Do you remember how you felt when you first heard our congregations would not be worshiping in person because of the pandemic? …Do you remember how you felt when you realized that was going to continue into the next church year? Last spring, the president of the UUA, Susan Frederick Grey sent out a letter to congregations encouraging us to plan to meet online until May of 2021. I remember that when I got the letter I thought “Wow. Well, that seems logical given the projections I’ve seen, and it seems sensible to give ourselves a concrete plan for the future we can begin to work on.” It wasn’t until several hours later, maybe the next morning, that a wave of emotion washed over me- May of 2021? I felt sad, I felt discouraged, I felt grumpy. I was overwhelmed by emotion off and on the whole day. Part of me wondered- why would I be upset over a decision that made sense? A decision that was the right thing to do? But of course, the mind and the emotions process the world in different ways.
When I watch the news, it’s clear that these are not ordinary times, but sometimes in my home, in the ordinary activities of living, I find myself wondering why I’m tired or grumpy or confused about what it all means. I have to remind myself again and again- everything feels strange and unsettled because these are strange and unsettled times. My feelings often surprise me these days. I experience fear, loneliness, sadness with unexpected frequency and intensity, and new complicated feelings that don’t really have names. I am surprised to find myself moved to tears by simple stories of kind, decent people helping one another. It’s as if I was holding my breath waiting for a reminder that the world is full of good decent people doing the best they can, and reaching out to help one another.
So whatever you are feeling these days, I encourage you to just notice, without judgement. When I was growing up my mom always said “it’s not the feelings, it’s the feelings about the feelings.” It’s very human for us to sit in judgement of our inner processes. So many people have shared some variation of “I shouldn’t be feeling this way when others have greater struggles than I do.” But adding judgment to our already difficult feelings only makes us feel worse. Instead, could we take on the practice to just notice whatever is arising, to meet ourselves wherever we are? Like rabbit in our story today. Even if what we notice is “wow, I am really pushing away those feelings today.” Just notice. When we meet our feelings with judgment, they tend to either run and hide, or amp themselves up to justify their continued existence. When we meet our feelings with compassion, we allow space for them to move and change.
Each of us has our own way of processing these events in the world and in our own private lives. Some folks tend towards anger, others towards tears, and some folks may feel nothing at all. No matter what we are feeling, I have a propound respect for our unique ways of responding. This is a particularly challenging time for feelings, and I’m noticing that what feels safe to us in ordinary times, can seem overwhelming now. So even though I often suggest checking in with our emotions, feeling our feelings in the present moment, that might not feel safe to you right now. One of the natural defenses of the body mind is that sometimes we go numb[i] when we are afraid, when we don’t feel safe. It reflects a deep wisdom and survival skill. Some inner knowing says “It’s not safe enough right now for me to feel things.” However you find yourself responding, please honor your own inner wisdom, with gratitude that your natural coping mechanisms are ingenious survival strategies you devised probably as a very young person.
Earlier this fall we talked about touchstones. I encourage you to think of this practice as one more touchstone in the river of events and emotions: To let ourselves know how we really feel right now in the present moment. No matter what we are doing in church on a Sunday morning, I encourage you to notice your inner wisdom. If you notice that a hymn makes you grumpy, if you notice that other people are talking about their feelings and you feel nothing at all, That is your unique wisdom and response to what you are experiencing. If you feel a strange melancholy when we meet like this on Zoom, know that you are not alone. I thought Vox writer Laura Entis said very insight-fully that “… there’s something lacking — even painful — about digital togetherness. It’s a feeling rooted in dissonance”, says psychiatrist Gianpiero Petriglieri, “Every time you connect to a Zoom call, you are having two experiences at the same time: the experience of reaching, and the experience of what you’ve lost.”[ii] I want to give you permission to feel whatever you feel during worship, this is your time. Use it however you need to be your unique self, to remember your own unique wisdom
Because anxiety is so widespread in our culture right now, I want to say a special word about how to be present with those anxious feelings. Just listening to the news for 10 minutes and trigger your amygdala (what some call the reptilian brain) into flight, flight or freeze. We know that once our amygdala is triggered, it causes stress to the body, and it shuts down our creative problem solving. So, if we have a feeling of gratitude, it can be really healthful to allow that to fill us up, to wash over us. On the other hand, it’s not necessarily healthy to dive into our reptilian feelings- we can get stuck in kind of a feedback loop of anxiety.
Psychologists tell us we need a different way of being present with those feelings. When the emotions are threatening to overwhelm, when we feel afraid, It’s best not to let fear, or despair, or rage into the driver’s seat. If you notice that those feelings are driving, it’s best to pull over and help those feelings move to the passenger seat so we can still notice and honor them, without letting them drive. So how do we do that? One strategy is to “come to our senses” to literally ask, “what can I see right now?” try this with me, just look around the room you are in, and notice what you are able to see… What can you hear right now? …What can you feel?... The chair under your thighs, the air on your skin. If you have your touchstone handy, notice the sensation of a stone between our fingers. One therapist calls this “bilocation” -- we can feel our emotion, and at the same time notice something else.
Our feelings come not only from our own inner response to events of the world, but by the feelings around us. When we are around anxious people, or even hear someone else’s anxiety on the radio, or in the grocery store, our bodies instinctively and wisely ask “am I safe?” Rather than turning on the news to find the answer to that question, because we know the news is designed to rile us up, to keep us clicking, ask your senses. What do you see right now? What do you hear? What support do you feel under your body right now? This season of Covid is a marathon not a sprint. Our bodies and hearts need us to slow down. We need some space to process and to just be in this moment exactly as it is, without taking on the stories of the past or the future. For the health of body, mind and spirit, we need times of non-judgmental compassion for ourselves, and for others.
It can be hard to hold our fears of the state of the world, the sadness of what has been lost, alongside the simple gifts of life. It creates a kind of cognitive dissonance. We ask ourselves “how can I feel so terrible about the suffering of the world, and my own losses, when I have enough to eat, a roof over my head, the beautiful fall colors out my window?” But all of that is part of what is real, for us, in the is moment. As we are able, we notice all these pieces of a larger whole, which sometimes seems harmonious, and sometimes dissonant. That is part of why we gather on a Sunday morning, to hold something bigger than our individual selves.
This summer my husband and I wanted to get out of the house after so many months sheltering in place. We picked a little rustic cabin on Lake Ontario as far away from people as possible. The landlord warned us that the stairs down to the water were broken, did we still want to rent the house? But when we arrived, we found that it wasn’t just the stairs that were broken, a huge chunk of earth was leaning precipitously over the water, stairs included. The alternate path to the lake shore he had mentioned now lead through a construction site of dirt and rubble, not a wooded path like in the picture he had sent us. I felt grumpy about this but tried to stay positive. As we sat gazing at the beautiful lake view, it bothered me that our view was interrupted by caution tape. I felt myself try to set aside my negative feelings and just enjoy what was good, to enjoy this getaway I had looked forward to for so long, but the more I pushed away my grumpy, negative feelings, the louder they became.
Eventually, I remembered my practice and slowly let it all in. What swelled up was sadness for the loss of this beautiful shoreline to flood. The sadness was greater because the beauty was so great. I thought about the family that had come here the summers for years, generations together, and how sad this loss must be for them. We walked along the shore climbing over trees felled in the storm, noticing the details of branches worn by water on one side of the tree, and fresh green growth on the other. On our left, the beautiful colors of a sun beginning to set, on our right, the rock and roots exposed by 2 massive storms. We were watching this sunset in a world struggling with Covid, in a community beset by floods. By the time we got back to the cabin, I felt myself to be part of something bigger than our weekend getaway, part of a great web of people and water and earth and life. Gradually a host of feelings filled my heart at the same time. The sadness of all that is lost, the beauty that remains, compassion for all those caught up with me in the events of the world. Somehow by letting the grief and anger unfold, the world shimmered with a new vibrancy. I took a photo of the stunning sunset over the lake, shining on the caution tape and the broken earth below. Broken and beautiful, all at once.
[i] Joann Macy, the great Buddhist teacher and activist and deep ecologist as the first person I ever heard talk about numbness as a feeling. Her work is a great resource for folks who want to work with this.
[ii] – https://www.vox.com/the-highlight/2020/5/26/21256190/zoom-facetime-skype-coronavirus-loneliness