Finding Balance in a Pandemic
Finding balance isn't easy in these tightrope-walking days. But: “Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding, the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated as birds’ wings.” –Rumi
The Upanishads call the spiritual path a razor’s edge. Jewish mystics call it a narrow ridge. The images evoke multiple meanings, one of which is the need for balance.
When walking on a slim, perilous path, you run into trouble if you lean too far in either direction. For that reason, every spiritual tradition—not to mention secular philosophers and psychologists—counsels moderation. The Bhagavad Gita, for example, says, “Yoga is not for those who eat too much or those who do not eat at all. Nor is it for they who sleep too much or those who stay awake.” Buddha, after abandoning his life of pampered privilege, went to the other extreme as a forest ascetic before finally settling on what he called The Middle Way. And as Ralph Waldo Emerson famously put it: “Moderation in all things, including moderation.”
The time-honored need to maintain our balance of mind, body, and spirit has taken on new meaning in the pandemic crisis. Along with many people with whom I’ve spoken, I’m wrestling with several points of balance.
For one thing, we need to be concerned—deeply and passionately concerned—because, whatever our personal situation might be, conditions are perilous. What’s going on is deadly serious, and how dark things can get if the virus spreads rapidly in less-developed countries can only be imagined.
At the same time, we can’t let our care and concern slide into excessive fear, worry, and anxiety. Those emotions are debilitating. They cloud our judgment, leading to impulsive actions and unwise decisions. And they trigger the release of stress hormones that weaken the immune system—just when that system needs to be operating at full strength.
We also need to balance the need to tune in with the need to tune out. It’s important for our personal safety and that of our loved ones to stay on top of the latest information. But being well-informed can easily run to extremes. If we glue ourselves to news sources, flooding our minds with minor variations on the same basic information we’ve already taken in, we can run out of time to nurture ourselves and sail right into the deadly lair of overwhelm, pessimism, despair, and helplessness.
Each of us needs to find the right balance between harvesting factual news updates with silence, or our preferred spiritual practices, or simply more benign media input, whether soothing music or a rip-roaring escapist fantasy.
Another balancing act is between being confident and optimistic about our post-crisis future and being realistic about the present and the days and weeks ahead. Scientific research clearly shows optimism correlates with positive health outcomes, as well as diminished anxiety and depression. So it is not unwise to contemplate the many good things that might emerge from this unprecedented ordeal.
It is conceivable, for instance, that we’ll maintain our gratitude for people we normally take for granted but are now hailed as heroes—health care workers, supermarket clerks, delivery people, transportation workers, et al.—and maybe we’ll put our public money where our hearts are. Maybe more of us will remember what’s really important in life, and what our true sources of happiness are. Maybe the engines that drive materialism, consumerism, and outright greed will not overheat again. Maybe we’ll realize how wasteful and careless we’ve been, and how interconnected we are.
We need to hold a confident vision that the crisis will lead the way to a better future. At the same time, we can’t sugarcoat the reality before us. We need to take seriously the data-driven projections of rising death tolls and increasing hardship. We can’t rise to the occasion weighted down by denial. And there is no reason we can’t hold both realism and optimism in our awareness at the same time.
We also need to balance self-protection and compassionate engagement. For some of us—the lucky ones—sheltering in place can be a spiritual retreat. The enforced solitude is an opportunity to deepen our spiritual practices and dwell for extended periods in the sanctuary of peace within ourselves. If your circumstances allow you to treat this crisis as an extended sabbath, you are fortunate indeed. I spent most of last year working on a book called Spiritual Practice for Crazy Times, so I have enough methods for calming the mind, revitalizing the body, and soothing the soul to never run out of new ones to try.
But, while we need more than ever to turn within, it must be seen as a temporary refuge, a refueling station, not as an escape from reality. We need to remember that exercising compassion, empathy, and generosity are also spiritual practices. So is being of service to those in need—the desperate millions who don’t have the luxury of taking a sabbatical and who spend their days terrified, hungry, and grieving. We need to take care of ourselves and also do whatever we can—however small the gestures might seem—to make the world a saner place.
Finding balance isn't easy in these tightrope-walking days. When I think I might be leaning too far in one direction or another, I turn to this passage from Rumi: “Your deepest presence is in every small contracting and expanding, the two as beautifully balanced and coordinated as birds’ wings.”
Read more on dealing with coronavirus anxiety.