In isolation we face all that is inside of us. That’s the difficult part. Yes, it requires self-discipline to cook and clean and manage children constantly. Yes, it requires flexibility to work from home and suddenly break off physical contact with friends and family. Yes, it requires skill to avoid fighting with the family members we are shut in with, particularly our spouse. But the reason those things are hard, exhausting, overwhelming, is inside of us.
Why do I argue with my spouse? Because something in me feels bad. Why do I want to run away from my children and stress-eat a bowl of corn pops behind the pantry door? There is agitation, there is overwhelm, inside of me. Is it my fault that I have such feelings? No. They are part of life, and the fear and trauma of a pandemic are very real.
But in isolation we cannot run away. Sure, we can attempt to distract ourselves from this gruelling relationship with our own thoughts and feelings: we can watch movies (the more thrilling the better), and drink wine, and browse through SkipTheDishes trying to decide which type of take-out will bring us the most happiness. But the feelings are still there. That’s why monks and nuns are cloistered: to willingly go through isolation. To meet themselves.
Incredibly, the world has temporarily shut down and we’ve been given such an opportunity. Perhaps a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. People are reacting in all kinds of ways. We see some marriages getting stronger while some are unravelling. Some people are embracing a new way of thinking about their lives, and some are in emotional desperation.
Despite being shut in a with a high-energy seven-year-old, a baby, and a grieving husband (he lost his father only two months ago), I have been doing OK because I can meditate. So has my husband. Truly. I don’t often write about meditation because it has become so trendy lately that many new adopters have become eager meditation-pushers. And too many people I talk to echo the same sentiment again and again: “Oh yeah, meditation. That would be really good for me. I should do it one of these days. (But I’m not sure if I really want to. Something about it seems a little boring, and a little scary).”
But today I am writing about it. This is what meditation means to me.
I love to hike. I start out my walk in the forest so filled with my own thoughts and feelings and concerns that I can hardly see the beauty around me, or feel the stillness. I have to walk fast, keep moving, so I can process. After some time I start to settle in: nature helps me. The thoughts that have been bothering me get quieter and I notice the trees around me, and hear the birds, and smell the air. Relief starts to trickle in. As I walk I can feel the earth under my feet – how strong yet how soft she is. I am connected again, rooted again to my mother and my home. And at the end, there is silence and stillness and joy.
That is what meditation is. A powerful trick. When I can’t go out to the forest, it is possible to feel that expansiveness, that peace, that connection, by going inside myself. It is possible because I am part of nature too. I am not separate, no matter where I am.
That is magic to me. That is the kind of earth-shattering, paradigm-shifting magic that brings me to my knees. It’s the brilliant expansive power behind creation. Okay, maybe a little scary, but certainly not boring.
I started to write this piece because I was asked today what I thought my life would be like if I had never learned meditation – how different it might be. I don’t know if I can give a good answer to that. Having been initiated into a traditional school of Yoga at age 4, having spent a lifetime studying and practising meditation, and having completed a PhD on the topic, another life is almost unimaginable to me. But then I realized my husband, who has lived a very different life from mine, might offer a better answer.
Kevin grew up in Iglulik, a tiny hamlet on Baffin Island, in the Canadian Arctic. Like many other Inuit today his life has been a quivering dance of reclaiming of his own culture while trying to heal, and help his community heal, and attempting to adapt to southern Canadian culture all at the same time. Inuit are one of the strongest, most resourceful peoples on the planet: to this day they remain the only people who have the capacity to survive in the northernmost regions of the arctic. Due to the remoteness of Inuit territories, they were one of the last Indigenous homelands in the world to be colonized. This forced colonization happened so recently that Kevin’s mother was born on the land, in a sod house, in the traditional manner, and was part of the first generation of her nomadic people to be forced into settlements by the government. I think it says a lot about the tragedies that took place during this time that one of the most resilient peoples on the planet is now struggling deeply with a host of mental health problems, addictions, and one of the highest rates of youth suicide in the world.
Kevin has been very candid throughout our relationship about the intergenerational trauma he holds as an Indigenous man. Also, he has often credited his ability, not only to be married at all, but to thrive in our marriage, to the practice of yoga and meditation he took up eleven years ago (two years before meeting me). So, I asked him about it.
Me: So, can you picture your life without ever learning yoga or meditation or anything? What would it have been like?
Kevin: Well, either I would not be here anymore—
Me: What… suicide?
Kevin: Yeah. Or I would be a very sick or unhappy person. I think I would have a lot of debilitating muscle pain and not be able to play sports or do physical things because I store a lot of trauma in my body – in my muscles and my joints. And I would still be drinking, and I would be very depressed.
Me: Like, do you think you’d be an alcoholic?
Kevin: I mean, I was an alcoholic really, until I learned meditation, so… yeah.
Me: And would you be married? Kids/house/job?
Kevin: I would have a job. I’d probably have some kids, but I don’t think I could be married.
Me: Alright. Anything you want to say about what meditation has brought you?
Kevin: I guess the biggest thing is being able to commit. To commit to having a career, and a wife, and raising a family. That’s probably the biggest thing… commitment. So, basically everything I have: my wife, my family, my career goals, my personal development, my health, my ability to help my community…
Me: Could you have helped your community before, without learning meditation?
Kevin: Only in a limited way. Just here and there. I would have had the constant fear: “Oh no, I’m going to get trapped into doing this forever.” And I would have been much less helpful to my family: my siblings and my parents. Like, before, when my sister was a single mom, I helped her out, but only very little – not as much as I could have. I was very scared of getting trapped as the father figure and the male support. So even though she was going through a very difficult time, and I knew she was having a very difficult time, I was still chasing: going out with the guys, playing video games, drinking.
Me: What is it about meditation that helped you get over your fear of commitment? Why is meditation linked with commitments?
Kevin: I mean, it didn’t happen all at once. It took a really long time. Before meditation, even a small threat of commitment was enough to scare me away. And then eventually I was able to make small commitments. Like, yeah I can get a full-time job. Or, yeah, I can call Mary my girlfriend. Or, I think I’m ready for an apartment. Each of those individually would have scared me too much before, but with meditation each one was more manageable. I don’t know if that’s clear?
Me: Yeah, I think so. I still wonder why. What is the mechanism in meditation that made that work?
Kevin: Well, I was able to stay with my fear. I was able to sit with it instead of run away from it. And by just being able to sit with my fear for a little bit, I was able to move past it, and come to the realization, “Oh. This isn’t as bad as I thought. Having a job is not bondage. Getting married is not bondage.” Any time that little bit of fear came up I was able to sit through it and realize there’s nothing to be afraid of.
Me: Thanks, that was great. And hey, now you’re able to be married.
Kevin: It’s the biggest blessing of my life. [Interviewer and interviewee kiss a little.]
As for myself? I really don’t know what my life would look like externally. Would I have been as successful? Would I have completed a PhD? Would I have gotten married? Would I be a writer? I’m not sure about any of it. But I know that internally I would be more like a dry leaf blowing around in the wind. Emotions and people and events would sometimes seem stronger than me. They might overwhelm me. I would be prone to anxiety. Instead I am a leaf attached to a tree, with a big trunk and good roots. I can flap around a little in the wind for the fun of it, but ultimately I am deeply connected to stillness, to the security of knowing who I am.
So here we are, housebound together, and Kevin and I are doing OK. I believe that the more we embrace isolation, the stronger it will leave us. There is something magical about having the courage to sit with all that we are afraid of. Somehow, it creates transformation, and then suddenly there is nothing left to run away from.