Last night, I woke up at 4:50 am. It was dark, no moon was visible, and I felt very tired. All I wanted to do was go back to sleep. But images I had seen on tv of an overcrowded New York City hospital started to play in my mind and I felt a roughness in the back of my throat. I wondered if that roughness meant I was just getting a sore throat or was it the first sign of the coronavirus.
I began to think about the one day in the last week I had left home to pick up vitamins and groceries and to worry if my attention might have gone lax, or if I had done something stupid that exposed me to the virus. Even if we don’t get sick, the crisis can make us feel sick.
So I went downstairs to the kitchen, closed the door so my wife wouldn’t be disturbed and gargled. That helped. Then to the living room, to turn on a reading lamp, and sit in our recliner. Reading a novel was an option, but my eyes wouldn’t stay open. So I closed them, took two gentle breaths, and started to change my mental channels to focus on something more calming.
I pictured my own smile (you could also use the smile of someone you care about) and placed it in front of me. That felt good. I pictured it on my face ⎼ pictured me smiling. I turned it into a smile meditation. But it was too dark, and I was too tired to see it well. I tried to add some white, healing light, and move it to my throat, where I had felt the soreness. But the night was like a black hole and absorbed all the mental light I could create.
So then I decided to experiment, to see what would give me comfort and let me sleep. I thought of my blogs, and the comfort or beauty and sense of their own strength people said they found in them. The image of my students came to mind. If I got sick or died, they would have to find someone else to teach them. That revived me. Compassion for others replaced worrying over myself.
What kept me awake was a panic about the possibility of dying. The thought of no longer being with my wife was terrifying. And I thought of all the things, practical and not so practical, I should tell her.
I began to see things that I had missed or glossed over or where I had tried to just make it through a difficult moment. Where I had looked to the future instead of the present, to recording an event in my diary over the felt experience of being there. Even during a meditation, it is easy to get diverted by wanting to write down an insight that pops into my head and thus sacrifice the depth of awareness that made the insight possible. But now, there was no critique in my mind, just an opening. It was still dark outside, but my mind was clearing. I just saw what was there to see, to feel what was there to feel.
The image that kept coming back to me was of this house we live in and had spent so much time and money building and rebuilding. Last fall, I had written a blog about feeling a bit strange that I lived here. After being born in Manhattan and growing up in Queens, NYC ⎼here I was living on a rural hillside, in an old apple orchard. Sometimes, I’d be out walking on the dirt road in front of our house and would realize that this place felt safe to me, but I wasn’t sure it felt like home.
But at that moment, at night, after thinking about contracting a possibly deadly virus, I realized not only did I want to live and survive this crisis and live as fully as I could, but I actually loved this place. And right then, outside the window, I realized the outlines of tree limbs were becoming clear to me. It was growing light. No longer was the world only darkness and mental imagery. And I fell asleep.
All of us need to feel at home in the world. To feel that this sense of threat, this sense that life itself was crazy, would end sometime soon. That the medical community, not the President, would declare it was safe again. That we wouldn’t have to worry any longer that each time we left the house we’d contract the virus or, even worse maybe, give it to someone else. That we could hug our friends again. That we could go to work, or school, or to a restaurant, or go to a store without wearing a mask. And we could see, and people could see us, smile again, in public, without a cloth hiding our mouth. And an open smile would no longer be a threat but a cause for celebration.
Maybe, several times each day, we could remember this image of the future and know it is possible. Let it inspire us. But to get there, we will have to help make it so. Staying healthy and helping others stay healthy is the beginning. Compassion is the beginning. But feeling that a future we could love and look forward to is possible can help us find the strength and insight to make it happen.
*For more hopefully helpful tips on getting a good sleep during the pandemic go to the Greater Good Science Center.