Over the past 5 weeks since the lockdown here in Oregon and around the world – my biggest craving has been for comfort.
The smell of the soap I brought that reminds me of home gives me comfort. “Old home” – it’s from the area where my grandmother lived and whose comfort was delivered in deep dish raspberry or strawberry or apple pies and pork roasts. “Young home” – sent to me by my mom, who makes the best cinnamon buns and green salad doused with cream in this same village, where I spent my summers growing up. “Home home” – where I live in Colorado and where I’ve been using it for years now.
Keeping the bathroom warm with the electric heat in the 70C position 24/7 so that my skin comes into contact with a gentle kindness at any hour of the day.
Having contact with my inner circle (facetime, email, telephone). The sense of their voices and caring and reaching out. Their enthusiasm when I propose something.
Noticing how the occasional contact I have with strangers feels more real under the coronavirus lockdown than in every day life: Waving to a solitary jogger or a couple at the beach and feeling unexpectedly grateful and touched when they wave back, as if we are long lost friends who are in the storm together. Telling the person at the bank how grateful I am for their help in resolving an issue and having them respond back with honesty of their own and with kindness. Recommending a book to order for our local library and having the librarian respond with “Thank you for the idea! We’ll order it. ….” and “You have no idea how much we miss our patrons.”
Taking breaks from writing to look at the ocean waves in the distance. Seeing an unusual cluster of gigantic birds on the tidal flats one afternoon and discovering that they are 5 – FIVE – bald eagles standing in the estuary together at low tide. 2 adults with white heads and tails, and 2 mottled brown immatures in one cluster. A third immature bald eagle 5 yards away from them. Unexpected emblems of how the impossible isn’t as impossible as I once thought it was when they were on the endangered species list in my childhood.
Observing how there can be up to 15 herons gathered in the eddies at a certain stage of low tide – all within a space the size of my house (it’s not that big of a house). When I’ve only ever noticed herons standing solitary before.
Picking up the binoculars to look at an unusually smooth shape gliding through the open water that doesn’t seem quite duck-like. And seeing the head of an otter. Then noticing as I pan through the grasses that the Canadian geese I’ve not given much attention to because they seem so common – are walking with 5 fluffy little yellow blobs of enthusiasm pecking around in the mud.
Turning the baseboard heat on occasionally in a room I don’t use because it smells of wood and earth and reminds me of my grandmother’s house.
Having a warm, fuzzy blanket around me in the mornings when I’m up early to write and my space hasn’t heated up yet. With a sprig of azalea and a twig covered in moss that I plunked into a glass to keep me company.
Reveling in clean clothes. Taking in the smell and feel of my warm laundry fresh from the dryer.
Holding my small bundle of dark t-shirts, gold-toed black socks, undies, and my favorite soft old (old) fleece. A warm lump of comfort I found myself putting up to my cheek. And then gently pressing to my chest while I curled up on my couch and listened to Malcolm Gladwell give a MasterClass. His excitement and passion so authentic and palpable that it gave me goosebumps and brought tears to my eyes.
It made me feel connected to him. As a result, it helped me feel more connected to myself.
I was glued to the screen as he described how David changed the rules when he beat Goliath. How Goliath – the impossibly huge, indomitable force that we all face on our journeys with purportedly incurable chronic diseases … or a virus … or with any of the seemingly insurmountable challenges in our lives – probably had an unrecognized achilles heel. Goliath, it turns out, may have been blind.
Goliath’s weakness represents the way some people … some things … some organizations – can become so big and strong and powerful that they lose their ability to appreciate the world around them.
It’s a way of seeing how we – the seemingly small or weak or sick – overcome obstacles in our lives by breaking the rules. By not believing everything we hear – or think – or are told. By trusting when something resonates and pulls us.
We break old rules or false beliefs or inaccurate dogma by listening for truth. By listening deeply to the voice within ourselves.
Malcolm stumbled upon this perspective in a journal article by an Israeli endocrinologist. He found it when he followed his passion and curiosity deep into the stacks of the library.
He listened to his curiosity.
It took him on a new path in which he describes “how much of what is beautiful and important in the world arises from what looks like suffering and adversity.”
As I listened to Malcolm, a part of me kept noting the physical sensations of my warm bundle of fresh laundry on my chest. The bundle I had unconsciously moved to the place where you hold the soft, precious, weight of a baby as their body conforms to yours when they feel safe and fall asleep.
It soothed me.
By listening to my seemingly tiny, easy-to-overlook little cravings, I found comfort.
The first moment a physical sensation of comfort made it through my senses and into my emotional being happened about a week ago when I was exploring in my own Malcolm-like way.
I was doing research for an ecourse I hope to offer on my blog and had listened to my favorite talk by Jon Kabat-Zinn about mindfulness meditation. I hadn’t remembered the music from the introduction to his talk and it had surprised me. It’s poignant. There is something deeply and tenderly hopeful about it. The pacing is slow and spacious. We first see him as he sits at a table with a gathering of the group and signs his book. He is unhurried. He asks each person their name while making eye contact. He seems to have no other care or focus in the world.
It makes my body tingle even now as I rewatch it.
This is what feeling connection is like in my body.
Listening to Jon that morning a week or two ago was like listening to an old friend. His voice and his rhythm soothed me. He felt kind. He was real. It made me feel that I was not alone.
Listening to Jon and feeling how regulated his nervous system is reminds my own system that everything is okay, just as it is.
This, too, is comfort.
Listening to Jon had also helped me remember that, right now when there is so much fear in our inner and outer worlds, it’s more difficult to “be with” my own fear as a way to try to help it heal.
It’s difficult to heal the layer of numbness and sense of disconnection that I’ve come to on my journey of recovery from chronic fatigue syndrome (ME/CFS) by “being with it.”
It reminded me that when there is a crisis in our lives or in our world, the way to work with fear and other difficult feelings that arise due to to our old traumas and new stress is to surround ourselves with comfort and connection to the best of our abilities.
To comfort and soothe our systems as though they are children. With compassion. Without judgment. With love and care.
To comfort ourselves with whatever it is that our systems respond to – whether it means curling up in bed earlier than usual most evenings with a book or our partner, or rewatching the same movie because it’s reassuring and there are no surprises or unexpected stressors (I finally bought Arrival last week after rewatching it 3 nights in a row).
When things are challenging, one of our biggest tools is to support our social nervous systems in whatever ways work for us in that moment.
It makes the pond bigger so that there is more room to hold and surround and comfort our fear or other difficult feelings.
When a big fear is held in a huge pond of comfort, connection or other support for regulation, it can become small enough that it is suddenly manageable or transformable.
This gives our bodies and physiologies and biologies and cells that extra margin so they can maximize their innate capacities to heal. To more easily and successfully fight off whatever they need to. And to then recover and return to the fun stuff, like producing energy.
The first moments that led to the sensation of comfort coming more fully into my being happened in little spurts over the course of a few hours last week.
I wanted to change how I was relating to my fear and something was shifting for me after listening to Jon. I was feeling a bit tender and uncertain and had gone on my daily walk. When I got to the beach, I sat on a log instead of walking any further. I just wanted to slow down. Stop.
Then to my surprise I started crying. Little bursts here and there.
They were bursts of deep pain.
Interestingly, it was intense but somehow not overwhelming. Waves of tears would come and then subside. I would be crying and at the same time, I’d open my eyes and notice just how beautiful it was with the grasses waving and the frothy waves coming in onto the shore. The light was soft. I was sheltered from the wind by dunes on either side of me.
As I pendulated my attention in and out – sand dunes, deep grief. Soft beautiful light, aching chest … I started to get a sense of the “feeling” associated with the tears.
A feeling that had been too overwhelming to name or note in much detail before. A feeling from the past that was part of the forces that have lead to my feelings of numbness and disconnection.
What I was feeling that was being expressed in those tears was longing.
A deep, familiar, lifelong sense of longing.
I sat with the crying and let my attention come in and go out. Cycle in and cycle out. My body surprised me with its ability to appreciate. To notice what was not only around me, but to be able to take in its beauty even as I was also being moved by wails of grief.
What I gradually came to recognize was that this longing was for comfort.
The crying continued in more waves on my walk home. This arising of deep feelings has been magnified for me – and I imagine for many of you too – during this time of suffering that is happening around the world.
I listened to the peepers starting to sing in a marsh. I took in the brilliant blush of a deep pink azalea and the intense blue of what might be a Veronica at its base.
When I got home, I pulled out my purple mat that David gave me a few years ago and did my yoga. There were more, smaller waves of tears and I continued to have room to feel my longing for comfort.
It was when I pulled the cushion under my cheek as I prepared to do a leg raise on my side that something shifted. I felt the soft caress of the fabric on my skin and suddenly – I FELT comforted.
In a tiny, unexpected moment that I had slowed down enough to be available for, my world tilted a little on its axis.
The comfort that I so longed for was no longer something out there that I wished or longed for. It was in the softness of the blue fabric supporting my head.
The comfort was here. Inside of me. Already present. Accessible right in my NOW.
The world shift was that this comfort was within me and within my capacity to orchestrate. While this is something I’ve understood cognitively for a few decades now as I’ve been on my healing journey, there was something new in FEELING it.
Something inside of me had shifted so that it was able to TAKE IT IN.
Something inside of me had softened enough to take in comfort. The caress on my cheek had reached me through my social nervous system – that most powerful yet gentle source of protection that operates through connection. A defense system that sends nerves to our faces so we can communicate through facial expression. A set of nerves that also TAKES IN the information of safety through sensation on our cheeks and faces.
Sometimes when we’ve had to defend ourselves with boundaries – for our physical bodies, our actions, our feelings – the “No” can become so strong that it also keeps out all the other things. Things like love. Comfort. Connection.
These unexpected and so easy-to-overlook moments are what we’re working for. This is how we heal. This is what our practices are for. Our practices of mindfulness and meditation, yoga and tai chi, chi gong, eating “clean,” taking walks, exercise-for-oxygenation-or-for-any-other-reason-and-in-whatever-way-works-for-us rather than because we’re supposed to, present moment awareness, self compassion, self care and all the rest. This is how our bodies show us just how much they are able to heal. How much they want to heal and are willing to heal.
This is how we thaw out of freeze or fight and flight states and come more fully back into our lives. Into who we are underneath the layers. This is how we metabolize the intensity of a crisis in the present moment and minimize the chance it will be traumatic.
“You can find gold in the smallest of details if you’re willing to be patient,” says Malcolm Gladwell in the trailer for his class.
Maybe being with fear has been helping after all :-) So that when I made even more room for it by feeling the other feelings – like longing AND comfort – it took off another smidge of a layer and brought me one more step closer to “home.”
Because doing it small makes it manageable. Digestible. Transformable.
Because doing it in little doses and with mindfulness and self compassion can make more of the impossible Possible.
Thank you world – and new paradigms – for these unexpected and weird, so often convoluted opportunities to keep growing and healing.