We’re all having to learn — fast — to get used to uncertainty and unpredictability. We might even discover there are gifts in these strange times.
“Times of crisis, of disruption or constructive change, are not only predictable, but desirable. They mean growth. Taking a new step, uttering a new word, is what people fear most.” — Fyodor Dostoevsky
Many tribal societies have a rite of passage that marks the transition from childhood into maturity. If you’ve watched Bruce Parry’s Tribe, you will know that rites can be bizarre, involving hallucinogens, poisons, bodily scarring, piercings, jumping off high platforms, and various other forms of unpleasantness.
They also often include seclusion. Whatever the details of the ritual, they all involve some kind of overcoming our natural inclinations, doing something we’d rather not do in order to prove discipline, courage, and commitment to the tribe.
I’m sure you see where I’m going with this. Self-isolation, whether voluntary or enforced, is generally something we’d rather not do, but we do it anyway, out of consideration for the greater good of our community.
The origin of the word quarantine comes from the Italian quaranta giorni, meaning “space of forty days”. Sounds a bit biblical, doesn’t it? Jesus spent forty days and forty nights being tempted by the devil in the desert. That’s why Lent in the Christian calendar is forty days long, and it’s traditional to give up a favourite thing that we find tempting. Moses hung out and fasted for forty days before coming back with the ten commandments. Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, Rastafarians, and Mormons also have spiritual practices around solitude and fasting.
In other words, all kinds of cultures have concluded that some kind of temporary self-deprivation, whether of food, comfort, or company, is good for the soul.
Richard Rohr, the wonderfully wise Franciscan friar and author, has studied male initiation rites around the world, and writes:
“I perceived five consistent lessons or truths communicated to the initiate, meant to separate initiates from their attachment to who they think they are and reattach them to who they really are.
These five essential messages of initiation are:
1. Life is hard.
2. You are not important.
3. Your life is not about you.
4. You are not in control.
5. You are going to die.”
If that all seems rather depressing, he goes on:
“None of this is easy work. We typically want to flee from our current anxiety, grief and pain, but I encourage you to stay with these messages. They are truths for your soul that can help you find meaning and a sense of God’s compassionate presence inside of the chaos.”
The Ego-Mind’s Temper Tantrums
Based on my experience, I would agree. It sucks at the time, but what doesn’t kill us definitely makes us stronger, and less beholden to the ego pulling us this way and that, wanting to get its desires met.
It’s really hard, though, because the ego-mind likes to get its way, especially when it is used to having what it wants, when it wants. It might react like a spoiled child, throwing a temper tantrum and stamping its foot.
It also likes certainty, and dislikes change. The mind’s job is to keep us safe, and its best strategy is to keep us doing the same things we’ve always done, because you never know — something new might kill you. So it tends to freak out when everything that used to represent normality suddenly gets swept aside.
But there is a great gift in these times. Deepak Chopra calls it the fertile void of uncertainty, a beautiful phrase meaning that we’ve been jolted off the usual train tracks of our lives, and anything could happen. Instead of seeing it as a time of deprivation, we can choose to see it as an unexpected sabbatical, and a chance to decide whether we want to get back on the same train tracks once the crisis is over.
“Uncertainty is fearful to the ego, which always wants to control reality, but from the viewpoint of detachment, a constantly shifting and changing universe must remain uncertain. If things were certain, there could be no creativity. Therefore spirit works through surprises and unexpected outcomes. We achieve peace of mind only when we accept the wisdom of uncertainty.” — Deepak Chopra
And here is another beneficial aspect of solitude: we spend so much of our lives being influenced by other people’s expectations of us — parents, friends, colleagues, spouse, even advertisers are trying to tell us how to live our lives. When we’re in that liminal alone-place, we have a chance to figure out who we want to be. Whole new realms of possibility open up to us.
It’s really up to you — you can choose just to get through these strange times, or you can choose to make the most of the opportunity for a reset.
Taking the Red Pill
When I went out onto the ocean, I also faced this choice. I could have treated it like a job — show up, do the work/rowing, achieve goal, go back to life as it was before. But I wanted more than that. My previous life hadn’t been working so well, and I’d started to figure some things out before I set out to sea, but I knew there I had a lot more potential still to be fulfilled. I wanted to be transformed by the experience. I felt like Neo in The Matrix, about to take the red pill, knowing that life would never be the same again.
“This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill — the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill — you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.” — Morpheus, The Matrix
I should have been more careful what I wished for. I’d heard the stories about previous ocean rowers running out of food, or being attacked by sharks, or having to drink their own urine when their water supplies got contaminated by seawater. I had a strange (and, as it turns out, delusional) sense of smugness that none of these fates would befall me — and they didn’t, but lots of other misadventures did, like both my watermakers failing at the same time, a broken finger, a coastguard airlift, and my boat capsizing numerous times.
Here’s the strange thing — I had somehow imagined that I could be changed without actually having to let go of anything. But that isn’t the way it works. Something always has to die to make way for the new to be born. Something has to be lost for something else to be found. You can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs, and you can’t find your true self without breaking open the protective shell of the ego.
The ocean stripped away my old identity, as it also stripped away many of the things that I would once have deemed essential. Comfort, company, entertainment, and communication were shown to be optional luxuries, at the same time as an intense learning curve took me onto a higher plane of self-knowledge, wisdom, and understanding.
None of that was easy, and if I had known it was going to turn out that way, I’m not sure I could have found the courage to leave the harbour. But in retrospect, I am so grateful for it all — the good, the bad, and the miserable.
In fact, I am grateful especially for the bad and the miserable. I’m not a masochist, honestly, but I do like to feel a sense that I’m growing as a person, and although it may be possible to grow in times of ease, times of difficulty fast-track the process massively.
I wouldn’t call myself a Buddhist, although I have read quite a lot about Buddhism, and what I know resonates with me very much. I especially agree with the philosophy that we in the western traditions are much too quick to label experiences as good or bad, usually meaning “comfortable, and I want more of this feeling” or “uncomfortable, and I want less of this feeling”. But actually, it’s the uncomfortable experiences that expand our horizons.
Getting Comfortable with the Discomfort Zone
I figured this out one day, much like any other at sea, when I was about halfway through my third rowing shift. My inner dialogue was extremely negative that day, obsessing about how uncomfortable everything was. Tendinitis making my shoulder-blades creak, saltwater sores making me feel like I was sitting on razor blades, mouldy sleeping bag, constant soakings… all so very, unbearably, uncomfortable.
Then, suddenly, I remembered that I had been glibly saying, when people asked me why I wanted to row across oceans, that I had been saying I wanted to get outside my comfort zone. And, by definition, getting outside my comfort zone was going to be uncomfortable. So in fact I was manifesting precisely what I’d wanted.
That single insight completely flipped my suffering on its head. I was no longer a victim of this situation — I had chosen it. Discomfort was no longer something to be lamented — it was something to be welcomed.
“The shell must break before the bird can fly.” — Alfred Tennyson
When you read Richard Rohr’s five essential messages of initiation, how do they make you feel? Take each one individually — can you feel truth in it, or does it bring up a lot of resistance? What is the nature of the resistance? Or does it feel more like relief?
What is your ego-mind unhappy about in your current situation? What had you wanted or expected, that you’re not getting? Can you let go of your attachment to what you had wished for, and go with what you’ve got instead?
If you choose to see these times, not as a disruption to your plans, but as an opportunity for a reset, how does that make you feel — better, or worse? What if you looked on your current situation not as a hassle/stress/catastrophe, but as an invitation to grow? What if it doesn’t make you a victim, but makes you more powerful?
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And stay safe, sane, and as happy as you can in these interesting times.