Thanks to a clever little virus, our collective hamster wheel has come to an abrupt halt, throwing many of us off and spinning in the other direction, towards ourselves.
My fear is that between the Vitamin C popping, baking and Zoom calls, we are avoiding the questions that lie beneath the conspiracy theories and that bring us face to face with our mortality. Questions that may not have an answer but that invite us explore what lies beyond our fear-based reactions and habitual patterns of stress to a more curious and open place within ourselves and between each other.
We have been given a great deal of time to confront some frightful and wonderful things about ourselves, our world, our purpose, our vocation and our relationships. To grieve the loss of what has been taken away and what we choose to let go of. Time to consider the meaning of health.
This pandemic is a healing crisis, a process that is happening whether we choose to co-operate with or not. And it is certainly not the last crisis we will face as humanity. Hiding behind a mask will only get us so far. This is an opportune time to create the new neural pathways for resilient, adaptable and robust systems within the body-mind, and within society.
Many of us are well into this process already, catalysed by our own personal crisis or life experience. But for the first time, we journey together to co-create the foundation for a new way of living and being.
Here are some principles of healing to consider and anchor to as we sense our way through this followed by some practical ways to apply them:
- Healing is a dynamic. Health is not a fixed or static state. It is a moment to moment process directed by the forces of nature to serve a state of balance. It is a cycle of release and restoration, birth and death, weeding and sowing, letting go and letting come. Illness itself is part of the healing process and part of the attempt to return to homeostasis. Understanding this gives us the opportunity to participate with it rather than avoiding, suppressing, or working against it. This can only happen when we are awake, aware and responsive.
- Healing is relational. Each part of a system is in communication with the other. Healing requires relationship, between heart and mind, doctor and patient, organism and nature. Relationship begins with the ability of one part to be in gentle communication with the other, so that a creative response can be generated, demanding the dissolving of the borders of siloed constructs within ourselves and between each other.
Build resilience: learn to relax
Our role in supporting the healing process is to create the conditions in which the healing process can be optimised.
The Corona pandemic has sparked a reactive need to ‘boost’ the immune system as a defence against the virus. Wellness experts are all dispensing a great deal of advice on the best supplements to take, diet to follow or breathing technique to practice. While these are all helpful, there is a risk of falling into the ‘quick fix trap’ when it comes to immune health and health in general. The immune system is a complex multidimensional system that is connected to our gut health, our endocrine system and is deeply linked to our physiological responses to stress. The body either senses danger or safety. A perception of danger activates a defensive response while a perception of safety activates a healing response.
In our current situation, the information that we are constantly being exposed to and nature of our thoughts is causing overfiring of danger signals, and all within the safety of our own homes. This confused state and the experience of anxiety and fear at this time are normal and appropriate. However, its prolonged nature means that for many there is no way to process, release or integrate it. The chronic activation of the fear response, causes dis-regulation of the immune system, increase in inflammatory markers and a compromised digestive system. A perfect storm ensues.
A key to building a resilient immune system is through awareness and relaxation training.
Relaxation training through various mindfulness and breathing practices helps us to notice our physiological responses to habitual stressful thoughts and is a means to override it. Training relaxation in the midst of crisis may not change the situation but it does create the environment in which our self-healing system can be optimised and helps to build our inner resources of immunity. It also gives us the best chance of coming up with a more creative solution to deal with it. The ability to do this is one of the greatest gifts of being human.
Just as our thoughts and emotions are reflected in the way we breathe, the way we breathe can send signals of safety to the brain via the Vagus nerve. Conscious breathing is a powerful and accessible tool that anyone can easily learn, practice and share. While there are thousands of breathing techniques that are available, coherent breathing is one of the most well researched techniques. It has been widely used in patients with PTSD, refugees and patients in hospitals. It balances the nervous system and builds resilience in the immune system.
Practice slowing down the respiratory rate to 3 to 6 breaths a minute:
- Breath through the nose for a slow count of 5 seconds (depending on your capacity) and breathe out for the same amount of time.
- It is recommended that you practice this for 20 minutes a day to get the full benefit.
No one can afford not to learn the basics of breath awareness and conscious breathing. Relaxation training is not an idea or lofty notion. It is a practical science that is the foundation of health.
Stay awake: cultivate inner sight
Inner-sight is the ability to compassionately respond to what we become aware of.
The Covid-19 experience is one of intense vulnerability. All previous constructs of safety are crumbling, whether it be with regards to our health or economic well-being. The collective crisis may also bring up previous trauma as historical grief layered with anticipatory grief as worst-case scenarios keep us up at night. While we will mount physiological states of stress in reaction to this, the survival response will also show up in defensive behavioural reactions.
It is important to note how reactive and defensive behaviours may be playing out. Bringing a deep awareness to these responses offers us a profound opportunity for growth and creative choice.
- Distraction and avoidance. Spending more time than normal on YouTube, Netflix, social media and overworking is a way of avoiding the discomfort of what we are feeling.
- Obsession. This stems from our need to be in control and make our world feel safe and ordered. This may play out in obsession with news, cleaning up, tidying.
- Suppression. Difficulty talking and expressing the way we feel is normal when we can’t make sense of it ourselves. A common reaction is an internalisation and suppression of feelings eventually leading to amygdala hijacks (aggressive outbursts) and passive aggressive behaviour.
- Dissociation. This is another protection strategy. We ‘bypass’ uncomfortable feelings that we experience physically and emotionally through over-intellectualising or spiritual practices. This can lead to being “dis-embodied”
- Projection. When we feel out of control, we look for someone or something to project onto. We tend to blame, judge ourselves and others, polarise and compare. Racism and class distinction become heightened.
- Numbing. When we feel physical and emotional pain, we tend to over consume substances like high calorie foods, alcohol, cigarettes and drugs that acts as a short-term soothing balm or numbing agent, but that will cause harmful effects over time.
- Hoarding. The survival response also manifests in primal hoarding behaviour that plays out as we saw in the stockpiling of food, toilet paper, and in some countries, even guns!
Bringing a non-judgmental awareness to these patterns offers us the opportunity to heal, grow and transform. Mindfulness, breath awareness, somatic practices and journaling are some of the tools that can build the architecture of deepened awareness.
Feeding the fire: facing fears
Healing is the relationship between breath and death.
If we follow the road of our fear to its source, we will probably meet the fear of our fate – Death.
Whether we believe that we can reconcile this fear intellectually or not, all life forms have a primal instinct of self-preservation. Humans have taken this primal fear to the point of arrogance.
We go to great lengths to preserve life at all costs even if the cost is quality of life or challenging natural laws. This is the delicate tightrope that we are walking right now with regards to this pandemic.
Consider for a moment the possibilities of confronting this fear head on? What choices would we make? What would we let go of? What would we embrace? Risk?
There is a Buddhist practice called feeding the fire, the practice of confronting one’s greatest fear.
On the other side of the acceptance of our mortality comes a great liberation.
The Covid-19 experience is bringing some kind of death experience to all of us in some way, whether it is the death of a loved one, the loss of a business, an identity, an ideology or a lifestyle, something has ended. It requires a mourning, a grieving, a ‘letting go’ to a ‘letting come’ as Otto Scharmer, founder of the Presencing Institute so poignantly describes.
The acceptance of death brings an awakening to life, a deepened commitment to what is most important to us. Grief strips us bare and carries us to a state of beautiful naked vulnerability that we can embrace with tender compassion for ourselves and others. The beauty of collective suffering is empathy, compassion, the deepest seeds of our humanity. This is the fertile ground in which to plants the seeds of our future.
Opening the heart: stay embodied
An open heart is the fertile ground to plant the seeds of our future.
Right now, our emotional reactions feel intense, heightened, gripping, overwhelming.
Fear lives beneath the waves of frustration, anxiety, grief, irritation, overwhelm, disbelief, loneliness, claustrophobia, boredom and disbelief.
Emotions are powerful energetic experiences that require a healthy expression. How do we navigate our emotional life in a way that is not overwhelming or paralysing? How do we ride the waves of the feelings as they come without defaulting to our reactive and defensive behaviours?
Deepening our relationship with our emotional and mental patterns and finding healthy channels of expression is key. Generative conversations, writing, creating, meditating, movement and breathing are all ways that support us to channel, release and integrate our emotions. Somatic and creative practices are particularly important. This gets us out of the cycle of mental processing which can stand in the way of the release, integration and healing.
Here is a short practice you can try when you are feeling fearful, anxious or overwhelmed:
- Get skilled at ‘locating’ the emotion.
- What is the most prominent sensation you are experiencing in your body right now?
- Deepen your awareness of sensation e.g. can you trace around it? Does it have an epicentre?
- Is it prickly, sharp, heavy or tight?
- Now become aware of your breathing, slow down the inhalation and ‘direct it’ towards the centre of the sensation or use the breath to ‘expand’ the space around the sensation.
- As you release the exhale imagine that you are softening the edges and melting the resistance.
- Do this for 2 to 3 minutes.
- Relax your breathing and notice what you are experiencing.
Although none of us have clear answers to any of this, we can create and maintain an open-hearted resilience. The alternative fear-based reactions are what got us here in the first place. Let us not succumb to them and let this moment slip from our hands. Let us create the environment for creative ideas to emerge through a curious mind, healthy body and open heart. The most sustainable and innovative solutions for our future will emerge through our deep respect of ancient wisdom, alignment with natural laws, humility and highest capacities for compassion, creativity and healing. This is our challenge, our calling and our responsibility.
By Dr. Ela Manga
MBBCh (Wits) DCH (SA) DipObst (SA) CBP
Dr. Manga is an integrative medical doctor, author, speaker and leading voice in the field of mind-body medicine and wellness. Her background in western medicine, study of wisdom traditions and deep curiosity has informed her unique approach to health and well-being. She is an expert in the field of energy management and burnout. Her first book Breathe: Strategising Energy in the Age of Burnout, is fast becoming the go to guide for managing energy and optimising physical and mental health.