It’s been at least a couple of weeks since I last wrote, but you have been much in my mind during these continuously challenging times. Many of you have been in touch with me with questions and requests, and I have done my best to respond – sadly, it’s not always possible for me to give what might be needed. Like many of you, I’m managing my capacities at the moment. In any case, I’m sorry if you have been disappointed – but please know that I read, appreciate, and respect everything you share with me. Thank you.
To many people at the moment, the world seems to be spiralling into something like chaos. The ongoing grip of the COVID pandemic around much of the planet seems to be only one of many challenges, which emerge in different forms and at different speeds in different places. Holding it all in our minds and hearts at the same time can feel (and be) overwhelming. I have received many messages from people struggling to keep track of things, and then also struggling to keep track of their anxieties and stress about those things. For some, the immensity of everything feels like it is too much to cope with ...
But, of course, ‘the immensity of everything’ IS too much for anyone to cope with, especially on their own. You need feel no additional stress or guilt about feeling overwhelmed. Indeed, one of the challenges for many at the moment is that the ongoing state of lockdown seems to isolate us from contact with others at exactly the moment such contact should be most needed.
Judging by some of your messages, it seems to me that vigilance fatigue is becoming a real issue. That is, perhaps you feel that things have been stressful and challenging for so long that you can no longer maintain your vigilance about social distancing, hand washing, mask wearing etc? After all, we only having finite amounts of energy in our reserves. Or perhaps you feel that, because neither you nor anyone in your immediate circle has been afflicted by the virus itself during this whole time, all of the fuss seems exaggerated or overblown? That is, your personal fight-flight response is shutting down, and with it withers your energy and sense of urgency.
Whatever the case for you, it may be reassuring to know that it is completely natural to get tired. As we’ve seen so many times in our course, there is no need to layer on extra suffering by judging yourself for being tired. It doesn’t show that you’re weak; it shows that you’re human. Remember, the practice of mindfulness is not supposed to eradicate all our pain, but rather to free us from the suffering that we inflict on ourselves and others in response to that unavoidable pain. Once we can accept that, the next question becomes much more helpful and healthy: what can I do to support myself (and those around me), given how tired I have inevitably become?
There are many and various answers to this important question. Your answer may be different from mine. And we can both be right. But we can also both be wrong. I think, if I’m honest, that it would be untrue to mutter the truism that ‘there is no wrong answer’ to such questions.
At times of difficulty and fatigue, Buddhists might turn to the powerful Pali concept of viriya (perseverance). So, I’d like to spend a moment on it today, if you’ll indulge me.
As one of the so-called ‘six perfections,’ viriya is a rich concept. It calls our attention to the energy, resolve, and diligence involved in the cultivation of well-being. That is, it reminds us that engaging in wholesome, healthy activities takes effort (ie. it’s work), but that such effort is itself invigorating because it is authentic and true to our natures. In this way, viriya helps us to understand the difference between laziness and rest, between dozing and meditating, between giving up and regrouping.
So, what does this mean for us in these challenging and exhausting times?
Well, first, I think it means that we can and should be gentle with ourselves when we feel tired and exhausted, when we feel like giving up. It’s completely understandable and natural that we might feel that way at the moment.
Second, it means that we should make use of this valuable insight into our depleted state of being as an occasion to reflect on what we can do to look after ourselves (and others), given that our energies and spirits are low.
Third, it means that we should guard against lapsing into the arms of the tempting but false friends of compassion (sloth and laziness), which entice us into their embrace by allowing us a period of effortlessness. However, by giving so little, we get little in return. We might want to believe that slumping onto the couch in front of the TV with a beer will make us feel better able to face the world, but the chances are it will not, at least not for long. We might want to believe that not bothering to find our face mask before leaving the house will feel liberating and light, but the chances are it will not.
Fourth, this does not mean that we should not relax – of course we should! However, it might mean that the activities of sloth and laziness (sometimes very welcome parts of our day) should not become our default or routine, despite how tempting they might be during times of fatigue. They are unlikely to be the right answer to the question: what can I do to support myself (and those around me), given how tired I have inevitably become? Instead, the right answer is likely to involve some effort, but it should be effort that is properly directed towards your well-being. If you know your energy levels are low, this might mean some very small things.
For instance, your insight might reveal to you that you have stopped practicing a ‘3-step breathing space’ before you leave the house each day? Perhaps you did it industriously for a couple of weeks, and then gave up on it? Perhaps you ditched it for another cup of coffee? But now, you might recall that mindfulness is also about remembering, and you might bring that practice back into your body and your days.
Or you might realise that you’ve stopped washing your hands for at least 20 seconds with soap and water? Perhaps you did it industriously for a couple of weeks, and then gave up on it? Perhaps you ditched it so that you could check your phone more quickly? But now, you might recall that mindfulness is also about remembering, and you might remember our ‘mindful hand-washing’ exercise and bring that practice back into your body and your days.
Yes, even these little things take some effort, but they might also give back to you more energy than they use. Perhaps you might experiment with bringing one or two things like this back into your days, and see whether they help you with your feelings of fatigue, confusion, or resignation?
Of course, if your insight into yourself reveals that you have more energy resources than you thought, but that they have simply been obscured by the emotional complexities and concerns of our challenging times, you might also consider whether your answer to the question (what can I do to support myself and others?) can be more effortful. For instance, you might have given up your regular 30 minute sitting meditation each evening after a few weeks in exchange for an extra glass of wine? Or perhaps your attempts to make use of the walk to the bus-stop for a mindfulness exercise have been replaced using that walk to check your phone and rehearse your grievances about your colleagues in your head? If you have the energy, how would it be if you reverted to a 30 minute sit or a mindful walk?
A key point here with viriya is that it doesn’t call on us to deplete ourselves by pushing ourselves beyond our limits. This is not a tragic-heroic denial of self. It is not an invitation to judge ourselves harshly. Rather, viriya calls on us to reflect honestly on our capacities and abilities at any given moment, and to do what we can in those moments to spend them in support of wholesomeness and well-being. This means that we need to recognise when flopping onto the couch is good for us and when it’s simply routined laziness obscuring what we might better do for ourselves (given the energy levels we have). This kind of honesty with ourselves can be challenging in itself, but accepting it is a way to look after ourselves with integrity and wisdom.
Something you might try this week, then, might be to take a few minutes for a slightly modified 3-step breathing space in the morning, before your day has begun properly. The slight modification could be this: in the middle step (Gathering) of the 3-steps (Awareness, Gathering, Expanding – AGE), take a moment to ask yourself this question: what can I do to support myself (and those around me), given the energy levels I have today? And then, when you ‘expand’ back into the day, take your insight with you.
In return, I can do two things for you. First, following requests, I’m going to make some audio recordings of these emails for you to listen to, if that format is more supportive for you. I’ll let you know when they’re ready. And second, I invite you to send me questions about your practice these days, and I’ll try to collect some of them up and make short recordings of my responses for everyone. If you’re interested in sending a question, please use this form.
For now, then, as ever, I wish you ease of being and freedom from enmity,
Dr. Chris Goto-Jones.
Leiden University - Centre for Innovation; University of Victoria.
During the 2020/21 COVID19 pandemic, Chris Goto-Jones started writing periodic emails to the participants of the MOOC DeMystifying Mindfulness on Coursera and FutureLearn. Following requests to put them all in one place, they are reproduced here.