I absolutely believe we are made for these times.
How do I know this?
Well, we are here.
But, what to do?
If you are not one of the people caring for others who are sick or essential workers or family supporting these folks you are living a different reality than those in the “front lines.” Thank you family for caring for us all. While these folks haven’t taken a breath in weeks, you may have way more free time on your hands than you’ve ever known. By now maybe you’ve researched & gathered your information, gotten a PhD on statistical graphs, eaten all the comfort foods, lounged all day in your pajamas, of course you’ve binge-watched whatever on your favorite streaming channel and now are silently wondering, “Are we done yet?”
Not even close.
I’m imagining we are all utilizing our well-worn coping mechanisms for dealing with stressful situations. Some helpful, some not so helpful. One of my coping mechanisms is to take an eagle’s eye view and see what the situation is trying to teach me (or the collective, in this case, the world!). Where am I being nudged (or shoved) into a new learning?
I could ramble on about a number of lessons or make a list of possible helpful coping strategies, but I’m not going to. I trust you to find your own answers. I’m going to talk about one thing that helps me access my inner wisdom with the hope that maybe you’ll find it helpful. This one thing is the importance of unstructured time.
Here we are, starting week #3 of sheltering in place. How’s it going with you and your family? How is the lack of normal structures playing out in your life? How’s the new routine going? What day is it anyway?
We certainly didn’t ask for this unstructured time. Many of us have zero experience or skill in unstructured time. Could we schedule a time to learn about it? 🙃 Maybe on zoom?
Most of us hadn’t budgeted a world-wide pandemic into our springtime plans.
And yet, here we are…in this…together.
What might we do with our retreat from the norm? Please don’t worry, I’m not about to suggest you take up that yoga practice you’ve been meaning to for 5 years now or finally clean out your garage or start that self-help book. Although those things might be constructive and helpful, I’m not sure doing them right away is anything more than “business as usual” in our productivity-obsessed culture.
I think we’ve been given an opportunity for something different.
I might even say an opportunity for healing.
We’ve been given some collective down time. And you might be finding that unstructured retreat time is not easy at first. Why would it be? We have years of “being productive” programming internalized and our psyche has been told down time is to be fought at all costs unless you are sick. Many of us literally don’t know what to do right now. Who are we if we are not working? Most folks don’t understand the importance of unstructured time nor do they actively cultivate it.
Here’s the thing, it requires practice.
I regularly crave and take unstructured time throughout the year. Keeping my inner being healthy requires unstructured time monthly, seasonally and at least once a year for 7-10 days off alone somewhere. I’ve practiced this for many years and I’ve learned a few things.
When I venture out into these retreats from “normal life” there are recognizable markers I pass along the way to my really dropping down into the much-longed-for sacred pause. These trail signs, like any good white rectangle painted on a tree, help me stay on the path to my desired destination. In this case, the destination is connecting with the sacred/god/goddess/divine/all-that-is that comes with unstructured time away from the “real world”. I need to come home to this place in order to be a good human and to do the work I do in the world. I actually believe we all need to come home to this place and the lack of coming home has made us not only homesick but out of balance.
The gift of this collective moment in time is we can all find home right here & right now.
The first trail marker to usually show up, that might not be easily recognized, is restlessness. Nothing feels comfortable, including our routines, our clothing, food, the couch, our family, nothing. (Maybe you’re feeling restless right now in your forced retreat?) Restlessness in this situation isn’t calling for us to fix something. It is a signpost that we are beginning to drop underneath the surface of our life. When the restlessness kicks in I am now able to say to myself, “hello restlessness, thanks for letting me know I’m on the path to really sinking in.” If I stay with the restlessness, I know it will pass and I will get to a place of less brain chatter and clarity. Getting to the destination of less brain chatter requires me to sit with the discomfort of restlessness, without trying to change it. (Yes, that means be with the restlessness.)
The ability to land in the place of the divine also requires proper preparation. No, we don’t need to pull out our camping gear or trail guides. Preparation for the inner retreat requires two things. Less input from the unnatural world and more input from our true home, outside, away from human made structures.
Less input from the unnatural world.
Less input from the unnatural world means decreasing flat screens of all kinds, decreasing unnecessary communications with other humans, and consuming less food requiring energy for digestion.
1. Less food
You don’t need to go into a full on water fast but rather, the focus of food is moved to survival needs rather than the front-and-center of our social interactions & routine. Have an apple and some nut butter rather than cooking a full meal. It’s only for a short time while you are on retreat. You get to wander for your retreat time and not be distracted by needing to focus on the process of eating.
2. Less talking…room for silence
Right about now the second suggestion of unnecessary communication with other humans might be just what the family needs. What does it mean realistically? During your designated retreat times the ideal would be silence. No distractions from the outside human world. Can you go and wander and not need to talk or interact with other humans? And, for some with children too young to understand this, silence is not an option. Perhaps the conversation could be directed to exploring the world of dirt, insects, plants and birds?
3. A break from flat screens
For most of us, less flat screen time really means NO flat screen time during the retreat time (I’m trying to ease you into that one.) Since most people are addicted to their flat screens, removing them for any period of time will have some withdrawal symptoms. One of the number one symptoms of withdrawal from addiction? Restlessness. You may be tempted to alleviate the restlessness by picking up the thing you are addicted to. (Please reference the above paragraph on restlessness.) If you’ve ever worked with addiction you know that you just need to wait 90 seconds before the stimulus of “wanting to pick up” passes. 90 seconds. Remind yourself it’s not forever, just for the amount of time you’ve designated to wander on retreat.
More input from our true home
More input is required from our true home, what some call the natural world. I don’t use that term because it infers that it is somewhere else, or that we are not natural. News flash. We are the natural world. That world is us and is our home. Ours by birthright. What is it? The place of soil, trees, birds, plants, mountains, rivers, streams, ponds, creatures of all kinds. The place devoid of human-made structures. Spending time in our natural home resets our nervous system. It grounds us. We know our true place in the world. We belong.
Maybe it isn’t appropriate to head out to the desert for 10 days right now. Maybe you could offer a mini retreat to yourself and your family for half a day? Or a whole day of wandering outside without the flat screens, following the call of the quieter voice within. Can you go to the park? Or your favorite creek? Can you start a garden? Maybe hang out with the little houseplant in your south-facing window. Any place where the voice who knows the way home but struggles to be heard during the cacophony of regular daily life can be heard. This is the voice beckoning you to lay belly down on the ground to watch the bugs go about their day or belly up to observe the fantastical creatures in the clouds as they pass by. This is our true home channel and a subtle shift occurs when we fully immerse ourselves in observing the natural world around us.
We open to the world.
Maybe this time is asking us to re-member who we truly are. This re-membering doesn’t require great suffering or penance. It doesn’t require great action. It requires the opposite ~ it requires slowing down.
Like Mary Oliver says in her poem Wild Geese,
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.