3 Things I Learned about Life from the Pandemic

Lessons on Spirituality and Being Human

Photo by Toni Reed on Unsplash

With the unprecedented nature of the pandemic, I’d guess many of us have confronted areas of our lives and ourselves in unexpected ways in the past year. Speaking for myself, with a newfound plethora of time and enforced solitude, I had the opportunity to really sit with myself for the first time in a long time. Though this wasn’t always comfortable, I discovered a few essential insights into my inner world and about how to live well.

Below are my biggest takeaways from this pandemic so far— lessons about life and spirituality and humanness. Perhaps you can relate.

  1. Loneliness is a platform for self-reflection and healing. Learn to embrace it.

“Don’t surrender your loneliness

So quickly.

Let it cut more deep.

Let it ferment and season you

As few human

Or even divine ingredients can.

Something missing in my heart tonight

Has made my eyes so soft

My voice

So tender,

My need of God

Absolutely

Clear.”

- Hafiz

In the first months of the pandemic’s shutdown I, like many others, confronted an immense sense of loneliness. I lived alone and had lost work, thus severely limiting my daily contact with others. After just a few days in quarantine, I desperately longed to be in the presence of friends, to feel connected (which I understand to be a perfectly natural part of our human biology, for the record).

Unlike in pre-coronavirus times, I couldn’t simply medicate this longing by meeting up with a friend or stopping at a bar or coffee shop. This was a loneliness I — and everyone else — was going to have to get used to.

Luckily, very soon into the pandemic I came across the teachings of Western Buddhist author and spiritual leader, Tara Brach, who addressed the intensification of loneliness in an already fairly lonely society. She pointed to our tendency when facing loneliness to substitute gratification via various means like social media, alcohol, food, drugs, or Netflix to distract us.

But what are we really distracting ourselves from? What are we afraid to feel?

You see, our tendency to medicate our loneliness is truly a missed opportunity for deep inner reflection and healing, Brach explains. To habitually hide from ourselves means we cannot live out our full beings, but only parts of ourselves. She quotes Carl Jung: “Our suffering comes from our unlived life — the unseen, unfelt parts of our psyche.”

In taking advantage of my ample time, I continued to develop a personal meditation practice and allowed myself to get really quiet. In my solitude, certain parts of my being began to unearth themselves — longings I hadn’t known existed. What was calling to me was a deep yearning for spiritual connection. Some might name it a calling to God. I longed to be held by the nurturing hands of something wonderful, something bigger than myself.

Soon enough, I found myself closer to it than ever before. I found myself exploring poetry, writing, and performing ritual. I lost myself to meditation. I lost myself to the beauty of nature. Spiritually, I began to come alive. It was this gradual and beautiful unfolding into a more whole version of myself and I felt more connected to life than perhaps I ever had. And so the journey continues…

My intention in sharing this experience is not to impose any personal spiritual beliefs but simply to urge you to stay with your loneliness when it arises. “Let it cut more deep,” as Hafiz says. Turn toward those unexplored aspects of your being, toward the areas that need attention and healing. You never know what will arise on the other side.

This leads perfectly into my next takeaway…

2. Resistance creates suffering. Surrender leads to peace.

When we experience difficult emotions, as many of us have during the pandemic, we often react by running away from them. We mask our pain, for fear of feeling it, with distraction from or denial of our experience.

I started to recognize this tendency in myself, noticing when I would attempt to mask my anxiety around my joblessness or general uncertainty with distractions like social media or Netflix, or I’d attempt to turn them off by telling myself it would all be okay, relax. Yet, as you could guess, these didn’t make the feelings go away. I simply became a more numb, less full version of myself. And eventually the painful emotions would return.

I came to the realization that my resistance to these difficult emotions created greater suffering than the experience of the feelings themselves. By denying my pain, I denied my full awareness and the truth of my experience. I denied myself of my full aliveness. This was not the way of compassion nor peace.

But with the help of certain spiritual teachers, I started to experiment with staying with difficult emotions for a change. I found that when I turned toward them, allowing in the pain and nurturing it, the experience wasn’t so unbearable. I found I could carry it. Just as we can benefit from moving through our loneliness, the same goes for all painful emotions.

When we surrender to what’s in front of us, embracing ourselves and our lives as they are — which is, in fact, a beautiful expression of self-love and validation — we find we won’t fall apart, that we can carry our pain for ourselves and the world into a more compassionate way of being.

3. Routine and ritual are tools to ground us during uncertain times.

Like many in 2020, my life took twists and turns at almost every season as I adapted to circumstances around the pandemic. Most of us were forced to adjust the structure of our days in some way, whether through the loss of a job, newly working from home, or relinquishing other regular rituals. In both very minor and very major ways, we’ve all had to adapt without certainty of any timeline or end date.

Remaining grounded amidst these constant changes was essential. I found early on that committing to a consistent morning routine gave my day meaning and structure, even if the rest of the day was up in the air — even if the rest of the year was up in the air. To be able to count on one aspect of the day, to show up for something even if it is just for myself, is an incredibly simple way to bring forth a sense of stability in a very unstable time.

It took some tweaking, but for the past nine months my morning routine has consisted of reading and coffee first thing in the morning, followed by breath work and meditation, and finishing with some form of exercise. Of course, a routine will look different for everyone depending on personal circumstances and preferred activities. It could simply be journaling every day, taking a walk with your dog, having a family meal together, saying a nightly prayer, or any combination of the above. Whatever your preferences, the important thing is to create and commit to a set of activities that is feasible to achieve every day (and ideally one that contributes to your overall sense of wellbeing).

As a side note (and you may have already heard this elsewhere), waking and going to bed at a set hour every day can greatly add to a sense of structure in your day, even if you are out of work and there is no other tangible reason to do so other than for your own peace of mind (and in the midst of the pandemic, what could be more important?).

Those are a few of the significant takeaways from the most difficult of years, though there really are many. As time goes on, I’m sure more lessons will surface. I think I’ll be ready for them.

Bonus lesson: It’s worth mentioning that through it all, one of the overlying themes I kept coming back to was the importance of being gentle with myself. I suppose that’s my most essential piece of advice to anyone as we try to make our peace with the state of the world. I don’t think I need explain much further. Without self-compassion, all of the above points are moot. So in 2021, here’s to a little more love and compassion, starting with ourselves.

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Yogi, meditator, student. I believe in compassion.

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Grace Herbener

Grace Herbener

Yogi, meditator, student. I believe in compassion.

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