Suffering is a part of life. As much as our days can be filled with wonder, beauty, and tender moments of connection, they can also bring cycles of despair, heartbreak, and fear. Some suffering can be avoided, however, by recognizing our self-defeating patterns of thought, emotions, and behaviors. Most yoga practitioners know the freedom that comes with conscious choices, strengthened by practice.
Still, some suffering is unavoidable. No amount of asana, meditation, or mantra can stop the challenges and loss that life inevitably brings. Every occurrence cannot be satisfactorily explained, nor is it always possible to understand exactly why we are hurting, scared, or feeling isolated from others.
At the time that I’m writing this, COVID-19 has thrust us into unavoidable suffering and personal and cultural recalibration. Income streams, community resources, health, and even daily schedules that once seemed reliable are being called into question, evoking uncertainty, panic, and moments of desperation.
While it is true that many can shelter-in-place at home, find great yoga classes online, and finally have time to tackle a creative project, it is also true that life, as we know it, has changed. We and/or people we know could get sick, and the virus is still spreading at an alarming rate.
Sometimes there is no way to fix the situations in which we find ourselves. Sometimes, all we can do is face what is.
One of my students recently asked how to deal with strong emotions during this time of upheaval. She described feeling out of control and filled with dread, and she expressed a paralyzing grief about the toll the virus was taking on her friends, family, and community. Her sense of helplessness reminded me of the fact that sometimes there is no way to fix the situations in which we find ourselves. Sometimes, all we can do is face what is and allow ourselves to be as we are. So I taught her a short practice I use when I am suffering.
The basic process is simple:
• Sit comfortably.
• If it is safe and comfortable to close your eyes, do so. Feel free to leave your eyes open if you prefer.
• Focus on your natural breath.
• With each exhale, imagine becoming heavier in your seat.
• Acknowledge to yourself: “This is a moment of suffering.”
• Repeat the words silently to yourself or out loud: “This is a moment of suffering.”
• If your suffering has a name—fear, anxiety, loss, grief, anger, despair—name it.
• If you can’t name your suffering, acknowledge that you have no adequate word for your experience.
• Scan your body to see if you can locate your suffering physically. Maybe your jaw is tense, your heart is racing, or your stomach is roiling.
• Acknowledge to yourself that you are embodying your suffering.
• Remind yourself that you are not alone in this moment of suffering. For all the uniqueness of your moment and circumstances, other people have felt similarly in the past, someone is feeling the same way now, and certainly, someone in the future will likely experience the same feeling.
• Consciously connect yourself to the unfolding of a larger, shared human experience.
• Inhale and offer yourself compassion, care, and love.
• Exhale and offer compassion, care, and love to others.
• Inhale for yourself.
• Exhale for others.
• Repeat for several cycles.
• Soften your breath, allowing it to return to normal.
• Gently open your eyes.
This short practice is about bringing compassion, care, and love to life by accepting our suffering as it is and ourselves as we are, without trying to change, manipulate, or fix either the moment or ourselves. This love is distinct from the love we find easy to offer others and accept from them. The love of which I speak makes room for suffering and allows us to struggle with dignity and honesty, and in our own good company. This is a love of truth-telling that is big enough to hold the immediacy of our suffering with a fullness of heart that is not limited by our circumstances or moments of contraction, fear, and pain.
This simple practice can help heal feelings of shame by connecting our personal experience to the shared human experience. Each of us has our own story, full of particularity and uniqueness. And everyone in a human body suffers similar feelings. We are part of a shared story. It seems to me that if COVID-19 has one overarching lesson to teach us, it is about connectedness, interdependence, and shared humanity. The virus does not care about race, political affiliation, sexual orientation, gender identification, national borders, the name we give to God, how we worship, or whether or not we pray.
Sitting with suffering instead of trying to change it can feel counterintuitive to many people, particularly those who have become accustomed to using yoga as a way to shift, change, or transform themselves or their life circumstances. Here, any change or shift we experience is a by-product of loving acceptance and caring self-acknowledgment, rather than the goal of the practice.
While meeting ourselves as we are sounds simple, it is not always easy to do. However, until we can acknowledge suffering—our own and that of others—our healing and our efforts to help others in their healing will likely be thwarted. Trying to heal without acknowledging suffering is like trying to follow a map without knowing your starting point. No matter how accurately the map reflects the terrain and its roads, the map’s efficacy as a guide is only as good as the orientation of the person using it.
Yoga’s philosophical teachings and practices are like maps that help us navigate whatever terrain we are traveling. Even the loftiest of teachings begins with an honest assessment of, and orientation with, our starting place—life as it is, ourselves as we are.
I encourage you to identify your starting point, and to orient yourself with compassion and care. In this way, your journey, difficult though it may be at times, can also become a path of love.