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“A human being is a spatially and temporally limited piece of the whole, what we call the ‘Universe.’ He experiences himself and his feelings as separate from the rest, an optical illusion of his consciousness. The quest for liberation from this bondage is the only object of true religion. Not nurturing the illusion but only overcoming it gives us the attainable measure of inner peace.”
I’ve been struggling to find words worthy of this moment; words that don’t just take up space; words that do more than complain, blame or echo the panic that many of us feel welling up inside us. I’ve been struggling to find words that might add a little light to these dark days; words that are authentic; words that are honest and provide real comfort; kind words; words that honor all of us, the living and the dead, the healthy and the sick, rich and poor, liberal and conservative, employed and unemployed, the hopeful and the hopeless, homed and homeless; words that might provide a little useful truth and clarity in the fog of fear that surrounds every member of the human tribe; words that might make this nightmare a little less terrifying.
Ten days ago, as I type these words, about 220,000 people on Earth had been diagnosed with COVID-19 and about 9,000 had died. At this moment, 240 hours later, nearly 700,000 have been infected and over 30,000 have died. Ten days ago, there were 8,600 cases in the US and 130 deaths. Now the US has over 14 times as many cases at 120,000 and nearly 16 times more deaths with over 2,000 American lives lost. By the time you read this, these numbers will seem small and insignificant compared to what they will have become. In a single day in a single country (Italy), over 900 people died, which means two deaths every three minutes. By July in the US we could have 80,000 deaths and 200,000 by the end of the year.
According to a report from researchers at the Imperial College of London, the virus could have infected nearly everyone on the planet and killed 40 million of us this year alone, if we had not implemented strategies like lockdowns and social distancing to reduce its spread. What once was the subject of dystopian books and films is now our daily reality. Each of us is seeking to comprehend what this will ultimately mean to us, our families, communities, nations and world.
Like most of us, I am trying to do my part. When the governor issued his shelter at home order, I immediately contacted my clients and let them know our therapy sessions would be held over the phone until the decree was lifted and our mutual safety was assured. Some of my clients who are not comfortable with telehealth have chosen to postpone their treatment but most are making the transition with relative ease.
For nearly everyone I am “seeing,” the virus is an existential horror that accentuates their personal, emotional distress. The question on the minds of many is how to cope with an unprecedented, invisible threat that is rapidly spreading itself around the world at an exponential rate. Adding to our concern is the finding that half of people who are infected show no symptoms.
Besides washing our hands, not touching our face, sanitizing our surroundings, practicing social distancing and staying home as much as possible, what else can we do to keep ourselves safe and sane? The answer to that question might be to follow Russ Harris’s advice and FACE COVID. The author of The Happiness Trap, The Reality Slap and other books based on Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Harris has several excellent suggestions for all of us to consider:
F = Focus on what’s in your control
A = Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings
C = Come back into your body
E = Engage in what you’re doing
C = Committed action
O = Opening up
V = Values
I = Identify resources
D = Disinfect & distance
Focus on what’s in your control
In my role as therapist for over forty years, my clients have taught me that our suffering is always about control. I often remind my clients of what I call the five things (that aren’t really things) that we can’t control. This includes the conceptualized or remembered past; the conceptualized or imagined future; what other people think, feel, say or do; and our own thoughts and feelings. Fortunately, there are three things that we can control. This includes what we pay attention to in the present moment, how we pay attention to the present moment and what we choose to do in the present moment.
Harris writes, “You can’t control what happens in the future. You can’t control Corona virus itself or the world economy or how your government manages this whole sordid mess. And you can’t magically control your feelings, eliminating all that perfectly natural fear and anxiety. But you can control what you do – here and now. And that matters. Because what you do – here and now – can make a huge difference to yourself, and anyone living with you, and a significant difference to the community around you.”
Acknowledge your thoughts and feelings
If you are like me and most of my clients, you probably have a difficult relationship with your own thoughts and feelings. Why is this? The answer is simple. Most of us have a natural tendency to treat our inner experience with resistance and control strategies. For example, if we find ourselves worrying about COVID-19, we might try to control, resist or get rid of our uncomfortable thoughts and feelings related to the virus. And this does not work. The more we try to control what we cannot control, the more we feel out of control. So what is the solution?
Harris suggests that instead of judging, blaming, criticizing or resisting our inner experience, that we adopt an open, receptive posture that accepts and allows them to be as they are. He writes, “Silently and kindly acknowledge whatever is ‘showing up’ inside you: thoughts, feelings, emotions, memories, sensation, urges. Take the stance of a curious scientist, observing what’s going on in your inner world.”
Come back into your body
For many of us, me included, we spend way too much time in our minds, regretting decisions, fearing the future and reacting emotionally to what other people are doing or saying. We will often think we know how reality should be and become distressed that we cannot make it conform to our needs and expectations.
At some point, we can benefit from taking a break from the constant chatter of our monkey minds, take a deep breath and attend to our physical vehicle. Harris writes, “Come back into and connect with your physical body.” Do some stretching. Sit quietly for a few minutes and allow your mind to feel itself into your body, looking for tension and intentionally relaxing it and letting go.
Harris writes, “You are not trying to turn away from, escape, avoid or distract yourself from what is happening in your inner world. The aim is to remain aware of your thoughts and feelings, continue to acknowledge their presence and at the same time, come back into and connect with your body, and actively move it. Why? So you can gain as much control as possible over your physical actions, even though you can’t control your feelings.”
Engage in what you’re doing
Many of us operate on automatic pilot, thinking, feeling and doing many of the same things we did yesterday and last week and last year. We are often lost in thought, or caught up with what our phone, computer or television is telling or showing us. We often fuse with or completely identify with our thoughts as if they are the absolute truth, compelling us to act in a specific way, and fearing what might happen if we don’t. Meanwhile, we are unconscious of the present moment or barely attending to what we are doing or what is real and true in the here and now. And in this new age of pandemic paranoia, it is easy to get deeply obsessed with repetitive, negative thoughts and feelings of helpless fear and powerlessness.
Harris suggests engaging in a deliberate mindfulness exercise of intentional presence. He writes, “Get a sense of where you are and refocus your attention on the activity you are doing. Look around the room and notice five things you can see. Notice three or four things you can hear. Notice what you can smell or taste or sense in your nose and mouth. Notice what you are doing. End the exercise by giving your full attention to the task or activity at hand.”
It also helps to step back from the thoughts in our mind and the stories we tell ourselves and recognize they may or may not be true and that we are safe in the present moment. Remember there is a difference between reality and what we tell ourselves about it. An important question to ask at this point is whether our thoughts are helpful or useful. Do they work? Are they helping us to find peace in the present moment as we seek to act in a healthy, effective and compassionate manner?
In a moment, I will address values and how important they are in guiding our lives and giving them meaning and purpose. Our core values provide us with a sense of direction, like a compass, and point us toward the goals and actions that arise naturally from a recognition of what is truly important and valuable to us. For example, we might feel afraid that we might contract the coronavirus. We might have thoughts about people we love getting sick or possibly dying. If we pay attention, we will realize that all this pain and fear connects us to values like love, family, health and safety, and once harnessed, can inspire and motivate us to act in accordance with those values. Instead of focusing on what we wish we didn’t have or what we want to avoid, we find ourselves moving toward who or what is important to us, acting decisively and effectively to protect ourselves and those we love.
Harris writes, “What are simple ways to look after yourself, those you live with, and those you can realistically help? What kind, caring, supportive deeds can you do? Can you say some kind words to someone in distress – in person or via a phone call or text message? Can you help someone out with a task or a chore, or cook a meal, or hold someone’s hand, or play a game with a young child? Can you comfort and soothe someone who is sick? Or in the most serious of cases, nurse them and access whatever medical assistance is available?”
“And if you’re spending a lot more time at home, through self-isolation or forced quarantine, or social distancing, what are the most effective ways to spend that time? You may want to consider physical exercise to stay fit, cooking healthy food (as possible, given restrictions), and doing meaningful activities by yourself or with others. And if you’re familiar with acceptance and commitment therapy or other mindfulness-based approaches, how can you actively practice some of those mindfulness skills?
“Repeatedly throughout the day, ask yourself ‘What can I do right now – no matter how small it may be – that improves life for myself or others I live with, or people in my community?’ And whatever the answer is – do it, and engage in it fully.”
Opening up means, first and foremost to notice where we aren’t open. Again, in our efforts to control our experience, we often become fearful, closed, resistant, tense and uptight. The coronavirus is serious. The fact that millions of people might die can feel terrifying and incomprehensible. While we can’t fix this problem, we always have control over how we respond to life’s difficulties. Opening up to our experience and seeking to be psychologically flexible will always be more effective and beneficial than shutting down, avoiding or seeking to rigidly control everything and everyone we can.
Harris writes, “Opening up means making room for difficult feelings and being kind to yourself. Difficult feelings are guaranteed to keep on showing up as this crisis unfolds: fear, anxiety, anger, sadness, guilt, loneliness, frustration, confusion, and many more. We can’t stop them from arising; they’re normal reactions. But we can open up and make room for them: acknowledge they are normal, allow them to be there (even though they hurt), and treat ourselves kindly.”
In The Reality Slap, half of the book is devoted to this concept of holding ourselves kindly. Too many of us spend most of our time in the court room mind, judging, prosecuting, criticizing and blaming ourselves for being an imperfect human, prone to making mistakes and failing to live up to our high expectations. Instead, it might help to spend some time in the science lab mind, where life is viewed as a series of experiments in which we obtain results and learn from our experience. From this perspective, we can open up to learning from our failures, instead of getting stuck in an endless cycle of repetitious, unworkable action and self-condemnation.
Harris reminds us that “self-kindness is essential if you want to cope well with this crisis – especially if you are in a caregiver role. If you’ve ever flown on a plane, you’ve heard this message: ‘In event of an emergency, put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others.’ Well, self- kindness is your own oxygen mask; if you need to look after others, you’ll do it a whole lot better if you’re also taking good care of yourself. So ask yourself, ‘If someone I loved was going through this experience, feeling what I am feeling – if I wanted to be kind and caring towards them, how would I treat them? How would I behave towards them? What might I say or do?’ Then try treating yourself the same way.”
As I mentioned when I wrote about committed action, our behavior in the midst of this crisis will be more effective if they are informed by our most deeply held and cherished values. What is really important to us? What do we deeply care about? What qualities and characteristics do we most admire in others, and hope that others see in us? Harris asks, “What do you want to stand for in the face of this crisis? What sort of person do you want to be, as you go through this? How do you want to treat yourself and others?”
These are dark days. None of us has ever been confronted with something this immense, this global, this overwhelming. While many are attempting to predict what’s coming, no one really knows. It is this not knowing that can paralyze many of us and lead us to imagine the worst. In the midst of this, it is helpful to remember that we still have control of our behavior. We can still choose to connect with and live according to our values. This is one of our greatest powers and strengths. No one, not even the coronavirus, can take that from us.
Harris writes, “Identify resources for help, assistance, support, and advice. This includes friends, family, neighbours, health professionals, emergency services. And make sure you know the emergency helpline phone numbers, including psychological help if required. Also reach out to your social networks. And if you are able to offer support to others, let them know; you can be a resource for other people, just as they can for you. One very important aspect of this process involves finding a reliable and trustworthy source of information for updates on the crisis and guidelines for responding to it. The World Health Organisation website is the leading source of such information. Also check the website of your country’s government health department. Use this information to develop your own resources: action plans to protect yourself and others, and to prepare in advance for quarantine or emergency.”
Disinfect and distance physically
Harris writes, “I’m sure you already know this, but it’s worth repeating: disinfect your hands regularly and practice as much social distancing as realistically possible, for the greater good of your community. And remember, we’re talking about physical distancing – not cutting off emotionally. This is an important aspect of committed action, so align it deeply with your values; recognise that these are truly caring actions.”
Words are puny things. We humans love them but let’s be clear. They have their limits. And they are further limited when someone like me attempts to use them to assist others to cope with the worst global pandemic since 1918. The reality these flimsy words point to are beyond our ability to capture or contain. We all want to live and we desperately want our loved ones to be safe, healthy and secure.
In the weeks and months to come, this contagion will challenge all of us to come together and collectively determine who we are and whether we can rise above our differences and act from an understanding of what makes us one. Martin Luther King said, “In a real sense all life is inter-related. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. This is the inter-related structure of reality.”
It is easy to identify as a separate, powerless fragment of the vast and limitless expanse of reality we sometimes call the universe but deep down, many of us understand we are not only in this together, we are inextricably connected in a shared aware oneness. Eckhart Tolle said, “Underneath the surface appearance, all things are interconnected, are part of the totality of the cosmos that has brought about the form that this moment takes.”
This pandemic is an opportunity to become better, to become more, to become the best version of our collective self, through all of our efforts, all of our understandings and yes with all of our love. May you and all those you love be safe and healthy in the weeks and months to come.