real update in my life is I had the worst anxiety the past few days and I couldn’t figure out why. I was watching TV, safe at home, no work, no fights with Jay, my parents or my sister, no real problems, yet I couldn’t concentrate on the words of the show. I searched my mind, tearing through it the way a child does as toy box, pulling thoughts out, quickly inspecting them, then throwing them to the side until the box was empty and I was still full of nervous energy. But I’d just run through all the possible options of what it could be. Where was this anxiety coming from?
Then a friend sent me a video. It was Philadelphia. Men and women tearing through the streets in masks, kicking down plates of glass, spraying the sides of buildings, monuments, apartments with paint. Then California. The only difference between the scenes were the palm trees, barely visible under the smoke rising from the streets. I stared at the videos unable to look away at the destruction, the chaos. Oh, I thought. This is where it’s coming from.
Life as we know it is crumbling and all we can do is watch. Watch the government scramble, the people loot, the protests increase. Watch the world divide over vaccines, race, religion. There is no sense of comfort. No sense of hope. Just destruction and pain. And I think we’re all just waiting for all of it to hit us. For the energy to roll in and topple us like a tsunami. Yet every day we continue to go on, shoulders up to our ears, breath held, wondering when it’s all going to unravel.
“Things are always in transition, if we could only realize it. The off-center, in-between state is an ideal situation.”
— Pema Chödrön
But we should know by now that change is not some observable, overnight event. It’s not a tsunami or hurricane. We don’t wake up one morning and say ‘I’m different now’. ‘My life is different now.’ We absorb change, slowly, day by day, the way the landscape absorbs the rain, letting it erode it over time, until one day you go back to that same place, that same riverbank, and everything is different.
We are changing right now. Life is changing. Everything is changing. But change doesn’t have to be scary. Change, I’ve decided to tell myself, can be liberating. I can use this moment, this anxiety, this fear and pain to access what Buddhist monk Pema Chödrön calls the in-between state.
According to Chödrön, the in-between state is a place we find ourselves when there’s loss of control. We don’t know what to do, how to feel, what to believe. The phase is marked by an apathy towards the material comforts we used to find joy in. No longer do we find the same relief or distraction from TV, alcohol, food. Instead, we’re confused why these things no longer do it for us anymore. Why we can’t numb the pain. Why we can’t concentrate on books and movies the way we used to. The external things we’ve reached for have proven after so many months, inadequate. These things don’t work well enough. They don’t shut out the noise.
Instead of relief, anxiety, tenderness and vulnerability appear. We look around and we realize we’re in a place we don’t want to be. The in-between…of comfort and pain, chaos and calm, good and bad. The floor we thought we were firmly planted on is gone and we don’t know where to stand.
This uncertainty is where our anxiety and suffering stems from. And the real challenge that this state brings, according to the Buddhists, is our ability to directly experience it, instead of struggling with it or complaining about it.
When we are in a place of discomfort and fear, when we are in conflict, we are looking for a solution. We want to maintain a familiar point of view. But both concepts: “right” and “wrong” are extreme. Between them there is a place for this “not always so”. It is a crossroad where our fixed view of the world begins to dissolve. And the cure to this anxiety is to tell yourself you don’t need a solution. An answer. An end point.
You can stay in this place of the unknown without putting some opinion or judgement on it. You can just accept the place you’re at – the job, the lack of one, the unknown future, the dwindling followers, the flooded apartment, the riots, the stock market – and say ‘Okay, this is where I’m at and this is what it is.’ When you stop putting thoughts and needs onto the moment, you can just relax into it. You can sail the present without wondering about where you’re going.
It takes some training to equate complete letting go with comfort. But in fact, “nothing to hold on to” is the root of happiness. There’s a sense of freedom when we accept that we’re not in control.
According to Chodron, “Staying with volatile energy gradually becomes more comfortable than acting it out or repressing it.” This open-ended tender place is called bodichitta. Staying with it is what heals. It allows us to let go of our self-importance.
I find when I just let go of all my preconceived ideas of what should be happening or what will happen, I relax. I stop trying so hard to find something to grasp onto and just settle into the unknown. This is life. This is the moment. This is now. It’s what it should be. What it has to be.