What do you need to move through this time well, something more than just getting through it still standing. Could we actually use this time to emerge stronger and more resilient?
The question may seem crazy when we’re struggling to keep our head above water, when people close to us and maybe we ourselves are feeling anxious or afraid, gripped by something bigger than themselves and not knowing how to cope. I’ll return to that good and practical concern in a moment
But for now, what would a best experience be like for us?
A natural and healthy first impulse is to want to see and hear each other. There are beautiful and elegant ways to do this, active listening, Empathy Circles for example. (You can google Empathy Circles if you’d like to try them.) For me though, these tend to reinforce where we already are, and constrain what’s possible. They have the side-effect of keeping us within our bubble.
Empathy and listening are part of the foundation but there’s something in addition to them that makes everything come alive. I’ll use the story of The Emperor’s New Clothes which most of us in a western tradition have heard a version of, as a way to make the distinction.
As Wikipedia describes the story:
“The Emperor’s New Clothes (Danish: Kejserens nye klæder) is a short tale written by Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, about two weavers who promise an emperor a new suit of clothes that they say is invisible to those who are unfit for their positions, stupid, or incompetent – while in reality, they make no clothes at all, making everyone believe the clothes are invisible to them. When the emperor parades before his subjects in his new “clothes”, no one dares to say that they do not see any suit of clothes on him for fear that they will be seen as stupid. Finally a child cries out, ‘But he isn’t wearing anything at all!‘”
Beautiful is it not? The emperor was naked but no one could admit it, even to themselves. If the people in the story were practicing empathy together they would each pretend to see the clothes and no one would say that the Emperor was naked. The reason for that is that our perception is very much based in social norms and what can be said and seen, rather than what we actually think, feel and see. (Getting past that is the subject of my book Evolutionary YOU.)
However, the Covid-19 coronavirus is presenting us with a situation that, in order to fully respond, we have to move out beyond social conformity. It invites us beyond our isolating personal performance of being intelligent and competent and handling it well. To rise to meet it, something more like what the spiritual traditions call “waking up” is required, something beyond our conditioning.
We’d need a way, or more likely ways, to allow the mysterious “other” that we don’t know yet to enter the closed system of our conditioning. Although all of us have the hardware capacity for these ways, they usually take practice and development to be more available. What’s needed is something like Socratic dialogues in which conversation, and especially questions that arise in dialogue, flush out unacknowledged assumptions and errors in thinking. David Bohm, the nuclear physicist whose passion was the underlying unity of things was trying to do something similar with his group Dialogue process.
Does all of this sounds difficult and arcane and kind of impossible? I think it’s better than that.
We’re in a time of “cracking open” when reality reveals itself to ordinary people inquiring together. As long as we’ve been humans we’ve been sitting around the campfire under the starry skies contemplating the nature of what it means to be here, trying to come to a greater understanding. This sense-making is what we humans do, all of us, and something we care about deeply.
Right now, because what we knew for certain is no longer certain, there’s a renaissance of meaning-making. It’s easier for us to step out of knowing all the answers. We’re all shook up already. From an ordinary seeker’s perspective, someone looking for the deeper meaning or the Holy Grail, this is a golden age. Though we have different capacities by training, we’re all ordinary people, little Frodos on a journey if we dare to be and care. More is available than we think.
The Biblical saying has it that the devil goes about like a roaring lion seeking to devour you. That may have a certain truth but we could also say that Taoist-like masters are also going about in unassuming garb, entering into your meaning conversations and playfully show you simplicity itself. Both poles arise together.
Approaching new conversations that may serve us now requires qualities that no one of us has perfectly – but that we may have in the collective when we come together on purpose. Truth may be like rocks scattered everywhere in the field of consciousness but perceptually unavailable to us while we’re in our “isolating personal performance.” But when we we come together to purposefully explore, we stumble over the rocks continually.
Some things worth doing are worth doing even in a small and miserably humble way; they have their own beauty for that reason. I know that I don’t have all the pieces and sometimes am very stupid indeed – wanting to run away for example – but I am hearing that a few people are interested in exploring together and so would I.
Some elements of group exploration would be 1) empathy, 2) some ways of letting the unexpected in 3) an explicit request to not do it perfectly (perhaps including the willingness and the “ability” to make public mistakes) , and 4) a time for reflection about what worked well and what didn’t so we can learn to learn together.
This last part is important. Few people realize that they, that we, have the capacity to create forms and structures that can be helpful to others. Moreover, this is one of the most creative and satisfying things we can do. I believe it to be a natural human capacity. We are not just recipients of meaning’s hand-me-downs from an earlier generation.
Our emerging capacity to care for each other is the surprising visitor.
Back to the beginning again, being involved in this pursuit with others helps take us out of the worry zone into a place where our own problems seem less interesting. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French priest and early evolutionary said it beautifully, “There is almost a sensual longing for communion with others who have a large vision. The immense fulfillment of the friendship between those engaged in furthering the evolution of consciousness has a quality impossible to describe.”