Lean Away: How to Meditate During a Pandemic

Chaos can throw us into a meditative state just like a sunset can. 

Though deeply nourishing when they arise, these states come and go.

For a meditative state to inform how we actually live in the moment takes intention and practice.

Meditation teaches us that we are not who we generally believe ourselves to be. By learning to draw our attention away from our thoughts, beliefs, emotions, and sensations, we realize we’re more than the phenomenon of our experiences. You might say we become less of the experiences themselves and more of the one having them.

In “normal” life we live out our days with a solid sense of identity.

For example, I’m a professional educator with clients on my docket, married with a husband coworking at home downstairs, and deeply identified as a devoted seeker. Though all of these attributes feel true and reliable about myself, none of them are certain. I function as if they are because, well, that’s the way we’re built. Our biology and social conditioning make it so that a sturdy identity feels essential for survival. And often it is — physically and psychologically. I mean, what if I woke up tomorrow believing I was single, a devout Catholic, and an unemployed chef? 

We move through our days rather seamlessly because there is a thread of continuity and order woven into the fabric of the Universe. We trust that the sun will rise tomorrow and we will wake up as ourselves.

This assumption, though credible and reasonable, is not a certainty.

When a disruption occurs — a child gets sick, a spouse dies, we get fired — our identity quivers and we scramble to reorganize it, shuffling our beliefs about who we are and what matters so that we can carry on.

We are incredibly adaptive in this regard  — some more so than others — and most of us live an entire life sustaining an identity that merely gets shuffled now and then, but never crumbles.

However, we’re also vulnerable and sensitive. In the face of extreme disruptions — every person’s limit unique to them — our identity can buckle. We can no longer sustain a sense of selfhood that feels solid. We collapse into despair, depression, denial, addiction, or possibly suicide. 

But what if an extreme disruption did not have the power to take us totally out?

What if extreme disruption merely created the conditions for a deep sense of identity-free selfhood to arise? 

The 2020 pandemic is cracking open many of us, revealing how difficult it is to stand in our previous identities. 

Even the experts — the epidemiologists, doctors, leaders, community health care workers — are all metaphorically on their knees. Though they keep trying to nail COVID-19 down, predict its trajectory, manifest an overnight vaccine, the truth is there is no sure way out of this pandemic. We’re being forced to get good at being present in real-time with how everything is unfolding beyond our control. Thus many of us are either furiously patching up the cracks in our identities or falling apart.

But there is a third option.

Forget identity for now.

Lean away from identity.

Open to what is present beyond identity.

Pandemic-time is an opportunity for meditators to bring what they’ve already been cultivating, providing a sense of calm within the chaos. But this crisis also provides ideal conditions for folks to learn how to meditate on the fly. 

If you don’t already have time on the cushion, don’t worry. Pay attention to what I’m sharing here and begin practicing right now. I promise, if you can do this you’ll catch up with, and even overtake, many life long meditators like me in our ability to apply our practice to real life.

The practice is simple.

You make a choice. 

Are you going to lean into your identity or lean away?

Are you willing to allow the disruption of your identity to happen while you open to something other than identity to reveal itself? 

If, yes, simply choose to lean away, and then continue to choose it. 

Over and over and over again. 

As much as possible do nothing but the basic life needs right now — eat, sleep, hug your kids, etc. The rest of the time lean away, get quiet, and pay attention with your whole being. For in this present moment is the most trustable sense of aliveness that is available to us as humans — and it will reliably lead you through this crisis.

This pandemic can be used as a forced opportunity to wake up to what is always here.

This is what meditation has promised throughout the ages — to become awake to what is here.

You can have a crash course in this right now if you merely choose to lean away.

Remember, chaos can just as easily throw us into shock, conditioned optimism, or protective denial. 

Where meditative states bring opportunity, these other states are dead ends.

But the meditative state must be cultivated to yield its fruit.

Join me for the upcoming master class in meditation and mindfulness to learn more and practice together.