Pandemic Coping – Find the Slipstream

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

“…If you feel ‘burnout’ setting in, if you feel demoralized and exhausted, it is best, for the sake of everyone, to withdraw and restore yourself.” ~ Dalai Lama

As we head into the eighth month of a worldwide pandemic, I’m hearing more and more about “pandemic fatigue.” We are tired of masking, tired of not hugging, tired of not gathering, not going to movies, or theatre, or concerts. We are tired of our television and our phones. We are just plain tired.

Coupled with this feeling are news bytes telling us it will be a long time before we have a vaccine or before we can let our guard (or our masks) down. Dire reports put us fighting this into the end of 2021 if not longer. A vaccine seems our only hope, but of course we need it to be safe, which takes time. So here we are.

When I focus on the statistics, I feel overwhelmed and hopeless. So, I turn to nature, which has survived and evolved and continues to inspire in spite of our human faults and assaults.

Having recently rediscovered camping (the safest way to travel these days), I became enthralled one day watching migrating birds, mostly geese.

I knew geese flew in a “V” formation, and that there is an aerodynamic reason for this, but watching them trade off positions is a brilliant example of teamwork and care of the flock as a whole. This creation of an energy slipstream, a place which doesn’t require as much energy as the lead spot, is also called drafting, and is a factor in bicycle and auto racing.

The birds flying behind the lead bird get a lift force from the lead bird, so they don’t have to work so hard to achieve lift. And when the lead bird is weary, it drops back and another bird, having rested, takes its place. Recent research shows the birds in the slipstream even have a lower heart rate than the lead bird.

“Each person deserves a day away in which no problems are confronted, no solutions searched for.” ~ Maya Angelou

The longer the pandemic drags on, as I see it, the more we must become like the flock of geese. We have to recognize those times we cannot be the strong bird in front because we are drained, if not physically, then mentally or emotionally. We have to know when it’s time to drop back and not work so hard to achieve lift, but leave that to others.

We don’t know how long the pandemic will be here, but we know by now that it’s a marathon, not a sprint. We must pace ourselves if we are to live through this in a way that is remotely sane and healthy. We have to learn to rest and accept help. It is critical to our humanness, and crucial to our humanity.

“But then it occurred to him that any progress he had made on his quest so far he had made by accepting the help that had been offered to him.” ~ Neil Gaiman

Accepting help is not easy for most of us. Asking for help is the hardest, it’s easier if it’s offered. But even then we’re quick to say “Oh no, I’m fine. We’re hanging in there!” Often, we don’t even know what we need, or we feel selfish in the asking. Some of us need a window of time in which no one needs anything from us. Some of us need to feel needed and purposeful. Most of us probably vacillate between the two!

The pandemic has brought me many lessons, among them learning to accept my limitations. It turns out I’m not superwoman, and even though I practice mindfulness meditation, yoga, walking, prayer, and countless other methods of self-care and support, these are trying times, and sometimes it won’t be enough. It’s okay to nap, to sleep more, to check out, to run away, to ask for help – it’s okay to not be the lead bird.

As we move forward, pacing ourselves in our “V” formation, let us recognize and honor all the positions in the flock. Let us recognize when others need to drop back, when they need to catch their breath and rest. Offer help to them, show up and be there mindfully. But if you can’t, that’s okay. There are many birds in the flock – so take your rest, fall back into the slipstream and rest in this flow of life – we work, we rest; we help, we accept help; we lead, we allow. Ultimately, we fly – together.

“If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.” ~ Jack Kornfield

You are Still Beloved.

Victoria McGee

11/8/2020

Four Choices We Have Right Now

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“Happiness lies not in finding what is missing, but in finding what is present.” ~ Tara Brach

As we all deal with a global pandemic in our own individual ways, one fundamental seems to bother us the most — a loss of freedom. We are constricted in our work, our play, even within our families and friends there is restriction. Compounding feeling restricted and tight and broken and crazy we are told to wear masks if we have to go out. The masks are also restricting and sometimes tight and add to the claustrophobia burgeoning in our minds. But we wear them – because not wearing them is irresponsible to humanity on a profound level.

So, hopefully, we choose to wear masks. We choose to be part of the solution, not part of the problem. We choose to recognize the tireless work being done by our essential workers and we don’t want this virus to make their lives more difficult, take the lives of those we love, or linger one second longer than it has to.

However, behind this feeling of loss of freedom, the human spirit amazes me in its resilience. Many people are responding to being bound by finding new ways to express, to work, to play, to go beyond, reaching out to help others, even as we feel our hands are tied!

Why do we do this? What causes us to rise? I believe it’s similar to the law of “survival of the fittest,” but in this case, it’s the human spirit that evolves and adapts to crises. The human spirit that sees the chaos we are living in and instead of giving up, rolling into a ball and having a pity party says, how can I help my neighbor? We are inspired by those who have overcome trials before us, and we are inspired by those we see around us choosing to live and be present and helpful to others.

Behind the mask of loss of freedom, we are realizing the choices we DO have.

“I am not what happened to me. I am what I choose to become.” – Carl Jung

Yes, we do have choices within the midst of this pandemic. These are individual, intrinsic choices and are not buffered by outside circumstances. Each morning, as we face another day of sheltering in place, let’s try to realize the choices we do have.

We can choose to be in the present moment. This is a perfect opportunity to learn and practice mindfulness. Yes, we have a lot of time on our hands to dwell on the past, but we know that never makes us feel better. And for maybe the first time in our lives, we are unable to make plans or see too far into the future. So let each day be enough. Let each moment be enough.

“Mindfulness is a pause — the space between stimulus and response: that is where choice lies.” – Tara Brach

As Tara Brach says in this quote, that is where choice lies. Will we react, or will we take the pause, fully realizing what we can and cannot control, and then responding with better awareness? Choosing the present moment relieves the stress of asking questions for which we currently have no answers. Be present with yourself. Be present with someone you care about. Be present with your work. Breathe space into your day.

We can choose self-compassion. We may be feeling less productive right now, overwhelmed, exhausted, frustrated, angry and hopeless. This is all completely valid and, I dare say, normal under these unique circumstances. We must realize that we are living through unprecedented times in terms of the pandemic, the #blacklivesmatter movement, and the political landscape. The psychic toll on our spiritual, physical, emotional and mental well-being cannot be overstated. People are fighting for their lives, fighting for their livelihoods, and we are all frightened. The universal energy of that is felt on some level by us all.

“A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day. A string of such moments can change the course of your life,” ~ Christopher K. Germer

We must learn to practice self-compassion. Give yourself a break. If you spend a day in bed, so be it. Giving yourself breathers is not only good for your mental health, it is a necessary part of surviving this time. Let go of judgment. Let go of your inner critic. Tune in every day to your body and mind and ask it, “What do you need from me today? How can we best serve each other?” Listen and honor what comes up. Choose to nurture yourself.

We can choose to rise. Choosing to rise sounds difficult, and it can be. However, if you’ve ever overcome trauma in your life, you have already done this. You’ve taken the trauma and decided that it will not define you and it will not hold you down. You rose above the grief, the loss, the PTSD, the abuse, the despair, to become better and stronger. Or perhaps you are on that path now and even though it feels daunting, something keeps pulling you up that mountain.

“With everything that has happened to you, you can either feel sorry for yourself or treat what has happened as a gift. Everything is either an opportunity to grow or an obstacle to keep you from growing. You get to choose.” ~ Wayne Dyer

Each day, let us have the courage to choose to rise. We have the ability within us to rise above our outer circumstances, to find the coping mechanisms we need to get through this, and we have the resilience to not only get through this, but grow through this. Believe in your ability to rise. Look to the people throughout history who have done so, and join that choir. Rise. Rise above.

“Just like moons and like suns with the certainty of tides, just like hopes springing high, still I’ll rise.” ~ Maya Angelou

We can choose to be of service. Nothing will get you out of your own head bust you out of self-pity like helping others. You don’t have to risk getting sick by leaving your house; reach out to people you know. Drop a card, give a phone call, or a text or email. Check-in with people, especially those who are alone. Sew masks if you can, deliver a meal to some essential workers, get groceries for your neighbor. There is something we all can do, and it beautifully adds to the energy of community and lessens the energy of divisiveness.

“Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world.” ~ Howard Zinn

We know we are living through a time of profound change on the planet because we are living through a collective trauma. Nothing brings about radical change like trauma. No country or people have been untouched by this pandemic. It is causing trauma on a personal, societal, and global level. But have hope. Look at your own life. Didn’t trauma bring about the highest understandings and the deepest shifts? But not without choice. Not without choosing to take the trauma and transmute it into something useful, something better.

We are all alchemists right now. Let’s see what we can do, what choices we can make, to help humanity rise and survive.

“We are whole: our deepest happiness is intrinsic to the nature of our minds, and it is not damaged through uncertainty and change.” ~ Sharon Salzberg

You are Still Beloved.

Victoria McGee

July 6, 2020

Breath is Everything, Everything is Breath

planet-4872299_1920“The fact is, that we are being breathed.” ~ Jon Kabat-Zinn

The breath.

It is our first act outside the womb, and our final act as well. With our first breath, our life begins and our bodies miraculously continue to perform this function automatically, without much thought from us, for the rest of our life. And anything that does not require much thought, is prime for being taken for granted.

 As 2020 has unfolded, the central theme I keep coming back to is breath. There are many issues in the world, but issues of the breath have moved to the forefront. I see it in climate change, Covid-19, and fallen brother George Floyd. It’s all about breathing, and not being able to breathe.

 Throughout history, mystics and sacred teachings refer to the soul as breath, often using these terms interchangeably. In some languages, they are the same word – prana, spiritus, ruach, hu. Breathing connects us to ourselves, our soul, and those around us.

“One conscious breath in and out is a meditation.” ~ Eckhart Tolle

Recent research has taught us the Earth itself has “lungs.” Millions of lung-like structures on leaves allow plants to take in carbon dioxide and return to us life-saving oxygen. But we’re currently pouring more CO2 into the sky than the plants can keep up with. Humans have put the earth in a choke-hold, and the planet cannot breathe.  

The deforestation of the Earth, which has caused a great reduction in the planet’s breathing function, has a direct correlation to Covid-19. A study by Stanford shows us that as humans continue to wreak havoc on natural habitats to turn them into agricultural land, we will continue to see an increase in animal to human viruses. Usually, these lands are deforested to either grow food for livestock or to raise livestock for human consumption.

We are choking the Earth for hamburgers.

“Nature is not a place to visit. It is home.” ~ Gary Snyder

Which brings me to Covid-19. In our lifetime, we have not seen such a virus that attacks the body so relentlessly and so horrifically. A shortage of ventilators early on told us this is a virus that threatens our very breath, our prana, our spiritus. Those deeply and personally affected by it speak of having no breath. Their breathing becomes anything but automatic, requiring complete attention and effort, and it’s still not enough. I can’t imagine a more frightening feeling. Those not personally affected are told to stay home for their own safety and the safety of others. And do what? For many of us, it became a reminder to slow down and breathe.  

In public, we wear masks. Our breath, though precious, is suspect. I could have the virus, you could have the virus, the cashier could have the virus. We’re grateful to be out, but sometimes it’s hard to breathe behind the mask. (Tell that to doctors and nurses in full PPE.) 

Like a meditation, we were comfortable with that for a short time, but then we got restless. We upped our heart rate, shortened our breaths, and got eager to return to “normal” life. But at our core, we know, don’t we? We know we can’t go back.  

“The link between you and God is through the breath of life,” ~ Yogi Bhajan 

Which brings us to the heartbreak of George Floyd, robbed of his breath by hatred and a long-broken system. His death, his cry for breath, was too much for a world already gasping for air. We can’t go back. We won’t go back. We must breathe into the change that is coming. We must breathe life into the protests. We cannot take breathing for granted any longer. We must breathe for the planet, for those on ventilators, and for George and the long-overdue systemic change that is happening. 

“We have to learn to live our life as a human being deeply. We need to learn to live each breath deeply, so that we have peace, joy and freedom as we breathe.” ~ Thich Nhat Hahn

The ultimate truth and realization we must come to is that we are all one organism. If one cannot breathe, the whole will suffer, the whole will eventually be gasping for air. We cannot shortchange the Earth its pulmonary function and expect to not be affected. We cannot ignore this virus, but must learn how to live for a time with it, caring enough for our fellow humans to wear masks and socially distance for as long as it takes. And we cannot turn our backs on an entire race that has cried out for the freedom to breathe, to be equal, to be shown respect, demanding change so that one day those freedoms will be taken for granted, like breathing.  

So breathe, if you can. Breathe with purpose, breathe with compassion, and breathe for those who cannot.  

But remember to put on your own oxygen mask first.

 

You are Still Beloved.

 

Victoria McGee

 

6/10/20

Holding Our Collective Breath

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“When you own your breath, nobody can steal your peace.” ~ Anonymous

I woke up very early the other day, too early for the time I’d gone to bed. As I tried to get myself back to sleep for a bit, I took a very, very deep inhale of breath. It shocked me how good (and foreign) it felt. I realized that in this era of global pandemic, I’ve basically been holding my breath. Many of us have.

But wait, I’ve been meditating, praying, doing some yoga, practicing good breathing. And I realized that’s the only time I’ve actually been breathing. The rest of the time, I’m in a state of fight or flight shallow breathing, which eventually feels almost like holding your breath. The chest grows tight, constricted, and the lungs just barely keep us going.

It’s understandable. We are all in a strange state. We are in limbo, yet hyper-vigilant at the same time. We don’t know how this will play out, we have little control, and we can’t plan for the future. We are in separate lifeboats just trying to figure out each day.

Our breath, thankfully, is part of the autonomic nervous system, bodily functions that happen without us thinking about it. However, our breath and heart rate reflect our state of mind, our emotions, and our fears. When we are scared, our heart rate quickens, and our breath becomes faster and more shallow. We are ready to run.

Only here, in our various states of quarantine, there’s nowhere to go.

Ironically, as we face this catastrophic Covid-19, as so many people are struggling to breathe and survive, it’s increasingly important to add a breathing practice to our daily routine. Here we are, in unprecedented times, wearing face masks when we do venture out, often feeling literally afraid to breathe! But breath is life, and it’s never been more important to breathe more deeply, to relax our nervous systems, and to live in the moment.

“Feelings come and go like clouds in a windy sky. Conscious breathing is my anchor.”

~ Thich Nhat Hanh

Of all our autonomic nervous system functions, the breath is the one we have the most conscious control over. It has a direct influence on the vagus nerve, a nerve that runs throughout the autonomic system. Slow exhalations cause this nerve to relax and bring us closer to a feeling of well-being.

Besides relaxation, the benefits of deep breathing include boosting the immune system, lowering heart rate and blood pressure, reduced depression, improvement in  diabetes, and the management of chronic pain. For me, it also provides a sense of control. I may not be able to control the outward situation, but I can control my response to it. With regular breath practice, I control the effect of the pandemic on my nervous system. I control how much fear I’m willing to experience. Deep breathing in conjunction with meditation or prayer is extremely healing and centering. Even just stopping for a moment, taking a deep breath, filling the lungs, and allowing a long, slow exhale, can re-center us quickly.

“One conscious breath in and out is a meditation.” ~ Eckhart Tolle

When fear and anxiety arise, I use this simple technique to help me stay in the moment.

Breathing in think, “In this moment I have ___________. (water, sun, music, air, etc.)

Breathing out think, “In this moment I need nothing.”

Repeat until you feel calmer. Regulating our breath helps us focus on the present moment, and focusing on the present moment keeps our minds from spiraling into worse-case scenarios.

Dr. Andrew Weil recommends deep breathing as part of any wellness program. Here is a link to three of his favorite exercises. https://www.drweil.com/health-wellness/body-mind-spirit/stress-anxiety/breathing-three-exercises/

The world is, indeed, holding its collective breath. Let us take some collective deep breaths, calming the vagus nerve of the planet. Breathe deeply, fill your lungs, hold for a moment, then exhale slowly, blowing out audibly your fear and anxiety. Take some calming breaths for those who cannot – those who we hold in deep compassion; those working on the front lines of this pandemic, those who are fighting for their lives, those who are suddenly unemployed, and those who have been thrown into unforeseen grief.

I pray that one day, we will all breathe easy again. In the meantime, breathe deeply.

“Every breath we draw is a gift of God’s love: every moment of existence is a grace.”

~ Thomas Merton

You Are Still Beloved.

Victoria McGee

4/7/20

Covid-19 and Collective Trauma

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The paradox of trauma is that it has both the power to destroy and the power to transform and resurrect.” – Peter A. Levine

Lately, I’ve been conscious of trauma as it applies to society. Due to the outbreak of Covid-19, the world is currently in a state of collective trauma. Collective trauma refers to the psychological reactions to a traumatic event that can affect an entire society. For most of us, our daily way of life has drastically changed in the last few weeks. Freedoms and income have been reduced, and we are in a constant low-grade state of fear.

When a society experiences a collective trauma, such as 9/11, mass shootings, natural disasters, etc., our routines and relationships, those things that anchor us to our society are disrupted in such a way that it can leave us struggling to reclaim the purpose of our lives. In some ways, this can lead to a positive re-prioritizing of what is truly important. In other ways, it can leave us grasping for meaning and feeling hopeless.

For those of us already dealing with PTSD, this collective trauma can trigger other traumas to rise to the surface. We may find we are having trouble sleeping, nightmares, generalized anxiety, or hyper-vigilance may be rearing their heads again. Others may find they are having a surprisingly calm reaction to all this, as being in a trauma state is not strange to us, and we feel able to function in this state better than others.

Traumatic events can trigger past traumas, and who among us has not experienced some level of trauma? So we as a society have this huge collective trauma and our own historical traumas slamming us all at once. It’s a lot to deal with and process! And we’re confined either with partners, family, friends, or alone. Being alone can be most challenging as there is no distraction from your own thoughts.

If you’ve been feeling some of this, the dis-ease that has been engendered by this disease, there are practices you can undertake to ease the trauma response. We must regularly engage in self-care, find comfort in spiritual practice, stay connected to our tribe, and begin to reframe our relationship to historical trauma.

“Radical self-care is what we’ve been longing for, desperate for, our entire lives – friendship with our own hearts.” ~ Anne Lamott

Self-care is the best thing you can do for yourself right now. Stay centered and grounded as much as you can in whatever way works for you. Exercise, yoga, meditation, bubble baths, reading, and creative expression will connect you to your center. We cannot face this event coming from a place of scattered emotions and thoughts. Limit your news to a single check-in every day to keep from going down the black hole of information saturation. Go outside and find a place to connect to nature. None of these things cost money and can help you find some balance amidst the chaos.

If you have a spiritual practice, there is no better time to enhance and build upon it. Read, study, pray, and fill your soul with comfort, fill your mind with faith. Read the inspired words of those who have overcome darkness. Viktor Frankl, Elie Wiesel, and Mother Teresa, for example, are inspiring in their ability to hold onto faith in the midst of great suffering. Turn to your spiritual practice at this time to help you hold onto your faith, and to get a glimpse of the big picture. The world has survived many traumas and will survive this one as well.

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” ~ Viktor E. Frankl

In these times, we must find a way to stay connected to our tribe. Facetime, Zoom, Marco Polo, social media and good old fashioned phone calls are our life-lines now. Resist the urge to isolate, to avoid the changes we’re all adjusting to, and reach out. Write letters, send cards, connect with people you’ve been meaning to re-connect with. You have time, and everyone needs to hear from the people they treasure.

Lastly, start to reframe your relationship to historical trauma. If we are here, we have survived trauma, personal, ancestral, historical, and collective. This means we are resilient and we have developed coping skills that not everyone has. We know how to self-calm, self-care, rise above, forgive, and even help others. Build on the resilience you’ve developed thus far! We are strong, flexible, wise souls and our energies are needed in this crisis.

               “We can make ourselves miserable or we can make ourselves strong.                    The amount of effort is the same.” – Pema Chodron

We are in a state of collective trauma. So let us attempt to join in collective healing, first by taking good care of ourselves, then by contributing to healing the energy of the planet. We all need the energies of compassion, positivity, balance, and calm right now. Let’s practice this in our daily lives and see what healers we are.

You are Still Beloved.

Victoria McGee

3/20/2020