As the world pauses in the wake of the US election and before the approaching winter ebb of the pandemic, let us take a moment to catch our breath.
I know it’s been a surreal and difficult year for everyone in different ways, so I wanted to share a few things that have been keeping me sane. To help navigate through this infodemic I am trying to limit my consumption of information to that which is enriching and inspiring in an attempt to filter out the mental noise.
To start us off; the opening lines of one of my favourite poems — ‘Four Quartets’ by T. S. Eliot.
‘Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future,
And time future contained in time past.
If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable.
What might have been is an abstraction
Remaining a perpetual possibility
Only in a world of speculation.
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.’ — 1944
It always serves as a reminder to stay in the present moment. Everything else is pure speculation and projection. To remain centred is all we can do right now to avoid being swept up by the overwhelming storm of information that is beyond our control. That is not to say be passive and disengage; quite the opposite. Instead re-centre and focus not on what might have been or the endless what ifs, but the here and now. This has been a year of disrupted plans like no other; a humbling reminder that in the face of nature’s boundless power our attempts to plan and control are utterly pointless.
Gabor Maté quoted a Buddhist monk in an interview with Russell Brand I heard saying:
‘In the West we are always saying “panic panic, everything is out of control”, but in the Buddhist world they say “relax, everything is out of control.”’
That really stuck with me again as a kind of mantra we must all keep repeating to accept impermanence and learn how to be with the present moment whatever happens. The Chinese say a crisis is a combination of danger and opportunity, and that is certainly a lesson we have all been abundantly faced with this year. It feels like we are still on the precipice, no closer no further, and that is what is so unsettling — this pervading sense of being in limbo. However, no closer no further to what? Embracing and accepting this state of flux is all we can do.
Another inspiring writer I have found to be of late is Rebecca Solnit who articulates this sentiment perfectly in her book ‘A Field Guide To Getting Lost’:
‘To be lost is to be fully present; and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery.’
This is the mindset we must adopt right now and going forward. We must all let go of the illusion of control.
My favourite writer Virginia Woolf in her poignant short story ‘The Death of the Moth’ beautifully depicts the last few ephemeral moments of an insignificant little moth’s life. She watches, observing its futile struggle in the face of an inevitable death.
‘One could only watch the extraordinary efforts made by those tiny legs against an oncoming doom which could, had it chosen, have submerged an entire city, not merely a city, but masses of human beings; nothing, I knew had any chance against death. Nevertheless after a pause of exhaustion the legs fluttered again. It was superb this last protest, and so frantic that he succeeded at last in righting himself. One’s sympathies, of course, were all on the side of life. Also, when there was nobody to care, or to know, this gigantic effort on the part of an insignificant little moth, against a power of such magnitude, to retain what no one else valued or desired to keep, moved one strangely. Again, somehow, one saw life, a pure bead...The struggle was over. The insignificant little creature now knew death…Just as life had been strange a few minutes before, so death was now as strange. The moth having righted himself now lay most decently and uncomplainingly composed. O yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am.’
Woolf captures so perfectly the pitiful yet admirable perseverance of our delusion that we have any chance against death. The simple act of giving in is in fact the most courageous of them all.
I am going to leave you with a podcast by the inspiring and soothing psychologist and Buddhist meditation teacher Tara Brach — Living With Courageous Presence — which beautifully deals with this prevalent urge we’ve built up to resist and struggle against vulnerability which is in fact the key to truly being present. Only through surrender and acceptance can we allow ourselves to find peace by giving up the fight.
My favourite song by Villagers, aptly called ‘Courage’ — from the Latin cor ‘heart’ — succinctly vocalises all these sentiments. Have a listen, sit back and surrender to the present moment.
It took a little time to get where I wanted
It took a little time to get free
It took a little time to be honest
It took a little time to be me
I took a little lover but then we parted
I took a little time to get over this
From time to time, I get heavyhearted
Thinking of how we used to kiss
It’s a feeling like no other
Let me tell you, yeah
In harmony with something other than your ego
The sweet belief of knowing nothing comes for free
Do you really wanna know
About these lines on my face?
Well, each and every one is testament to
All the mistakes I’ve had to make
To find courage
It’s a feeling like no other
Let me tell you, yeah