“I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work the more I live.” ~ George Bernard Shaw
In some ways, in the arc of my own life, the Coronavirus could not have come at a better time.
I had already been living with a pretty severe depression for some time. So much had changed in my life in the five years since I closed The Samarya Center and moved out of Seattle – it seemed like one painful loss or transition after another, with no real end in sight. Through each of these deeply challenging times, what I experienced more than anything was a profound sense of aloneness – the exact opposite of what we had together spent so much time, heart and dedication cultivating and relying on in Samarya – the name itself means community.
Of course I had made many solid friendships over the years here, and especially enjoy the fruits of my powerful commitment to the local community. I feel loved and appreciated. I feel supported and cared for. But what I didn’t have was the added depth and net of intentional community, community specifically based on shared values, shared vocabulary, shared norms and expectations that allow all of the members to grow fully into themselves. A community that, wherever one is on the secular, spiritual, religious spectrum, shares an interest and intention for a principled, if not faith based, life.
Having spent the last several months – or was it years – crying and existentially lonely, I was so looking forward to teaching in Seattle and Portland in April and then joining my Living School community and teaching in Albuquerque and visiting my parents while teaching in New York City in May. I was ready to connect with old students and long time friends, eager to shake up feelings of stuckness, and to be in communities centered around engaged interior life and a love of justice.
Then came Covid. And I was stuck, trapped, again in the darkness of isolation and grief.
But after not too long, maybe a week – or was it a couple of months – my experience began to change. I began to feel better, lighter. It felt, as I described it to friends, like the smallness of my own personal pain and sadness was dissolving into a big stew of general sadness, and somehow, in that bigger, collective pool, I immediately felt less alone. It occurred to me that this Covid situation had created an instant community – we had been hijacked into (initial) shared values of survival and collective care, a new shared vocabulary and new sets of norms and expectations. There was that period where it felt like, in the newness of it all, we were having a shared experience, no matter how awful, and that the communal feel could in some way make up for its awfulness.
But we grew weary of that. One day I, like so many others, just hit a wall. So utterly overwhelmed with keeping up communications – messenger, instagram, text message, what’s app, facebook – so exhausted from keeping a cheerful face for “my kids,” neighbors who are used to coming and going freely from my home, so tired of being the person who will always open the gate to lend a hand, tired of my “professional extrovert” persona that covered for my inner introvert in need of quiet and space, I completely shut down. I put a sign on my gate saying “Closed. No visitors today please.” My desire to be fully available to the community crashed up against my need for quiet and solitude. My attempts seeking freedom from my feelings of aloneness drove me into further isolation. I wanted to benefit as I could from this new Covid community, without remembering what separates incidental and intentional fellowship.
Father Richard Rohr says, “Community is an art form, and there are obviously many possible ways of coming together, even as much of the world shelters in place.”
In my case, and I would imagine for many, we were, as Father Richard says, “On a serious inner journey to [our] own vulnerability,” and, through our own work before the Coronavirus, “also in immediate contact with the vulnerable of the world.” We were engaged in sacred internal and external work in which, Father Richard continues, “some form of community will almost always result.”
But transformative communities need to be shaped. Transformative communities provide sustenance, safety and structure. They encourage shared values and codes that, if they don’t actually ensure, at least offer opportunities for fostering good will and mechanisms for repair. Transformative communities are indeed and art form, one that is able to yield and evolve to meet the new possibilities for connection. Transformative communities are just that – healing, generative and connecting. While “some form of community will almost always result,” it is up to us to form and direct what we want that community to be.
Recognizing that simply living through Covid together would not create the kind of depth and connection I was longing for, I offered an online forum where I hoped people could come together and talk about their experience in the pandemic. I initially envisioned it as short term – just ten sessions, applying the Yamas and Niyamas, or the ethical principles of Raja Yoga, to our current situation. I thought it would be a nice way to connect and give structure, and that I would enjoy seeing and building fellowship in this way.
What has evolved from those conversations has far surpassed whatever I might have imagined. We are still meeting every Monday, Wednesday and Friday over Zoom, and still figuring out how to foster and share community on the virtual platform, what the new shared norms are, what the vulnerabilities are in our community and how to support each other. We have had members send money to others anonymously who mentioned they were food insecure on a call. We’ve had participants send emails of encouragement through me to others on the call who shared about their own struggles. We are meeting and talking with people who call in from all over the world, from all walks of life, some into yoga, some not at all, connecting over shared values and experiences. I am hearing over and over and over that people know they are not alone, that the calls are an anchor to the day, a specific time to talk about the issues people are dealing with on a daily basis. I have been struck many times by the commonality of crises and questions – I feel like every day I talk to someone who shares with me the same thoughts and fears we just talked about together on the call and I tell them how I wish they were there to hear how others are grappling with the very same things. For me, the calls have fed and sustained me through this dark time.
The online community definitely reminds me of the depth of need, and the universality of suffering through separateness that the pandemic has laid bare. The very challenges for which I hope to provide support right here in this little town through La Ermita – isolation, substance saturation, depression, chronic illness and feelings of directionlessness – are the same demons being experienced by people all over the world, from all backgrounds and axes of privilege. In our shared humanity, we truly are in this together.
We are going to make it through this. And we will find all kinds of new communities and ways of relating to each other. We will discover new opportunities for individual and collective care and we will reawaken to our inter-being.
But if we want to stay awake to what we are learning now, if we have learned that isolation and separateness really are foundational wounds, if we believe in the value of community and connection, we must commit ourselves to what philosopher Ken Wilbur describes as, “growing up, waking up, cleaning up and showing up,” to truly fostering and building these communities in an intentional way.
The Covid virus will eventually end. Depression will eventually lift. It may, just like the Coronavirus and our response to it, come in waves. But if we do the work of creating fellowship, leveraging the powerful collective instinct towards community that we are experiencing now, then we can create transformational global communities that are sustainable and solid. That way, the next time depression, or Covid, or any other existential challenge arises again, in addition to our communities of proximity and family and friends, we will have an established fellowship that we can access and lean into, to remind us again and again, we are not alone. We are never alone.
Please join us for any of these free conversations. You are welcome to come late, leave early, listen in or participate as much as you want. Click on the links below for details and zoom login for each of the weekly offerings.
Practicing in the Curve, Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings
Bedside Yoga: Saturday mornings