Week 13 of my personal lockdown, and I seem to be moving through a new phase in this consistently morphing experience of COVID-19. Or probably more accurately, COVID-19 is an amplifier to processes going on below the radar of my normal experiencing of being a human being. Constantly in movement. Thoughts, feelings, moods, behaviours - all in flux. I think I find myself settling, and then “boom”. For the past week I have found myself so very very tired. Not just tired, drained. I’ve tried to unpick it, but such is the pervasiveness of it, the task of unpicking has even been too draining.
As many counsellors and psychotherapists are becoming aware of, online working is incredibly tiring. And of course, its not just the online working but the phenomena of a global pandemic (not to mention the heartbreaking situation in the US) that leaves us with literally no-where to turn. “We” are experiencing much of the same of what our clients bring to the therapy room (or Zoom screen). I’ve found both comfort and claustrophobia in this like-experience. Its harder now than ever for me to leave my client work behind me; previously there was a sense of a ‘normal life’ awaiting me after I finished work for the day; but now, I click the red “leave meeting” button and I don’t leave the experience - its just a door to another version of it. At the same time, my clients stories reflect something of my own - and that brings a sense of belonging, something quite profound being shared.
When I moved online 13 weeks ago, out of naivety I started conducting therapy sessions from here in my study - my comfortable desk, office chair and beautiful iMac with its “cinema” screen. It has taken time to realise that this has not been serving me on many different levels. Firstly, this study is akin to a retreat “cave” for me - I do my practice here, I love to read and journal here, it is also where I do my writing - blogging, book writing. It is Helen’s space for “me time”. Furthermore, since starting my Vajrayana practices, I recognise how much more sensitive I am to energy: and working with clients from this room is being felt. The room is no longer mine, it had become shared. And this has affected my energy balance…and no doubt, contributed to feeling drained.
As I sat on the garden bench at the front of my house this morning (flanked by my two tree friends), I was able to tune in to a deeper sense of contentment; this has been somewhat out of reach for me recently. I, like many of those I spoke to last week, felt the ‘lockdown’ had taken a grip; the enormity of the situation we as a planet find ourselves in, the uncertainty of its time frame, and a realisation we don’t feel held by strong leadership. Many feel the present time to be quite dark, dense, and bleak.
Having moved our teaching online at the University at the beginning of the lockdown, in place of normal experiential working in the afternoon workshops our trainee therapists have been focused on distinct themes. Since mid-March we have explored aloneness, anxiety, grief, rites of passage, and last week “hope”. The selection of themes has been an organic process - in traversing the “new normal” terrain ideas from experience have emerged, been discussed as a group, and ‘folded back in’ to generate new themes to explore together. I feel the sense of a shared journey with the groups I facilitate, through the ups and downs, the hopes and fears. My meetings with the trainees each week have provided a constant in my life that has undeniably helped keep a sense of ground. Our second year students come to the end of the training this week, and it has felt important to share how much their being alongside has meant to me, and not just as an educator committing to continue ‘learning from the student’.
Before my time on the bench this morning, I had been for an early morning run. Knowing I had some writing time ahead of me today, the run was useful pondering of what was important to write about. Looking back over my week took me to a passage I had read from by Helen Palmer, renowned psychologist and teacher in the enneagram tradition. In ‘getting to know oneself’ Palmer distinguishes between looking deeply at personality versus the awareness that appears when we put personality to one side. This distinction is one I am keenly attempting to explicate in my book writing: how does the Buddhist dharma sit with western psychotherapy? There are other phrases: being vs becoming, or vertical vs horizontal that also capture the Eastern vs Western view. And needless to say, this is an ongoing personal quest.
I’ve taken to asking people I meet online - friends, family, students, supervisees - the question “what are you learning about yourself in all of this?” I’m intrigued by the ‘growth’ aspects that the COVID-19 pandemic is revealing. As a relative newbie to the Vajrayana path, I am appreciative of the View - that the phenomenal world (people, situations, viruses) is our experiment, our alchemical pot if you like. And how we interact with it brings many lessons.
Conversations at the back end of last week threw a few more ingredients in to the pot. Some people were sharing with me their experience of finding contentment in solitude; others were talking about the space they are finding and a connection to hobbies, new ones as well as re-found ones. As I listened to both, I recognised an ‘envy’. On many levels, my week is very similar to that BCV*. I still have a full client load in private practice, and I still have my two-day a week teaching post at the University. And for this I am grateful: I have a sense of normalcy in that structure, and I have little financial concerns…I know many are not in such a fortunate position. Nor do I have children who need my time for home schooling and additional emotional support. Yes, a lot to be grateful for. Yet, envy arising too. So, as we might ask all of our emotions, what is the message envy brings - what is it that I need to change?
I have been reflecting on post-holiday feelings I have experienced. On journeys home from France, I often look over to my wife and ask “why can’t we maintain this holiday rhythm and attitude back home?” Why is it that ordinary life can feel so much more compressed? There is an echo of this contemplation as applied to the current scenario: “how can I feel more spacious?”
I was sitting in meditation last Thursday morning as the sun was rising. The reality of the situation was at odds with my experience of it. Having started sitting so early, I had plenty of time for my practice yet I felt squeezed. I could feel myself willing time forward, like there was an urgency to the next moment in my day. An urgency AND being at rest, quite an odd feeling to be housing those two experiences simultaneously within my body and mind.
In the book I am currently writing, I use a series of personal vignettes to detail how I came to meditation, Buddhism and to start training as a therapist. Much of what I share unravels how I retreat from ‘being’ by taking on ‘doing’. A long repeated pattern of mine, it pops up in most of the endeavours, projects, roles across my life: PhD, academic and athletic careers. I am still seeing this pattern (though more subtle) in my life today; and with my practice, I am seeing it more clearly than ever.
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