How to make light from darkness?
Enforced solitude can be an emotional challenge — transmute those emotions
Many of us are stuck at home. For most of us, this is both a challenge and an opportunity. The time we might have spent on commutes, or work may be reduced. This means we can get on with all kinds of other projects that we have not managed to fit in, or have been putting off.
Enforced isolation can be a shock. There is the separation, the worry and uncertainty about what’s next. It can feel like we are in dark times.
Our best intentions may not be realised. This can be harder to deal with when the only person you have to blame is yourself.
How do you deal with the uncertainty, fear and hunger for distraction? I will explain a method that helps me.
If you are starting or perfecting another language, having a meaningful conversation with friends, developing a new skill, reading (or writing) great literature, and making amazing home-cooked meals, bravo!
Still what I have to write may apply as well as to those of us who get to the end of the day wondering how it became a Youtube/social media/Netflix/porn binge or whatever leaves you feeling a little empty, disappointed or viciously self-recriminating at the end of it.
Many of us dance around a reluctance or inability to just be with ourselves. Our technology facilitates and uses this for its own designs. If you constantly need background noise, radio, podcast, constantly search for distraction, leap to your phone each time it blinks you recognise this tendency.
“Boredom, rooted in a fundamental discomfort with the self, is one of the least tolerable mental states.”
― Gabor Maté, In the Realm of Hungry Ghosts: Close Encounters with Addiction
If you do recognise yourself in this in some way, you are far, far, far from alone. It is not something that people advertise about themselves though. Often we hide this aspect of our lives from each other even more we avoid it in ourselves.
To know that many people have similar experiences, including many who you love and admire makes a difference.
When I struggle with unstructured hours (and ignore my best-laid plans), glued to online (or other) numbness, the healthiest way I have discovered to deal with this in myself is through deliberate, directed kindness.
I have tried talking to myself sternly, calling myself names, kicking my own ass, going to war with my weakness. Usual results: more withdrawal, less to tolerance for myself or others and generally more misery.
Musician Amanda Palmer is fond of saying that it is the job of the artist to go into the darkness and make light of it.
Practically this can mean not running from thoughts and sensations that you find hard to bear, but deliberately turning to meet them with an attitude of curiosity and self-compassion. Scan your body, notice your sensations, observe your thoughts.
Whatever you find, be gentle.
You may find some distinct physical ache, an amorphous cloud of darkness, recriminating voices, something ghostly that refuses to be fixed or memories of past shame and regret¹. Whatever it is, be kind. Don’t berate yourself (don’t excuse yourself either).
Observe what’s there in as steadily as you can. Don’t try and make the ‘bad’ feelings go away.
Consider, if this pain was experienced by a small child who you love, how would you treat them? What would you offer them?
Mentally bathe yourself in whatever tenderness you can imagine would comfort that child. Conjure this any way you like as image or a metaphor, a cherished memory, or as some soothing synesthetic lullaby. Deliberately direct your kindness.
Doing this helps dissipate the restlessness, sometimes within a few breaths, usually after a few minutes. What remains is sensitive, but bearable. Truer motivations, healthier appetites and desires expose themselves: genuine rest or work, creation or connection. I am better able to choose what I do next without going on automatic.
If you have a dozen tabs lined up, and you are itching to get to the next one, whether it is something worthy on Medium¹, enraging on Twitter, or amazing on Youtube take a moment to check-in with yourself. Do you actually want to read or watch it or are you avoiding some inner void? If so, while the method is fresh in your mind — practise!³
¹ In my body, it often appears as an aching rift that stretches from my throat to my belly, it twists through my chest and reaches up behind my eyes. I don’t know where it came from and I don’t know if it’ll ever go away. I can learn to live with it and live well.
²Just because something in the title made you think ‘I need this’ doesn’t mean you actually do need it. That’s not what the algorithm is calculating for.
³ and if it doesn’t work this time- be kind to yourself, there’ll be a next time.