Quarantine Somatic Journal #1
On Death & Transformation
Allow your body to do what it does. Let it surge and fall with the waves of terror, fear, euphoria, boredom, numbness, and remain present if you can in mindfully choosing to be with your body. An enormous stressor – a great social unraveling and mass tragedy – is arriving, and for many, already here. There is no “mental health trick” that will keep us from it, though there are practices that may allow us to stay psychologically & spiritually flexible and resilient. In this traumatic moment, we have no choice but to transform – but we have some agency over what we transform into.
So much of what we have been taught for maintaining “mental health” by mainstream psychiatry, psychology, and psychotherapy is about assuming or regaining a baseline of safety, normalcy, and health – a homeostatic state in which we are “normal,” regulated, calm or happy. It is very often about “correcting” our thoughts, feelings, and sensations so that we can fit into the dominant society, which is assumed to be good, right, and just.
But whatever your political beliefs are, I think that we can agree that the moment we are living in is not good, right, or just. It is a pandemic. People are dying. More people are going to die. Any one of us could die, though fortunately most children are not so much at risk. And more than that, the authoritarian powers that run the nation-state, as well as the people around us, are going to act in increasingly unpredictable ways that may or may not align with our own best interests. We can guess, however, that the traditionally privileged will be protected and the traditionally marginalized will be endangered. In what universe where this is happening could it possibly be appropriate to be “regulated,” “calm,” or “happy”?
What we can do is stay in conscious relationship with our bodies and our breathing. We can maintain a connection with our integral moral values, and our spiritual guides, gods, and ancestors (if we believe in them). The body may freeze, causing a sense of disconnection and boredom. It may go into flight, bringing anxiety and panic. It may fight, bringing up anger and the urge to protect boundaries and resources through violence. It may cling (or fawn or attach), causing us to desperately seek solace in others. Already we can see people falling into herding and hoarding mentalities, and into irresponsible or predatory behaviors.
But guided by our values and our spiritual centres, I believe that we can ride the waves of feeling and instinct that are coursing through our neurochemistry. We can let our fear motivate us to stay inside and social distance. We can turn our anger into advocacy for ourselves and others in the face of incompetence and inaction on the part of the government. We can turn our desperate longing for human contact and connection into online community organizing and care work for others.
And in the centre of the internal storm, we can allow ourselves to be transformed – changed, in the way that Black science fiction writer prophetess Octavia Butler spoke of Change as the only law and only true God. In accepting that death is an ever present (though much closer for many of us than before) possibility, but refusing to stop our fight for life, we open ourselves to enormous change. This is not an easy thing, nor is it a “happily ever after,” because in all change there is loss. The change brought by a pandemic is inescapable tragedy. But a part of us – the best part or worst part – can survive that, nestled in the centre of the storm, if we allow ourselves to changed and mindfully choose which direction that Change will take.
The ancient warrior classes of East Asia, the land of my own ancestors, knew this. They developed entire philosophies dedicated to accepting – though not encouraging or hastening – death, in the service of pursuing braver and more honourable lives. And while the ancient warrior classes had many flaws, this is one teaching I hope to take with me. Let’s choose courage and honour. We might die, we will know death. That was always true, though we are forced to see it more clearly now. What will we choose to become in the life time between now and then?