I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars. – Walt Whitman
The other day I was at Hanlan’s Beach on Toronto Islands, a glorious late September day that held the rare combination of summery beach weather playing out on a background of spectacular fall colours. I was in the lake, for perhaps the last time this year, diving and jumping through the large waves blown ashore by a strong warm wind. One might even say I was frolicking. And I became aware of a distinct yet unfamiliar feeling overtaking me, a soaring in my chest, a smile spreading wide across my face. Holy shit. I was…happy.
It had been a long time since I felt that feeling. It’s been a hard year. I know it’s nothing new to say that 2020 has been notoriously brutal. From the unexpected global pandemic and the fear and uncertainty it’s wrought to the depressingly familiar onslaught of police brutality fuelled by racial injustice to the fires and floods and other climate disasters raging, this time feels practically biblical. And exhausting. And like it’s not nearly over yet.
Like many of us this year in the face of these seemingly insurmountable challenges and destabilizing changes, my mental health began to suffer. By the beginning of summer, I found myself in a freefall deep into a major depressive episode that I’m still slowly climbing my way out of (with the help of skilled mental health professionals!). Increased isolation, cancelled plans, cancelled work, cancelled hope…these things took a toll and my days suddenly seemed endless and untethered and utterly devoid of meaning.
To get through each day I would try to drag myself out of my apartment towards whatever patches of nature my city-bound self could access. I’d walk the nearby residential streets, noticing the garden flowers and how those tiny bursts of colours briefly lit up my grey days. I’d lean on the solid trunks of trees in the city’s parks, getting some much needed physical contact in the new socially distant normal. I’d make my way along the lakeshore, letting the rhythm of the waves lull me into some momentary calm. On days when I couldn’t make it out of the house, moments of respite could be found in the softness of my pillow, the taste of a peach, the beautiful patterns of RuPaul’s suits as I watched yet another episode of Drag Race.
These brief moments lit my way for a slow, painstaking return to a more abiding sense of well being. Over these last months, they’ve grown more abundant, easier to notice, less effortful. Getting me to that lovely day at the beach when I catch myself, mid-frolic, teeming with a joy that once didn’t seem remotely possible.
In times of crisis and overwhelm, intentionally paying attention to the small pockets of pleasure or peace in our experience can be immensely sustaining. The practice of appreciation, our CEC theme for October, begins with giving yourself permission to seek out and experience goodness, and then noticing what gifts, however small or subtle, are within your reach at any given time.
This isn’t about playing the fiddle as Rome burns, ignoring the very real hardships and injustices and work that needs to be done to make a more liveable, equitable planet for all. As Audre Lorde wrote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence. It is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”. Cultivating gratitude and noticing what makes life worth living helps to bolster us through challenging times and fuels our spirit to show up for the often gruelling work of enacting social, political and personal change.
Six months into this brave new world, the impending fall and winter is looming large for many of us. The shift in season has come with growing concerns of how to keep ourselves and loved ones safe and sane while navigating back to school challenges, an uptick of Covid cases, increasing political uncertainty and who knows what else this year still has to throw at us. It seems an important time to find ways to shore up our resources. Identifying and taking note of the small joys and tiny triumphs embedded in our days, letting ourselves experience them as completely and gratefully as possible, can build the internal capacity needed to face whatever lies ahead.
One of my ongoing joys is this CEC community, and how it’s expanded across the world this year since our weekly meditations have migrated online. Our Monday night sits and discussions are a highlight of this strange time for me, a gift of connection and hope as we come together in our little zoom boxes to share practices and strategies that are helping us meet this moment. I hope you’ll join us this month from wherever you are to practice appreciating with our much-appreciated global community of awesome meditators!