Are You Untethered?

Adapted from Pema Chodron’s book When Things Fall Apart.

Last night, while soaking in the last bit of sun after the two longest working weeks I’ve ever encountered (I'm grateful to still be working), I turned to my partner and said, “I feel drained like everybody else, but I feel something else. I feel untethered.”

All week I’ve been speaking with colleagues and patients who feel the same. Routines have changed, they are not able to come and go as they once did, they cannot see the loved ones face to face. Daily life has changed.

Much in the way that we feel groundless when we experience the loss of a loved one, I think many of us are experiencing a similar sense now. 

I believed that maintaining as much of my daily routine as possible would prevent me from experiencing this feeling of groundlessness. I still get up, go to work, exercise, eat relatively the same things, and spend as much time outdoors as possible. Nothing has dramatically changed in my life. I know I am one of the few for whom this is true. And yet, even in maintaining a relatively familiar schedule, there is a nagging sense of uneasiness. I know that if I feel it, in the midst of routine, I cannot be alone.

And in these moments, when there appears to be no amount scheduling or routine to ease the feeling of being untethered, we are forced to reckon with our own fears. 

We are toe to toe with our own frailties and loneliness. As humans, we gravitate towards things to distract and provide a sense of belonging and attachment. We are wired for attachment. 

There is a valid sense of loss we feel when those attachments are gone.

What is on the other side of loss?

What happens when we sit in the unknown, allowing the experience of discomfort and fear? 

Who are we on the other side of that fear?

What an act of courage it is to stand on the precipice of our own fears, observing and acknowledging them, without trying to change them. Offering love and compassion for what we are feeling and recognizing our bravery in allowing ourselves to experience it. 

Can we offer ourselves compassion and can we extend that same compassion to others, knowing that they too are wrestling with the unknown?

This morning I sat with my hands around a hot mug of coffee, as I do every morning, and I listened. I tried to name all of the things I could hear. The birds outside made me thankful for spring and warmer weather, the hum of the refrigerator was an intensely poignant reminder of the wealth we have in having food, running water, and technology, the computer running reminded me of the many connections we have access to, and the clock a reminder of time. Reflecting on time was challenging, wanting to grasp at it so desperately while simultaneously wishing it would move more quickly so that we can hug our families in person.

I was struck by my own attachments and areas of selfishness.

I also recognized my humanity, validated the longings in my heart, and offered compassion for the pain I was experiencing. Pain that I felt guilty for and haven't articulated because, comparatively speaking, I have nothing to feel pain for. My loved ones are healthy, my job intact, and I am not doing the impossible work so many parents are doing to stay afloat, teach, and occupy restless little ones.

Mindfulness and gratitude are excellent tools for perspective. Our human nature is one of judgement and can take those practices (as I did in the example above) and create harshness. "You have no right to feel drained, you still have a job. You aren't sick. No one you love has died."

In the end comparing our subjective experiences and emotions is a fruitless pursuit.

Whatever you are feeling matters, and whatever you are feeling is valid. These are moments of collective suffering, and none of us are immune.

In these moments, strength is built from the acknowledgment of what we are feeling, the tenderness by which we respond to our hearts and the hearts of others, and the courage of stepping into the present.

You are not alone.

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