You Are Not Alone

Dr.Susan Pollak
April 7, 2020
A person looks out the window with longing

For many of us, being confined to quarantine because of the coronavirus has been the most challenging time in our lives. The very scaffolding of our world, all that we had depended on to sustain us, has come tumbling down—work, school, friends, family, travel, places of worship, gyms, meditation centers, bars and restaurants. So much of what structured our lives and kept us happy is gone. And of course, many of us are profoundly concerned about our own health or that of our loved ones. Most of us are experiencing an onslaught of difficult emotions--from loss, to anger, to despair, panic and terror.

This is compounded by the isolation that many people are now experiencing being confined to their homes. Those who live alone, or are in conflicted relationships with family, partners or roommates, are feeling trapped. While social distancing is needed to keep us safe, for many it has become emotional exile as well, cutting us off from nurturing and sustaining human contact.

One way to combat the isolation we are facing is to remember what binds us together – which is precisely the heartbreak that we are all facing.  I’d like to share a four-step “Shelter in Place” meditation that I’ve developed that draws on this shared experience of suffering, inviting us to cultivate compassion for – and thus connection with – those from whom we are separated.

Now, this practice deliberately calls up difficult, strong emotions. If you decide to do it, try to make space for them, perhaps saying, “yes, this too.” You can also try putting a hand on your heart. However, if at any point you feel overwhelmed, let go of the contemplation and return to feeling the weight of the body and the anchor of your feet on the floor.

1.  Start with the Body

First, while fear and anxiety is generally about the future, the body is always in the present moment. So, begin there. Sit comfortably, with your eyes open or closed. Take a few grounding breaths. Just sit and know that you are sitting. Feel the sensations of your feet, your seat, and your hands. Feel your whole body. Let your body anchor you. See if you can relax any tension in your jaw, your shoulders, your belly, your legs and feet. Drop into the solidity of the body, resting here, rather than in the mind, in the spinning thoughts and anxieties about the future.

2.  Millions of people are doing this too

Next, bring to mind all the people in your community, your state, your country, the entire world who are sheltered in place. You are not alone. You can even say something like, “Just like me, millions of people are in quarantine. Just like me they are worried, anxious, and panicked.” See what arises for you, whether comforting or challenging, as you reflect on this connection.

3.  Allow the Heartbreak

Now, if you are able, allow yourself to feel some of the heartbreak you may be experiencing but not consciously letting in. Put a hand or two hands on your heart. For those you love and are separated from, including those you may never see again, send love and compassion. Let yourself be with this heartbreak. Once again, in this moment, as you have brought them into your heart, you are not alone.

4.  Extend compassion to everyone

Finally, extend that love and compassion outward to wider and wider circles, connecting to more and more people. See if you can cultivate compassion for family and friends; for caretakers; for all who are helping others hold the pain, shock, terror, and confusion. For the doctors, nurses, health-care workers risking their lives on the front lines. For the hidden helpers, those working in grocery stores, in pharmacies, driving supplies, delivering food and medicine. For those who are ill, either at home, in the hospital or nursing homes, unable to receive visitors; for those who have been infected, who are in pain, who are suffering. And for those who are mourning, bearing losses that feel too much to bear.

In this step, you might find it helpful to repeat a phrase that gives verbalization to that wish of love and compassion. For example, “May all your sorrows be eased. May your hearts and bodies be soothed and healed.”

May everyone be safe and protected. May all beings be free from suffering. May all beings rest in wisdom, peace and compassion. You are not alone.

Dr. Susan Pollak is the author of Self-Compassion for Parents and the co-founder of the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion at Harvard Medical School.

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