Browsing our bookshelves, my eyes landed on “An Interrupted Life: The Diaries of Etty Hillesum.” She wrote these diaries in eight exercise books in Amsterdam during the Holocaust years. She died in 1943 at Auschwitz at the age of 29.
I first read her diaries when they were published in 1983. My mother had died recently and my engagement with life was half-hearted at best. Her words opened my eyes to what is possible within the human spirit. Etty reminds me of the same breadth and depth of this spirit as reflected in, our health care workers, grocery and postal clerks, and my friends and colleagues working at our local food bank, aptly named Food for People.
Before I happened upon Hillesum’s diaries, I thought this post would be about the split screens in my life. Postage-stamp-sized views of friends, colleagues, and clients in virtual gatherings; scenes of mass burials on Hart Island in New York City; lines of people hoping to apply for unemployment relief and get food; and the view from my office window: flowering azaleas and rhododendrons and neighborhood families walking and riding together.
I live in a split world—one part immense gratitude for being alive today and the other half sadness and grief at the loss of people’s lives, sense of wellbeing and safety, and our ability to hug one another.
Our sense of psychological and physical safety is interwoven with our ability to be in relationship and connection with others. Because of that, our bodies, minds, hearts, and spirits are also being threatened by having to distance ourselves from one another during this pandemic. However, you need not be distant from yourself.
When we are frightened, it is tempting to shy away from the reality around us and to hunker down inside. However, this hunkering leads us away from self-awareness and towards self-absorption. It keeps us from being able to notice all that is alive inside and around us. This blindness leads to more fear as it exacerbates a sense of isolation.
A helpful practice I’ve been cultivating right now is thinking of these various screens as a mosaic of all that is real. All that we are seeing and experiencing is part of one whole. Learning to repose inside oneself and be with all of it enables us to be aware of what is alive in this moment: the hard stuff as well as the good stuff. From here, I can feel sad without being overwhelmed. I can be nurtured by opening my heart to the presence and caring of those around me in virtual and physical space. And I can pause and be with the immense beauty of this world.
However, reposing inside oneself and being with all of it is not an end in itself. Reposing in oneself creates the conditions in which love and compassion for ourselves and others can grow. It enables us to realize what this time is about rather than waiting to figure it out when this time has passed. It gives us the opportunity to take responsibility for our part of what is happening now and proactively contribute to the desired tomorrow our world needs.
Reposing in Oneself
Being situated in oneself, or reposing, begins in the body. Here is one process I use to help myself not distance myself from myself.
Begin with the body. Sensing into my feet, I notice how they are resting on the floor. Sometimes one foot is resting in a different way than the other. This noticing starts to slow my busy mind. Then I bring my attention to how I am sitting on the chair. Often, I realize I am sitting more on one side than the other. I adjust so I am more balanced and there is more ease in the sitting. From my feet and seat, I sense a connection to the earth and the support she provides. I expand my attention to include my breath, noticing where I am feeling it: belly, upper chest, back, or sides.
Check in with body, mind, heart, and spirit. Focusing my attention on one element at a time, I observe body sensations, noting where I might need more space, breath, or attention. I notice thoughts, letting them pass through. Sometimes I get lost in them and return to body sensations to help me stay present. I ask what emotions might be associated with the body sensations or thoughts. After noting them with a kind curiosity, I expand my awareness beyond the body and sense the larger space of which I am a part.
Rest in awareness. Finally, I invite myself to rest in awareness itself. This includes awareness of the body and what is beyond the body. Sometimes I can only stay here for a few moments. When I notice I am lost in thought, I welcome myself back to the present moment. This returning occurs many times. Over and over again, I bring myself gently and clearly back to the present moment and repose inside myself. Here is where love and compassion for humanity grow.
Preparing for Tomorrow
“I would so much like to live on, if only to express all the love I carry within me. And there is only one way of preparing the new age, by living it even now in our hearts. Somewhere in me I feel so light, without the least bitterness and so full of strength and love. I would so much like to help prepare the new age.”
Etty did not live to prepare the new age in person. But her words live on and can help us prepare. “If all this suffering does not help us to broaden our horizon, to attain a greater humanity by shedding all trifling and irrelevant issues, then it will all have been for nothing.”