City grid seen from space, paired with a neural network seen from a microscope. (Art courtesy of Infinity Imagined)
“It is not the amount of knowledge that makes a brain. It is not even the distribution of knowledge. It is the interconnectedness.” – James Gleick
These days, I can usually see my breakdowns coming. “Breakdown” is a dramatic word. I mean something more like a growing dysfunction, a breakdown in communication between the parts of me that are resourced and healthy, and the parts that are unconscious and less healthy.
The first sign for me is my schedule falling apart: I stay up late, I sleep in later. I stop exercising. I get obsessed with the red notifications blooming on my iphone. Sometimes I find myself just sitting and staring at my inbox, waiting for the next message to give my life meaning. I can’t pull away. And when I’m not staring at a physical screen, then I’m staring at a mental version of one, obsessing over all the things I have to do, my mind’s inbox so crowded I barely register the outside world.
At this point, my nervous system begins to free-run – the clinical term is “dysregulation.” Big emotional ups, followed by painful and disorienting downs. I lose perspective; each mood is a world unto itself, absolutely convincing. They begin to influence how I see my life; the decisions I imagine I need to make; my relationships with others. I start to alienate myself from my own support network.
In the old days, I could be lost and isolated for days and weeks – even months. Thank God for life experience. If nothing else, it allows us to say: “I’ve been here before. I recognize the signs.”
Recognizing the signs means I can mitigate. I can reach out to friends and caregivers. I can reach inside, to my centre. And I can reframe my challenges into something ordinary and natural. Something to roll with, and have compassion for.
All this is important to talk about right now. For myself, for many of us, the signs of dysfunction are starting.
“The phrase I’ve been using is rolling breakdowns,” says my psychotherapist friend Lisa Zimmerman. “It’s a bit like what happens in cities when there’s not enough energy in the grid. We get rolling blackouts. Neighborhoods take turns going dark, as a way to redistribute the load. It’s part of a deliberate strategy.”
Lisa thinks our collective emotional resilience is a bit like this. Our individual energy supply has a limit. We get drained by life circumstances, and right now, in her words, “COVID-19 has just pulled 30% from everyone’s battery. Just the crisis alone. Each additional consequence – a job loss, illness, home schooling, loneliness, loss of activities, of friends, of purpose – pulls another 10-25%, depending on the severity. That’s on top of the energy we needed before, just to live our day-to-day lives.”
When the energy drops, the breakdown starts. Lisa wants to normalize that. “We’re all going to go nuts at some point. It’s inevitable. Instead of trying to avoid this, we acknowledge it, and work together to share resources.”
Community, in her view, is essential. That’s because each of our batteries is connected to a larger grid. When one person runs out of one kind of resource, someone else can step up.
This is definitely a time for reaching out, for daily Zooms to share feelings and check-in, for virtual dance parties, for mini-service missions and heightened awareness about who exactly is vulnerable in our networks. The more we share knowledge and energy and time with each other, says Lisa, the more we redistribute the load. To use another metaphor, you could say each of us is actually connected to a much larger nervous system. Social isolation can’t stop us from connecting. If anything, it’s made both the need and means to do so more explicit.
I asked Lisa for some ideas around how we can support each other, put power back into each other’s grid, so to speak (to keep the metaphor going for maybe a little too long). She’s written some helpful thoughts here.
There’s also the stuff we can do all on our own. Lots has been written and spokenabout how to stay sane right now. As a consciousness explorer, I want to say something about the practice of sanity, and where it meets the practice of rest – true rest – which all of us need to restore our battery. Rest is our April CEC theme, so the timing works.
Sanity begins with recognizing the weird shape of our own private dysfunction. As Lisa also points out, what starts as a legitimate coping strategy can deepen into a fixated response that gets increasingly hard to pull back from. It’s good to get curious about your signs.
For some people, it looks like getting really really busy with work, at the expense of connection and health. For others, it looks like paralysis – hours of zombified news feed scrolling on the couch, covered in Sun Chip crumbs, ‘cause those were the only thing left in the denuded snack aisle. For others still, it looks like denial, a slowed-down freeze response that leaves us unwilling or unable to face what’s going on. That was my initial response, by the way: “everyone is blowing this out of proportion.” There’s a tendency in meditation to hide behind our acceptance of “the moment.” Deep inside, we’re as scared as everybody else. Only we may not know we’re scared, because we’ve meditated our way right out of our bodies.
Coming back into our bodies is the medicine. That of course is the real direction of meditation, when it’s working the way it’s supposed to. We notice what’s really going on, notice the habit pattern that wants to take over, notice our urgency or our anxiety, our frozen-ness or our outrage. We notice and we float – for just a moment – above this behavior that wants so badly to repeat itself, to stay unconscious, to stay automatic.
And then, as time resumes, we exercise our dignity and our freedom by deliberately choosing whether we want to keep that particular response going. Not a glamorous practice, but a necessary one.
Where’s the rest?
Real rest – deep rest – is there in every moment. I’m not talking about afternoon naps or a good session of slow-wave sleep, although these are also important. I’m talking about what’s right here now. Again, meditation can point the way. It looks like finding the breath, or maybe the feeling of warmth in the hands, or maybe tuning into the sounds and sights of nature. And then backing up into these things. It’s noticing the mind that wants to lift away, that wants to move a tiny bit ahead of the breath – anticipating – or stay a tiny bit behind the breath – remembering. And instead, we very deliberately move our attention into the exact emerging nowness of each sensation or sound. Like we have no idea what’s coming, no idea what it means to breathe, or hear, or have a body. And our attention here is so careful, so committed, so delicate – “like balancing on the head of a pin,” to quote my friend Oliver. Here’s a guided meditation on exactly that.
We plunge down, into the cutting-edge of now, and discover …. that nothing whatsoever is happening. The richest, fullest, most nourishing nothing we can imagine. This is the ancestral home of rest, the primordial peace of mystics and sages and contemplatives the world over. A rest with the potential to sustain us through anything.
So: let’s make our visit together. This month, from our various homes around the world, we meet online and explore four visions and versions of rest. Happy to be exploring with you.