As the human world is moving another week into stricter lock down, I hope you are all adjusting to this new reality, with all your zoom calls, remote work and (hopefully) downtime.
For the first time in a long long time, we are coming to a consensus that staying home and not doing what we usually do may actually save life. It's wonderful that we are extending our circle of concerns to those who are on the frontline and have their health in immediate danger because of this. Humanity hasn't felt this close in a while.
On that note, someone told me last week about the stages of this process:
First, lock down: Limit oneself in the house in order to help others.
Second, drop down: staying closer to the ground in which we know, which is what's true in this moment. If you are reading this, you are not dead. You are safe, sheltered, grounded. Others may not, but every act of concern should come from a place of gratitude.
Then, unlock down: Not the unlocking once you are out of quarantine, but even before that, the unlocking of what is really important for you and the energy you will channel to that. Maybe that's time for yourself (which I write about this week) or maybe it is working even harder to respond to the challenge of this time, whatever it is, go for it!
I wish you a strong and tender week ahead,
Sharing is sprouting.
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The wisdom of aloneness
This is a strange strange time. The physical distancing has made me wonder on aloneness, that strange nagging sense that we may be deeply alone in this world. The excerpt from my upcoming book came from one experience I had recently, being struck by how alone I am in this world while often feeling so grateful for all the wonderful people in my life. It's quite a paradoxical state - we can be alone even in the most intimate connected moment. Yet paradoxicality has become the heart of our time now.
I hesitate to call such loneliness a problem to be solved but an invitation to a surprising larger mystery that is always with us. In this crisis time, please come together and offer solidarity. Please also take this time to come home to yourself and visit the often ignored parts of it.
“In the bodily pain of aloneness is the first step to understanding how far we are from a real friendship, from a proper work or a long sought love. […] To make aloneness a friend is to apprentice ourselves to the foundation from which we make invitations to others. — David Whyte
Sometimes that acute sense of loneliness comes at the most unexpected tiny moment as a gift to our relationship with life. Here is a short story recalling such an encounter.
An unexpected aloneness
“What is the tiny part of you that you’ve been ignoring in order to be strong, productive, useful, pleasant and good during this time?”
That was the question that Mai, our coach, asked during a group call that I was a part of. It was a timely inquiry during this time of crisis, when many people had their lives affected by the COVID-19 pandemic and thus had to toughened up to deal with.
I sat with it for a while, and when it came to my turn, there was a stirring in my chest. I said: “I’ve been ignoring the part of me that needs other people, the human connection. I’ve been ignoring the part of me that knows how alone it is”.
Indeed, as an independent writer, I’ve been working on my own remotely with regular contact with a few close friends here. Yet I too was occupied with doing and doing. Even the times I managed to carve out for a walk, exercises or stretches were more for maintenance rather than staying in touch with my being.
I didn’t even know that I needed such connection until it screamed at me. In the evening, I had a nice homecooked dinner with a dear friend. At one moment, I asked her a question about her vision for life. She was immersed in enjoying the food and responded out in passing: “Don’t ask me that kind of question now when I’m eating”.
That would have seemed normal in most days, but somehow in that moment it felt like something hurt inside. A disquieting hollowing sense began to pull inward from my chest. I noticed the inclination to withdraw like a wounded animal, or like an excited hot stone that just got splashed by a bucket of cold water.
We stayed silent, each withdrawn into their own world. It’s amazing to notice the capacity for aloneness even in a moment of close companionship like that.
A flurry of so-called negative thoughts appeared in my mind “I’m all alone. This is not so good. I’m tired of this.” and blaming “how could she respond to me like that?” As I reasoned with myself that apparently nobody should interfere with someone who is in between a hunger and a sumptuous meal, I could not blame.
It’s weird, because intellectually it doesn’t make sense at all to get affected by such a situation. Yet it did hurt. The pain was still acute in the chest, as if crying out to me “You are so alone. You need genuine companionship.”
From past experiences, I knew that while this rarely happened, when it did, it is always a sign of a part of me needing some attention.
It was a delicate moment to decide what to do, fully knowing that the silence needed to take care of myself will inevitably affect my friend, who didn’t do anything wrong but would now have to bear an unnecessary tension.
I could have mustered with some force to tell myself “Suck it up. How could you get hurt by such a small thing especially when you are obviously wrong and now even hurt other people?”
I stayed silent for a while, succumbing to the ingrained pattern of withdrawal upon hurt. Then I managed to climb out of my own closed walls by expressing “I am noticing something in me that needs attention. Don’t worry, it’s not about you at all. I will need some alone time”.
Suddenly I was pulled into the silence of my aloneness.
Those negative and rationalizing thoughts slowly began to fall away. What became clear in the much needed soothing silence is that the hurt part of me knew how alone it was. It has been ignored for the presentation of a contented, independent and self-sufficient side.
From childhood, I had always been drawn into the world of ideas and the mystery of depth. Only later with some therapy experiences do I begin to learn that such inclination is both a gift and a wound. My childhood self unconsciously chose the world idea as an escape from the challenging reality of the family with its incessant conflicts among its members and the dire lack of heartwarming connection.
The common temptation is to wholly buy into that voice or dismiss that entirely. To follow the former is to let oneself be sucked into the vortex of emptiness, which threatens the outer stability and positivity that have been patiently built up.
To follow the latter is to power through, stay too cool and ignore that voice, which was exactly the reason it was yelling at me by that totally unexpected hurt. The growth-oriented part of me tried to cheer the aloneness up, but its silver lining was often too glib with the motivational mantra “everything happens for a reason, so learn from it”. That did not work at all.
The voice of aloneness quietly responded: “If you don’t know me well, you’ll learn the wrong lesson”. Indeed, one oftentimes has to stay longer in the discomfort of oneself to have a glimpse of the missing truth.
At a time of crisis when the dominant suck-it-up, tough-it-up voice is proving inadequate, the voice of aloneness brings up a truth, no matter how partial, that is much indeed.
What that voice tells me is that we are deeply alone in this world. It is even more true for those of us whose primary identity revolves around being a growth-oriented person who, with what seems to be a wholesome intention, seeks to be more.
The work of growing and differentiation that is so appealing to the inner explorer in us means we will continue to break our previous mold. We will have to let go of our former self and whatever associated with it, be it people, interest or work. Sadness is built in as a feature, not a bug. So is grief and despair, perhaps much before all the “good” stuff comes in, if they do at all. This process is not a heroic struggle to climb up a proud mountain but more like a careful fall down a dark well to find the dropped key.
We are deeply alone in this world, and only when we can stay open to that inherent aloneness, which as seen in my little vignette above can happen even in the most loving moments of companionship, can we come to know the togetherness that is on the side of the coin.
What is the risk of ignoring that voice of aloneness? It is not only missing its wisdom and therefore wasting a learning opportunity. The real risk is to further live a divided life, conveniently separating between the learning and growing part as good and the aloneness as bad. Once I experience separation within, I’d also see it without. Then I’d be joining in the war between good and evil that is characterizing nearly everything happening in this tumultuous time, a convenient outer illusion of separation that will in turn feed into the inner divide in an endless cycle. Let’s not.
Some might say that not everyone can afford the time to be with aloneness, but to me it felt not so much as a luxury but a necessity. Had I ignored that aloneness, it would come back another time, banging louder at the door until it has some attention. I would be, as the colloquial terms goes, “acting out”. Worse, it could resign and lay so low that at some points later in life I will go around searching in despair for a missing essential part of self. Let’s not.
The next day, I woke up feeling tender in the body as if a fever just passed, slightly less energetic but much clearer and more joyous.
That sense of aloneness was not as present, but it was still there, like a prodigal son who has just returned and is fully welcomed back home. It was a moving reunion with an implicit promise to never stay away from this tender and loving aloneness.
It might not be prominent all the time, but it must not be forgotten, just like how the most unfortunate must not be forgotten for society as a whole to continue existing.
The Wisdom of Aloneness
Attending to an often ignored part within oneself often brings about a subtle yet profound shift in one’s perception in the outside world. The linkage between inner and outer life is well explained in what the psychologist Carl Jung once said: “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate”.
Indeed, the correspondence between inner awareness and outer perception is striking. Even the common saying “it takes one to know one” has a scientific basis: we don’t see objects out there; we experience their reflections in us. For example, we often say we are looking at a table, but it’s actually the image that the light particles from the table form on the retina.
In the case of aloneness, once the part of oneself afraid of being alone is tended to such that it stops kicking and screaming, it becomes a highly perceptive organ that can sense the loneliness of others.
From that awareness born com-passion, whose original meaning is “to suffer with”. It is to say “I have been there. It was hard, and I wish that not to happen to you”.
One’s sense of self expands as it identifies with the larger struggle. The awareness changes such that this is neither just my pain nor yours but for many of us. From that larger identity, action won’t feel like trying to help out of guilt nor obligated “doing the right thing that a good person should do”. Rather, it would be like the left hand taking care of the hurting right hand: natural, spontaneous and effective.
Dear Global Leaders, Our condolences on the ill health of your economy. However, we would like to inform you that we will not risk our health and the lives of our loved ones in order to save your failing economy. We value life and our relationships to one another more than this economy. We know that the current economic structure is only one way to facilitate the exchange of goods and services. We believe that its time to accept that the life of your economic structure has run its course and it is time to say good-bye. There are not enough ventilators remaining to save the life of your economy. Besides, it was never of much use to us anyway. We know that it served you well, allowing you to accumulate great wealth, but that wealth was accumulated at the expense of low wage labor, destroying natural resources, and fighting wars to protect your private ownership.
But please don’t grieve too long! There are many more ways that we can structure a system to facilitate the exchange of goods and services in a much more equitable and just manner! We will be happy to show you ways that we can work together to build an economy based on collaboration rather than competition, that values life in all of its diverse forms and that builds strong communities, values health and diverse eco-systems. Once you realize the beauty of those things that don’t lose their value overnight, you will never miss the market that you created. We look forward to working with you to build this new economy, but we refuse to go back to work in order to save your golden calf. Sincerely, The rest of us.
Yup, there are beautiful things that don't lose value overnight. I do have a question though: that wholesome loaf of bread you bake yesterday did lose some value today, while the bridge the government built didn't. How then?
Looking for opportunities to enjoy this time? Here are some good stuff I found online
A great movie: money and life, anspirational essay-style documentary that asks a provocative question: can we see the economic crisis not as a disaster, but as a tremendous opportunity?
A poem apt for this time
Keeping Quiet Pablo Neuruda
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still
for once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for a second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fishermen in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about;
I want no truck with death.
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with death.
Perhaps the earth can teach us
as when everything seems dead
and later proves to be alive.
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.
A question for all of us - please write back to me, What do you miss during this time? What do you miss when you are out this time?