The Virus, the Lockdown and Coping with Emotions
Lockdown has evoked emotions of fear, loneliness, anxiety, separation, loss, helplessness and not being in control of our lives. If we analyse deeply we will find that we don’t feel the same at all the time. These negative emotions come and go, or we move in and out of them. How does that happen? We can see that this is not because we are distracted or denying the emotion, or are unmindful of the situation that has triggered these emotions. Perhaps a part of our mind can deal with these emotions but the other part can’t, and our level of consciousness fluctuates rapidly from one to another, and there are multiple layers of consciousness we move through rapidly during the course of a single day.
Coping with Fear
Trying to suppress fear or distract ourselves from it generally doesn’t work, trying to use logic also doesn’t work, as these emotions are precognitive in origin. The physiological responses may be even deeper than our emotions. Trying to understand the cause also may not work as there is a real threat and denying it will not be helpful. First of all, we need to understand the structure of this fear. It exists in the form of some thoughts and emotions. If we analyze deeply we are thinking about the future when we have fear in our mind. If we live totally in the present moment cutting ourselves off from the thoughts of future and the past and connect with the experience of here and now this fear disappears. The health care staff working in Covid-19 units have told me that the fear is at its peak when they are thinking about going to work, getting ready and about to wear their PPE gowns, and it drops down considerably when they are actually engaged in treating patients. It is very much like anxiety is maximum before we go on the podium to deliver a lecture but there is hardly any anxiety when one starts the presentation unless one doesn’t know the subject. Therefore, living fully in the present can help us with this fear, and it involves a shift in our consciousness from our thoughts and emotions to our perceptions. It doesn’t mean that thoughts can’t be employed in overcoming our fear. A Cognitive Behavioral Model encourages us to see our thoughts in terms of two categories: i) the automatic thoughts that come to the mind uninvited and ii) thoughts that we have created just now in response to the automatic thoughts – trying to control the automatic thoughts would be a futile exercise as they are like a horse that has bolted. But creating a different set of thoughts can make things different for us in future, by way of creating a different set of emotions. They stop us from fueling the fire of automatic thoughts, and the fire will settle down on its own. If we don’t make an effort to create a new set of thoughts, we will get passively sucked into the automatic thought process endlessly.
Let us look at what sort of thoughts can be helpful, and here we need to understand what is the opposite of fear which can be used to neutralize or replace it. Bringing the opposite can help us deal with this fear. The state of fearlessness is the absence of fear, and not its opposite, and courage is a consequence of fearlessness. We can’t use fearlessness to counter fear because it comes into effect only when the fear is gone, fearlessness is not an entity or an emotion in its own right that can be used, it’s the absence of an emotion of fear.
The antidote to fear is love. Fear causes a disconnect and love keeps the connection going. One might argue that love breeds fear, if I love my child I will be fearful of the risks in such times, and if I don’t love them, I won’t worry about their safety. We are not referring to that kind of insecure attachment which is touted as love. The word love here means – affirmation of life, loving our fate which Nietzsche called Amor-fati, finding a deeper connection with one’s inner consciousness, loving our own Being, loving our fellow Beings (not just their physical existence). This love is not threatened by death as it knows that it will live beyond death as well. Once connected with it, one can benefit from inviting even the thoughts of one’s mortality.
The mechanisms of mindfulness meditation will be slightly different – here by focusing on one’s breath and inner body sensations one learns to step outside one’s thoughts and feelings, as awareness of one’s breath does not involve any thoughts and it’s emotionally neutral. As a result, all automatic thoughts die their natural death and a new set of thoughts that will arise from an equanimous (emotionally balanced) mind is going to be positive without us making any effort.
Coping with financial meltdown
Non-identification with one’s possessions as discussed by Tolstoy and Gandhi in their writings can make us immune to such stress. According to this approach one should see oneself as a trustee, in-charge of one’s finances and possessions, who is just managing the affairs. One still has full control over one’s assets but is now able to take personal things in an impersonal way thereby making oneself immune to feelings of financial loss. A thought “I didn’t bring anything with me to this world, and I won’t take anything away from this world when I die, these belongs here.” can be helpful. We always worry a lot about our unexpected losses and find it difficult to accept them, but we don’t analyze a great deal when we receive unexpected gains from somewhere. I have reflected on it and find that if I honestly do some calculations and add up all the losses as well as the windfalls I have received – they cancel each other, so why worry, and just let nature take care of the balance sheet.
At a different level one is forced to think how much money they really need for a decent living in difficult times like today – and would it be very difficult for them to arrange it in future. Certain things are coming to an end and they can’t be revived. But you never know the end of something may be the beginning of something bigger.
Coping with relationships
Does a crisis bring out the best or the worst in people. The answer is neither – It only accentuates one’s preexisting traits and habit patterns. A hyperactive person will become agitated, selfish will become hoarders, anxious will become petrified, a careful spender will become penny pincher, a philosophical person will become super stoic, a helpful person will become philanthropic, a spiritual person will become more spiritual, a suspicious person will become paranoid, a joyous person will become blissful etc. Their habitual defence mechanisms will get accentuated. This can get reflected in relationships as well. Hidden disharmonies can surface and hidden love can also blossom. Many have reported a deepening in their bond and feelings of love as a result of the lockdown. The rates of domestic violence have gone up in the UK and other European countries and it has happened in China as well. The more they spend time with each other the more they hate each other, people need space. There has been a surge in divorce applications post lockdown.
In China, the rates have gone up by 25 percent compared to the same month in the previous year. Strangely the opposite is seen in India where the rates of domestic violence have gone down drastically, its needs some further research, as we haven’t seen the post-lockdown period as yet there. Relationships also take the brunt of economic and social pressures. The internet fraud has gone up but major crimes such as murder and rapes have gone down all over the world. At times we see a swing to the opposite pole i.e. a materialistic person becomes spiritual, a work-oriented person chooses to retire, an unstable relationship gets stable and cemented, but such things happen only when the opposite tendency was already lurking underneath the surface consciousness of the person. Society as a whole has started to reflect on what is important and what is less important. People see buying Louis Vuitton bags, Monc Blanc pens and luxury cars as being frivolous, and caring for fellow beings as more meaningful activity. People living below poverty line, who are now facing an acute existential and survival crisis, will be forced to think hard about their predicaments and will refuse to believe that their poverty was ordained by God, and will be less willing to accept that. They are likely to use their full might to rise above the station in their lives. What should we do in practical terms to deal with relationship issues- think of times when the person who is with you will not be there with you, and how that will make you feel. And also imagine someone, who is not present with you, being with you post-lockdown.
That will help you tone down the aggravated feelings of frustration or romance that arise as a result of your immediate situation. The mantra is to zoom out of your current situation – “Feel the presence of people who are not with you, and the absence of those you are with.” Making the most of Solitude:
On the love of solitude and silence Thomas a Kempis quotes in his book “The Imitation of Christ” a saying, “whenever I have been among men, I have returned a lesser man.” It is easier to be completely silent, than not to exceed in speech. It is easier to lie hidden at home than to be able sufficiently to guard oneself abroad. He further says – no one can safely appear in public who doesn’t enjoy seclusion. No one safely talks but he who gladly keeps silent. He further says – in silence and quietness the devout soul makes progress and learns the hidden things of the Scriptures. There it finds streams of tears in which each night it washes and cleanses itself. If you wish to be deeply rebuked in heart (perhaps referring to self-reflection), go into your cell, and shut out the turmoil of the world. You will find in your cell what you too often miss abroad. The desires of sensuality draw you to walk abroad, but when an hour has passed what do you bring back but heaviness of conscience and destruction of the heart? Often glad departure brings a sad return, and late evenings a sad morning. (Kempis, TA, 1979).
Recent scientific research is also suggesting that silence is more relaxing than the most relaxing music. For the mind the silence is not a lack of input but a shift in the source of input from the external to the internal, and perhaps recoiling of consciousness onto itself is more relaxing than the input from outside. The research in the field of biofeedback therapy also points in the same direction – that a feedback loop in completed in solitude and it has a self-healing property which gets disrupted when the mind is looking outwards. Not just the relaxation, there is also evidence that our brain cells grow and proliferate more during periods of silence, perhaps related to the mind not under pressure to focus too much and letting the repair work start during such periods.
Lockdown therefore offers an opportunity to learn how to be okay and even enjoy solitude which will be of enormous help to us, more so in the evening of our life. However, finding your bliss in solitude is easier said than done, and almost impossible for the majority of public.
The need for a connection and relationship is universal with very rare exceptions. Single people find themselves romantically frustrated during this lockdown period, they crave for company and to touch other human beings, but at the same time see that people who are cooped up with someone else also don’t find the experience heavenly. On this issue, the mind doesn’t learn from experience – those who are in solitude will go on craving company and those in company will go on craving solitude. That is what humans are made of. In spite of all the frustrations related to lockdown, it is quite possible that many of us will find it difficult to return to 9-5 routine after having a taste of remote working and having a flexible and relaxed work schedule. Perhaps people who are nearing their retirement might want to organize their work patterns differently after the lockdown.
Finally, one can see that the current crisis has some spiritual advantages and messages as well for us all, as humans we are forced to acknowledge and accept the following:
– The uncertainties of life as a basic human condition.
– Not feeling in control of our situation, and accepting it, in fact not wanting to be in control makes us free in some ways.
– Materialistic things can’t insulate us from human suffering.
– Making peace with thoughts of death and not brushing them under the carpet.
– Detachment and non-identification with trivialities of life.
– Understanding of relationships differently and realizing how deep they are.
© Kishore Chandiramani, Consultant Psychiatrist
Emotions Clinic, Education and Training Centre Cic, Staffordshire, England