We just might prefer the world that emerges from all this. That’s a possibility that exists. It’s certainly not possible to discount, considering the fact that no one knows what’s about to happen next. Many fear the worst. I sympathize with them. I am tense, too. But I am hopeful that having a common enemy, such as a virus, makes us eventually forget about the enemies we have among each other. Or, at the very least, work together with gritted teeth.
This pandemic forces many of us into a form of quasi-hibernation from all that we knew of our former lives. Looking through the keyhole of our door does not offer a very clear view. It’s OK to be inside right now. But remember that there are limitations in perception from this vantage point and you are not above their influence. These limitations can also have extreme personal value, so long as we recognize that they exist and acknowledge that they are impacting our experience. The long and short of it is, make good use of your quarantine.
Think of it this way: Among certain religious orders, Catholic nuns and priests cloister themselves away (meaning they renounce the outside world and their relationships with other people) for the purpose of a life of introspection and prayer. This choice is made for various reasons, not all of them good, but most of them are attempting to tap into a particular type of contemplative experience that can only occur under particularly controlled circumstances. Circumstances such as a cloistered environment with very strict rules like a monastery or a convent and no outside contact. Some choose a vow of silence and have gone for years, or even the rest of their lives, without speaking a word aloud to anyone, even God.
What is the purpose of those practices? We can dismiss them and say they are just weirdos. Somehow that isn’t a very satisfying approach. What calls to a person to do this? Are they always glad they made their choice? Why do they do it? When they love it, what does it feel like? And when they hate it, what gets them through it? I wouldn’t mind knowing those secrets just for my regular daily life.
As a contemplative person, I have spent time in monasteries. And I’ve learned of real hermits who close themselves even farther into the woods and see no one at all. Even a skeptic could assume that some are doing this for genuinely spiritual reasons, but what might they be? It seems to be quite an extreme choice to make for a member of such a social species.
In my own time of cloistered contemplation, which admittedly was for only days at a time rather than weeks or years, I found it took quite a while for the outside chatter to quiet down. Even when I thought I had quieted my mind, I’d realize the next day how much louder it was than I’d realized. The longer I spent following the basic daily routine of food, work and prayer, the quieter I became. My thoughts began to spin less and problem-solve less. That was a bigger relief than I would have imagined. And that’s when I could really start to hear myself and begin to tell the difference between what my heart was saying versus the voices of all those who would persuade me otherwise. My heart was actually far more loving than I had given it credit.
And though these were short experiences, they gave me a frame of reference to understand why it is sometimes valuable to close off, to shut down, to end the flow of information (or at least limit its intake), and give time for the layers to peel back so that we may eventually glimpse our own truth, free of the truths of others.
Now, what if the whole world suddenly had to do that for some reason? Who could imagine such a thing? I bet some would really lose it. Some would love it. But they still might miss the opportunity of enhancing the experience for their own betterment. Some just might learn what happens when we close ourselves off on purpose for the benefit of all humanity. Because that’s another reason many choose a cloistered, contemplative life. To pray for the earth. To pray for humanity. To pray for peace on on the planet. And there’s a lot of them that do it.
Do they hold some of the balance of love and compassion on this planet together? Through their prayer, are they providing this planet a service that is helping to ease our current experience from what it might have otherwise been? There’s no way to know for sure. But many different cultures seem to have a version of this style of prayerful intervention. I know it appears superstitious on some levels. But we also know there’s some physics behind how these things workl. Even if it’s just in my own imagination, it comforts me to think it could be worse and I’m grateful it isn’t. I always try to find a mental path where I end up at gratitude.
Gratitude. The root core of contemplative life is the ongoing practice of learning how to drop into the center of gratitude throughout every waking moment of one’s day. Projecting into the universe only a presence in gratitude. The act of giving thanks laces our brains with a positive chemical overlay, including dopamine and serotonin, which tweaks and amplifies our ability to be of service for others. Either literally, energetically or, hopefully, both. It feels good to do good.
his is where we learn about and come to understand our own truest preferences. As well, this is where we have the least interference with whatever inner power it is we each have to pray or commune with the divine. Gratitude clears the channels. A contemplative life helps us get there and amplifies what’s being sent in prayer.
How are you doing with this era of shutdowns, stay-at-home orders, social distancing and quarantine? How do these precautions make you feel? Do you feel trapped by them? It would be understandable. It’s easy to see by just how upset the subject can make people. Read between the lines on that. Pray for them.
What if you chose to reframe this experience for your own personal comfort? We are clever enough that we can frame our way of thought in any way we choose. What if you chose to frame it as a contemplative experience? What if you chose to see the difficulty in it and accept it as part of the wider experience?
When you lift weights at the gym, you know it’s going to be heavy. You stretch a bit first beforehand and mentally prepare yourself to pick them up several times in a row. You will be sweating and sore by the end. And yet you still choose to do it because you know it’s going to benefit you. When I shovel snow, I stretch first and lift with my knees and treat it like “leg day” at the gym. Framing the experience this way helps me get more out of it and it upsets me less. Think of this pandemic in that way, and you will be the most likely to reap the most benefit from it with the most ease possible.
So many things are changing that it makes all possibilities, even the ones we once found impossible to imagine, suddenly worth considering. Even though our hearts are in our throats, this roller-coaster will have its benefits. We are not where we used to be 100 years ago. And we will make good things from this time. We all have a preference for the future that includes our peace and ease. Let that be the idea that unites us.
Do your part to help the planet by being at peace yourself. Be a part of the better world that might come from this. Choose to be at ease. It is, of course, easier said than done. But it is a choice just the same. Inner peace is not given to us. We make it ourselves from scratch. Let that be the bell you ring right now. It will help define the experience to come.
Wil Darcangelo, M.Div., is the minister at First Parish UU Church of Fitchburg and of First Church of Christ Unitarian in Lancaster, and producer of The UU Virtual Church of Fitchburg and Lancaster on YouTube. Email firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @wildarcangelo. His blog, Hopeful Thinking, can be found at www.hopefulthinkingworld.blogspot.com.