When we’re quarantined with one person, together day in and day out, what happens or can happen between us?
The pandemic, magnified by the negligence and mismanagement by the DT administration, has led to isolation and anxiety; it has cost almost one-half a million American lives and over 10 million jobs. It has upset the entire way millions of people live. And losing jobs, losing homes, losing in-person in-school instruction, for example, is not just an inconvenience. It is an unquestioned loss, of stability, of hope, and of income.
But can we, at least with our loved ones, re-imagine our time together? Many of us have already begun to do so. Our lives have been simplified. I’m retired and live with just my wife and pets and this is clearly true for me. Are we “stuck” together while quarantined from others? Or are we privileged to be together? If we have less to do and fewer distractions, maybe we can get closer to those we live with instead of taking our fear out on each other. Frightening as it has often been, maybe we can learn to see ourselves and each other more directly and kindly.
D. E. Harding, in his book, On Having No Head: Zen and the Re-Discovery of the Obvious, proposes ways to directly encounter our true self. Many of us imagine we are our memories, habits, a self with a head and body standing at a distance and separate from what we see. But one day Harding saw himself differently. He was actually walking in the Himalayas, the sky and air absolutely clear, and suddenly “all mental chatter died down.” Just looking around was completely absorbing. He forgot who he was. Past and future disappeared.
And when he looked internally, where he thought his head should be, he instead saw the clear blue sky, the outward scene where his eyes were pointed. He realized he “had lost a head and gained a world.” Or where a head should be situated, he carried the mountains and sky.
Imagine looking through a tube, one eye on one end, and our spouse, best friend, lover looking in the other. Eye to eye. This is a startling way to lose a head and gain an intimacy. (The exercise was inspired by Harding but created by Richard Lang, who led workshops worldwide on Harding’s teachings. See the article in the Spring 2021 Tricycle Magazine by Michael Haederle.)
There are similar meditation exercises. In sitting position, face another person, eyes to eyes. Breathe in. Breathe out. Together.
What do we see when we look in the tube or we face another person directly?
Every morning when I get up, after I put on my pants, I go downstairs to look for my wife. 90% of the time she is up before me. I find her in the kitchen or den. And I greet her cheerfully. It’s a promise I make to myself. No matter how well or poorly I sleep I am happy to see her. “Good morning. How are you? How did you sleep? What a day this is!” Being happy with her, I am happy with myself.
It’s almost a ritual, or a song we sing to make our house a home. No matter who we live with ⎼ children, parents, friends ⎼ or we’re alone, we can adapt the lyrics to fit the situation. But as best we can, we can make the tune loving, so we wake up to what’s most important ⎼ the nourishment love and kindness can give us.
Everyone can have an angry thought or feeling. It’s how we respond that matters most. If we identify with or act on such thoughts, anger lives in us. If we act with kindness, kindness lives in us. What we give, we get. All during the day we can remind ourselves of this. Notice who is there with us and what we feel. Learn from that awareness. Breathe in, out. Then act. The day just goes better this way.
At night, it’s a similar story. The night prepares the day, the day the night. Before going to bed, I say good night to my wife and each of our three cats, if I can find them. The cats do not always respond, but often follow us, speaking in their own way.
Milo, with a grunt, jumps on the bed and seizes one corner by our feet, claiming territory. When the other cats jump up, he swipes at them. Max comes slowly, almost in a dream, climbs on my wife’s legs and kneads them. His sister, Tara, rushes onto the bed with a cry. She always says something, and then plops down, her butt facing in my direction. Then she peeks around at me. When I pet her, she relaxes, rolls over, showing her belly, and we talk. I ask her something different each time, something like:
“Are you happy?”
“I’m happy, Papa.”
“Are you ready for sleep?”
“Only if you’re ready—and won’t roll over on me.”
“And Mommy. Do you think Mommy is ready?”
And my wife can’t help but laugh, get playful, especially since she introduced me to talking to pets as a practice. She joins in the conversation. It’s Silly. Nonsensical. Yet it makes the most sense. Philosopher Martin Buber said, “All real living is meeting.” This is one way we meet.
Almost every afternoon since the pandemic began, we take a walk up our hill. Back in March, I sometimes wondered what I could say to her as we walked, and if I was boring or uninteresting. It was like a first date, when we wonder how to be impressive, or what kind of show to put on. But after 49 years together, how we impress each other has changed considerably.
Now, we simply walk⎼ and talk flows when and where it will. Sometimes, we can’t speak. The same air and energy that goes into talking goes into walking, and we run out of breath.
Talking is breathing. The silences between us give birth to conversation. The words come as a surprise to both of us because what speaks in us is unknown until it appears. When we’re near the trees, they speak in us. When the sun sets behind our hill, the different layers of color, orange, blue, grey speak in us.
This is one gift we have given ourselves during this shattering pandemic. Amidst the rubble, flowers can grow. We are isolated from the many and learn to be present to a few.
Can we take this as a time of training in mutuality, in meditation, in listening? Can we create ways to remind us what fuels a relationship? So, when it’s over, when we take the masks off, we can take off the projections and look eyes to eyes, and see one being spontaneously meeting another.
(If you’re feeling very stressed, and want to try mindfulness, here is a resource to help you get started.)
This post is republished on Medium.
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