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‘Practising in a pandemic – there is space for it all’ by Sarah Kokai Thwaites

The phrase “there is space for it all” came into my head while sitting this morning and it seems to describe for me (so far) practising during the pandemic. 

My main practice at any time seems to be sitting with whatever feels the least comfortable. It’s not a practice I deliberately choose but on reflection it’s the one I spend most time with. I might dabble with other practices but this seems to be what I return to time and time again. It’s definitely not one that I ever mention during the Introduction to Zen sessions (that would be a way to drive people away quickly I’m sure!) but it seems to work for me and it’s not as grim and tortuous as it may sound. Whatever it is that feels the least comfortable and so gets sat with obviously changes all the time. Sometimes it’s a slight niggle, a sense that how I’m feeling about or reacting to a situation is a little bit “off”, more reflective of old patterns than the situation itself. Sometimes it’s an odd sensation in the body, which I’ve learned for me is often an indicator of a buried or blocked emotion or tangled memory ready to be felt and allowed to rest. Sometimes it’s a difficult or painful sensation. I’ve been a bit too accident-prone in recent years and that has provided plenty of periods of physical pain to sit with. I frequently experience migraines which render lucid thoughts impossible and leave only the option of time in a darkened space. I’ve learned through experience that sitting (or lying) with the sensations in my head and body rather than resisting them gives a bit of space and fluidity to them.

The past month has given me new “least comfortable” things to sit with. 5 weeks ago I began to experience symptoms – short spells of high temperature and gripping stomach pains first, followed a day later by body aches, heaviness, weariness and periods of intense chills and shiveriness no matter how many dressing gowns, blankets and hot water bottles I snuggled up with. For the first couple of weeks the fatigue and the intestinal pains (which felt like my bowels were twisting and turning on themselves) were what I most needed to sit with – at their worst it really wasn’t possible to focus on anything else. At other times it was chest pain that I sat with. With both, fully feeling rather than trying futilely to ignore the pain led to a sense of space in which the pain was included in a sort of ocean of okayness. Not an okayness that took away the pain, but one that could hold it without freaking out or even really being disturbed at all. Within the ocean, sitting with the pain went in various unexpected directions. There have been ‘large’ sits including one in which my pain felt like it was entirely connected with other people’s pain, including that of a family member who had recently had major surgery and sitting became a sort of spontaneous wish for everyone to feel that ocean of calm holding their pain.

I’ve had ‘small’ sits: one as if I was one of the tiny virus crowns, multiplying and spreading around the world, including (probably) in my body and how none of it was personal or with a desire to hurt, just a virus doing its thing and propagating. In one of the more cheerful sits I sat with huge enthusiasm and love for virus antibodies, sparked by excitement at receiving an email inviting me to donate convalescent plasma which may help other people, more critically ill, recover from this virus.

In recent weeks as most of my other symptoms eased and my breathlessness worsened, my breath became the focus of my practice. Noticing it, being completely with my breath, even as my breathing rate increased to 20, 30 and then briefly 40+ per minute. Feeling its contracting, its tightness, the point on the exhale where it seemed to ‘catch’ and the chest pain felt most intense.

Covid can be, as one of the A&E doctors described, “a gift that keeps on giving”. Four weeks after my first symptoms I ended up in A&E, sitting in a bay in what I named “covid corridor” alongside the other suspected covid casualties, waiting while a serious of tests (including blood, heart ECG and lung X-ray) were carried out to decide which of us could be sent home to rest and recuperate there and which of us needed to be admitted for close observation and oxygen support. The last time I’d been on that corridor was at the start of the year, pre-pandemic when it was part of the Majors side of A&E and in my work role I’d been talking to patients about their health and care. I can remember the woman who was in that same bay and what we talked about. This week though I wasn’t talking but just sitting (rather just reclining on a hospital trolley tilted upright for easier breathing) and it felt like what I was just sitting with was the breath of everyone on the corridor. I couldn’t see them as curtains were pulled around us for privacy. I could hear them though because their breathing was loud and difficult. All different, some wheezy, some like gasps, some shallow, some interspersed with coughing fits. Sitting with all our breathing made my own breathlessness feel easier, like it really wasn’t a problem. Bizarrely my breathing slowed down and, while still not normal for me, in that very abnormal environment it showed itself to be reliable and effective (my blood oxygen scores were very high). Like most of the other younger patients I was released home with a letter advising us presumed covid patients (covid testing was reserved for those being admitted who would be there when the results came back 3 days later) how to take care of ourselves.  I also sat with huge love and appreciation for the medical team who showed great care and patience with some very difficult situations and conversations.

This week after coming home the breath has continued to be the basis of my practice – including noticing when sitting upright unsupported made my breath and my heart rate too fast and switching to lying down. At first I could only do 5 minutes sitting upright and that took a couple of hours to recover from.   Now I’m back to being able to do a thirty-minute sit during my best times of day.

Alongside the sickness this past 5 weeks I’ve kept working part of the time – in this strange lockdown world the divide between workplace and sickbed can be a fine one and as my work at the moment is all covid related, including gathering people’s experiences and helping services respond to those, the divide has become even narrower. My work does give a perspective and help me see how fortunate I am. Other people are having a much worse time during this pandemic. I have a comfortable home to recover in. My family are all safe and well. I have enough to eat (so many kind people offered to drop off food and shopping, thank you Andy and Jenny for finally getting through my stubborn independence). My work has been carried out at a distance but it’s felt right to try to do the little I can, often connecting via email the people with the problem and the people I know who might be able to find a solution. 

Sitting with the online zendo this week the words “it doesn’t matter if I don’t like it” came to mind and it felt ‘right’. I really don’t like the impact of the coronavirus, the deaths it has caused often without loved ones having a chance to be there, the families grieving in isolation, health, care and other key workers risking and sometimes losing their lives, people spending lockdown in difficult or even violent relationships, people dealing with depression and mounting anxiety, those without friends and family to support them. All of that is there whether I like it or not. And so the next phrase that popped up was “there is space for it all”. There is space for me to not like this pandemic. I don’t need to bury the not liking it, the sorrow and sadness, there is space for that in much bigger expanse alongside everything else. The ‘not liking it’ actually feels like a necessary ingredient, and part of what can help me to respond to the situation. Without incorporating it I’d be numbing part of myself and limit my potential responses. The situation wouldn’t be complete without it.

There is also space for love. Huge love. I’ve been so moved by the community activities popping up. The community food response. The home sewers making masks and hospital scrubs for those who need them. The 3d printers in schools, labs and workshops making face visors like the ones some of the staff who treated me were wearing and which hopefully helped keep them safe from me. The people checking in more often with friends, neighbours and family members (including the many people who have kept checking in on me). The weekly clapping for the health, care and key workers that brings most people on my usually quiet street to their doorsteps and the warmth it seems to build. The rainbows in the windows.

We won’t come out of this crisis the same. Many people’s lives will have ended. Other people will be grieving their loved ones. Many people’s jobs will have gone. But life, for most of us, will gone on and choices we always face about what we want life to be may be thrown into a new focus. These may be personal, political, environmental, spiritual and social choices. Can we find lessons from this crisis, for us personally and for the world we want to create with and for others? Can we start now the way we mean to go on? I think for me that is where “there is space for it all” comes in as my reminder, not to exclude any part of my life and experience, the love and appreciation, the sense of connection, the not liking, the wanting things to be different. They are all part of my ingredients – if I exclude any of them I limit my life and my capacity to respond.