News outlets and media publications have covered the Coronavirus pandemic in great detail, but they have overlooked our biggest story.
We have been bombarded with tragic accounts of death and harrowing images of patients on ventilators. The exhaustive coverage of the virus has produced an abundance of fear in all of us, but the one topic that has not been covered is fear itself.
The horrific stories of grief and loss are certainly not insignificant, but the story impacting significantly more people around the world is one of fear.
If that sounds like an overstatement, let’s consider the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 dashboard.
Johns Hopkins Covid-19 map
The dashboard, which you have likely seen, contains a map tracking the total number of confirmed COVID-19 cases, and deaths around the world. The map has quickly become a daily part of our lives, receiving more than a billion views per day. A staggering number by any measure.
I decided to study usage data of the map, and quickly noticed one form of human behavior that was consistent around the globe. As the red circles on the map, which indicate active virus, appeared closer to our home towns, our interactions with the map grew exponentially. This behavior confirms that people grow even more fearful as the virus approaches their neighborhood.
If everyone around the world is experiencing fear, why aren’t we discussing it? What do we understand about our fear? And, why do we regard it as such a dreadful problem?
As a former operator of social media companies, it was drilled into my head that every problem presents an opportunity. Assuming that is true, then fear is not only the big story of today, but our biggest problem. And therefore, our biggest opportunity…
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When we are free of doubt, and feeling like everything is going great, we tend to feel fearless. But when we fail to acknowledge our doubts, when we choose to ignore our true feelings, that creates an internal resistance or anxiety. In simple terms, this is fear.
To be clear, I’m not talking about doubting if we should have fish or steak for dinner or if we should renew an online subscription to a newspaper. I’m referring to a more fundamental doubt about ourselves as human beings. We are all filled with doubt. We doubt ourselves every day, but typically, instead of investigating the source of these thoughts and feelings, we busy ourselves with distractions. We turn on the television, pour a drink, anything to avoid sitting down with an intention to uncover our deeper emotions.
Ironically, now that we are all sheltering in place with time on our hands, we are busier than ever cooking meals, watching videos and generally amusing ourselves. But this is the perfect opportunity to resist those daily distractions, and instead, use this gift of time to explore our fear, and in doing so, discover ourselves more fully.
We are such incredible creatures, filled with infinite love and compassion, but rarely do we consider ourselves in this manner. We learn math, science, biology, cardiology. We know so much about the human body and brain, but when do we take time to investigate our inner life and where do we begin?
We can start by giving ourselves a break.
If you ask any psychologist or social worker about the commonality they see in all patients, regardless of their issues, it is a lack of self-compassion.
Self-compassion requires checking in with yourself and being honest about what you’re feeling. It means tending to your fears, and being gentle with yourself.
Personally, I have found the RAIN of self-compassion to be a very simple and effective contemplative practice for taking care of myself. It has provided me with a deeper sense of relaxation, and opened a door to self-discovery. When dark thoughts arise or I experience fear, I no longer resist them. Instead, I welcome the opportunity to learn more about myself.
If all of this sounds new age, consider this excerpt from a poem written in the 13th Century by Rumi…
This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
The point is, whatever emotion you are experiencing, welcome it into your life. It is time to stop resisting.
If you would like to learn how to embrace emotions you currently perceive as negative, I encourage you to find a quiet space where you can be alone for at least ten minutes, without your phone or devices, and follow these four easy steps:
Recognize what is going on with yourself. Focus on your breath as it moves in and out. As thoughts arise, gently acknowledge them and experience what you are feeling. Be honest with yourself about what is going on inside.
What am I feeling? Am I lonely? Am I angry? Am I ashamed of feeling this way? How about physically? How do I feel? Am I tired or weighed down by the feeling? Whatever it is, just recognize it.
Give yourself the space to feel whatever rises up.
Am I being defensive or aggressive with others? Am I too attached to my point of view? Why do I have a need to be right all the time?
All of these questions have come up for me personally, which is why I offer them for you to consider. Sometimes it feels like I have been in a battle with myself, trying to avoid examining all of these feelings, my inner life. But when I recognize my feelings, it seems as if a weight has been lifted.
Accept what is going on inside yourself. Try to stop from judging your thoughts, and just be. Let go of the internal dialogue that loves to comment and react. Just be present. The idea is not to suppress the feelings that arise, but to touch them, feel them.
Personally, I feel horrible when I yell at my kids and as a result, I create this whole drama about myself. I’m a bad dad. I’m a bad person. Why did I do that? That’s my habit, my internal story, but accepting allows me to drop the commentary and just feel bad. Maybe tears begin to stream down my face. I’m not running away from the feeling by thinking of something else. I’m not justifying my actions by blaming the kids or accusing my wife of not supporting me. I’m just experiencing my painful emotions. It’s not that I’m a bad person or a lousy dad. To the contrary, I give myself a bit of encouragement in this moment. I love my family so much. I care so much.
Over time, you will find that if you pause just before reacting to something someone has said or done, you will learn to notice what is really going on beneath your initial emotion. I feel rejected. I feel abandoned. I’m afraid of losing my children.
Creating that brief moment of space presents an opportunity to make a better choice for how to respond.
Investigate what is going on inside yourself. While recognizing is the first step and accepting creates space, investigating is a more active part of the practice. It requires inquiry. How is my body reacting to this thought? Where is this feeling coming from? Am I feeling unworthy?
When we investigate the source, what is at the heart of our issues, what is really troubling us, we create compassion for ourselves.
There is a story that helps illustrate what I’m trying to explain. You are taking a walk in the neighborhood and you see a small dog sitting by a tree. You bend down to pet the dog but it snaps, almost biting you. Startled, you jump back and get angry at the dog. Now you feel it’s a mean dog. But then you notice the dog’s leg is caught on its leash and it can’t move. Now your mood shifts from anger to concern, and you realize that the dog’s anger was a result of its vulnerability and pain.
Obviously, the story applies to all of us. When we react in hurtful ways it’s because we are caught in a painful trap. When we investigate the source of that pain, we create room for compassion toward ourselves and others.
Nurture yourself with self-compassion. This is the final step of the RAIN practice. Self-compassion arises naturally when we recognize and nurture our suffering. Fear is a form of suffering. To experience self-compassion, try sensing your fear, and then offer some gesture of active care. Does your fear need words of reassurance? Of companionship? Of love? Experiment and see what act of self-kindness helps to comfort you, or open your heart. It might be the mental whisper of assurance. Everything will be okay.
If it feels difficult or awkward to offer love to yourself, bring to mind a loving being — a spiritual figure, family member, friend or pet — and imagine that being’s love flowing into you. When the intention to awaken self-compassion is sincere, the smallest gesture of turning towards love, of offering love — even if initially it feels awkward — will nourish your heart.
After the RAIN
Once you’ve completed the active steps of RAIN, it’s important to just notice your own presence and exist in that tender space. There’s nothing to do. It is simply a sense of self-compassion. A feeling of being truly free, vibrant, alive and filled with boundless love. It is also free of fear.
Imagine if everyone around the world were to embark on this journey. What would it look like if we all decided to learn about ourselves and get in touch with our compassion? What would happen if everyone was working from a place of love?
This is the big story, the opportunity presented by fear. The opportunity of a lifetime.
Previously published on Medium.com.
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