I come up to the house from a morning of seeing clients down by the creek and I want my lunch. I don't even notice that I'm not really physically hungry, but I'm craving something for sure. I'm craving the soothing experience that my fixing-and-eating-my-lunch ritual has come to provide. It comforts me. It gives me a sense of continuity, stability, an everything-is-normal, everything-is-OK kind of feeling. I stop and wait and check inside, and I pause my lunch-making ritual for long enough to notice that pausing makes me feel uneasy, uncomfortable.
I let myself sit with the feelings of uneasy and uncomfortable and notice that underneath there's a feeling of emptiness, followed by a subtle, frantic, graspy feeling - an attempt to fill up and avoid the emptiness. And while all of this is uncomfortable, it's really not that bad. It's sit-with-able and breathe-with-able. And in a fairly short time, a smile comes, with a nod to my ego saying, Ah, you almost caught me. You almost made me believe I needed something, needed some activity or experience, to make me feel whole and OK.
The first challenge is being present enough to notice what I'm doing, instead of allowing habitual movement and activity to take over. The second is being willing to get a feel for what's really happening inside of me - the feelings underneath that are driving my behavior. And the third is being willing to take the time to be present to and make a space for the feelings until they dissolve.
Thich Nhat Hanh says it this way: First you must know that you are suffering, second you must welcome or embrace your suffering, then you transform it.
Until recently, I didn't quite connect with the Buddhist concept of suffering. I didn't really see myself as someone who suffered. But it's all relative isn't it? No, I'm not starving, I'm not homeless, I'm not in chronic physical pain. But I suffer from a chronic reach outside and away from myself for something more, driven by an underlying sense of lack, of not enough, an emptiness that if I'm willing to sit with it long enough, feels a lot like suffering.
This low-grade suffering is perhaps more pandemic in our culture than the current pandemic. It's so much a part of us that it seems normal. We don't recognize the reach for our devices, the trip to the store, or our time on Facebook, as a distraction from suffering. But I'm sure it's easier to see as viewed from other, perhaps more earth-based, cultures.
In Memories, Dreams, Reflections, Carl Jung recounts an interview with Chief Mountain Lake who said this about us, “ . . . Their eyes have a staring expression. They are always seeking something. What are they seeking? The whites always want something, they are always uneasy and restless. We do not know what they want, we do not understand them, we think that they are mad.”
As we go throughout the day, maybe we can periodically pause, check inside, and bring our awareness to the internal push or restless feeling. Maybe we can sit with it and wait for the emptiness or fear that's just underneath, and allow ourselves to feel it, breathe, and let it transform. Maybe together we can stop the madness by bringing our middle-class-America version of suffering to light. After all, it's one pandemic we can do something about.