I learned more about fear today. COVID-19 has drawn closer into my already-small pod, with symptoms beginning in a dear friend’s husband, who is also a dear friend. The mindful part of me knows that it’s just a matter of time before COVID draws closer to each and all of us. Six degrees of separation is an even shorter distance in a pandemic than it is in so-called ‘normal’ seasons. I’m writing in the hopes I can name some new awarenesses about fear in the human body--at least in my own body--but also because I’ve landed in a remarkably simple yet difficult breath-practice that I’m finding a powerful complement or container for this pre-election season. The practice is called the welcoming prayer, a contemplative practice from Christian wisdom streams, though it certainly has equivalents in other traditions as well (esp Buddhist wisdom, I’m thinking…). Today, it dawns on me that this experience and this practice may well be a powerful tool in the journeying toward healing our We the People.
First, the fear. When I received word from my friend that her husband had COVID like symptoms, my first response was for him, for her, for what was the plan and any needs to be tended. My body was having a visceral reaction, but I was not paying attention to it yet. When I hung up the phone--an odd phrase for smart-phones these days, I now realize for some reason--a whoosh of sensation and awareness overwhelmed me. I literally got ‘the shakes’ and realized I needed to slow down my breathing in order to steady myself. I’m famous for hyperventilating. [Well, at least I am in the bout of food-poisoning I had on a trip to London with my mom after college graduation, and in the aftermath of a ‘space-flight-simulation’ at the Epcott Center. Tip for that one: avoid orange, go green. People are known to throw-up more on Orange. The barf-bag in the seat pocket should have been a clue for me there. 😏]. Anyway, I’m known to hyperventilate in uncertain situations, so I brought my conscious attention to slowing my breathing, breathing through my nose only, bringing my heart-rate down from its potentially panic-level.
Realizing that I had been vulnerable to COVID exposure, once-even-twice-removed, I next began a serious body-scan of anything I might be feeling in my body, physically. Did I have a sore throat or was that the allergies drainage that always plagues me in October? Take one little red sudafed pill and see what I notice in the next hours. Was this heaviness in my chest significant for my physical health? What did my breathing feel like? I should measure it. Did I have an appetite? Could I taste my food?
The questions came at me inside like a rapid-fire baseball pitching-batting machine.
Each one I could hit with a sense of lessening concern, though not complete eradication of concern. The sudafed took away the drainage feel and the hydration eased my throat and stomach. The weight on my chest began to decline, and I realized visceral body fear for me constricts my chest, my breathing. My chest growing tight is a natural response in panic, in fear. As I brought my conscious attention to these things, as I began to reach out for more information from those more knowledgeable than I, the constriction began to wane. My breathing returned to its normal pace and percentage. Yes, I did check with the oximeter that my husband purchased at the end of January, anticipating a lot of this by reading the news about the pandemic beginning in China.
I also know that a portion of the panic arose because instead of driving up to Troy for a socially-distanced, participant-masked, church-teaching-gig, I was all of a sudden hosting-teaching-implementing a Facebook Live ‘program’ for this church by myself. I’ve never done FB Live! This required becoming an administrator on the church page, learning how to find the right combination of things to open the Live portal into the right spot on the FB page itself. Even given my relative technological adolescence in these things, it was fairly easy in the end, blessedly. But my body bore the full brunt of the fear and uncertainty, like she usually does. I think my mind is still catching up…
Knowing this time would be particularly anxious for me, I had (providentially?) signed up for an e-course with Spirituality & Practice. For the month of October, they were offering an e-course on The Welcoming Prayer. I was familiar with this practice because of a spiritual-direction peer-group member, but I’ve only ever learned about it, really. It’s never become an integrated part of my daily life. But three days this week, each week this month, I receive an e-mail with some teachings on the Welcoming Prayer, with an invitation to practice.
The gist of the practice is simple, three steps total. First, pause to listen for anything in your body that draws your attention. You can do a body-scan, from top of your head to the soles of your feet, listening for any sensation, itch, pain, feeling. When one arises, sink into the feeling like you would into a jacuzzi bath. Feel it. Be present to it, without naming it (if you can).
Second, welcome the feeling with the words welcome...welcome...welcome… Befriend the feelings-sensation and simply draw close in welcome.
Third, after some time of feeling-sensing, say quietly in your mind, “I let go of my desire for security, affection, and control. I embrace this moment precisely as it is.” This sentence may become its own mantra or repeated intention, prayer. Then you can repeat the steps, tending to any other arisings in your body.
The wisdom of this practice is a gradual receptivity to what is already present within you, an awakening to energies in your own body. It is a receptivity to the Present, which naturally opens you to an indwelling Presence. Presence always present, by the way, which we only know fully-deeply when we are attuned to notice or welcome. This practice is simply a welcome of what-is, which wisdom traditions call opening the door to the indwelling Presence of God. Another name for this practice is consent-on-the-go, consenting to Sacred Presence indwelling each of us. The gift of this practice, then, is its acknowledgment that God doesn’t take away what is most challenging or even terrifying. A popularized sentiment about God is that we know God is present when we are in no pain or difficulty. The more authentic wisdom teaching is that we know the Sacred most fully in what is most challenging.
The gist of this paradox--and what convinces me of its vitality for today--is that we have no control of That Which is Greater Than We Are. The pathway to true knowing of Presence is therefore receptivity, surrender. I’ve often told my students that any “practice” of surrender has to be a paradox, because we cannot will to surrender in any spiritual sense. The ego--a necessary psychological force for health and wellbeing in human society--cannot actually surrender itself through will or choice. That is antithetical to the ego. So surrender is more an act of increasing receptivity or allowing that eventually happens within you, when you’re no longer trying to surrender. Of course, politics is today's means of attempting control for security and/or affection, even fame. Incongruities abound...
Welcome...welcome...welcome… This three-step invitation to practice is one of increasing receptivity to what-already-is. It is a pathway to seeing the world as it already is, as communicated to you through your body, allowing us to truly be in the world, not our minds or our fears or our resistances, etc. Ironically, then, we become grounded in a Presence that is Greater Than We Are. We become open to an indwelling Presence allowing us to be held and to hold ourselves and those around us in hope, com-passion, together.
I’ve learned since writing these words that my friend’s husband has tested positive for COVID. I have steadied in my own practices, keeping my rhythms of health through exercise, healthy eating, immuno-and-hormonal supplements and lots of rest. The visceral fear in my body has waned and I have deepened in my ability to welcome What-Is, just as it is. If I am to join the more than 8 million in our country today who have contracted the virus, then I’ll know in the next day or two...at most, in the next six days (which would be 14 days from last possible trace with him). It seems unlikely symptoms will develop, blessedly, as they have not yet, over five days past. But I have been given a way to consent-on-the-go, listening to my body’s wisdom messages and being-with in some new ways.
Paradoxical to know peace in this journey, but that is the gift I am receiving. So it made me wonder if it could assist more of us in our healing journey toward We the People. How can more of us learn to be in the world as it is, not in our ingrained stories of how we have perceived ourselves and the others with such disdain, disregard, and anger? How can we become more receptive to the suffering of others, honoring always the experience of the other, just as it is…?
Welcome...welcome...welcome… I let go of my desire for security, affection, and control. I embrace the moment as it is. Here, We become open and receptive… Could We the People learn more gently, slowly, determinedly how to be a part of the healing more than the wounding…? Could We regain our We if we took time with What Is, slowly, gently, holding our reactions/responses except for those that arise from fullness, contributions to healing, Wholeness? I wonder...