(This article is by guest writer Leigh Anderson. For a short bio, see below.)
Living through our current environment of chaos has left me feeling shell-shocked and numb. We are in an election year, and it’s normal to be bombarded by constant political ads. The candidates try to outdo each other in their sensationalism. When you add to that a pandemic where you can’t get consistent leadership messages, you become numb to hearing any public messages. But what happens when that avoidance includes not hearing internal messages from your own body.
I learned to turn off the news over the past few years. The same sensational stories are repeated over and over again. It’s not the stimulus I need or want. I rarely watch anything on television unless I can ensure there won’t be too many ads during that time. Since we are living through a pandemic, I practice social distancing, but even when I must go out in public I avoid even simple conversations with people I don’t know because I’m afraid of the direction they may take. Avoidance has become a way of self-survival.
I live in self-induced isolation and spend most of my days away from others. I thought I was equipped well for this pandemic. But recently I’ve noted that my emotions seem to be slowly fading away. When I awake in the morning, I’ve lost the energy that had me getting out of bed to get started on what I have planned for the day. I’ve lost my creative energy. It seems to be an unanticipated side effect of the chaotic world we live in. I don’t find joy in things even when I know I should. I’m not finding life very spiritual.
I spent a day outside recently. The sky was clear and beautiful. Autumn was just starting to show its colors. I watched leaves fall from the top of the large Sweetgum trees. The fall bird migration had started, and the millet field was recently cut. There were beautiful goldfinches everywhere. I saw a brilliant shot of blue when a blue bird landed. Bluebirds don’t live here, so seeing the shock of blue feathers and the red breast should have been a trigger for me to pull out my camera and attempt a photo. But I watched for a moment and then looked away. I heard a great horned owl across from me. A red-shouldered hawk landed in a tree to watch the field for rodents.
I watched a vulture fly low over me and land on a barren tree for a minute before starting his circular ascent to heights unknown. I knew in my mind I was lucky to have this time to notice what was going on in my world. I told myself that I should be grateful I can spend a day enjoying this scene. But my heart was missing the feeling of being fulfilled that comes with being fully in the moment. That’s when it hit me. This should be a spiritual experience, but I haven’t felt fully in the moment for a few months. I feel I’m losing my spiritual side through my lack of emotions.
Outside nature provided a perfect day for me. Inside I felt like an empty receptacle. Not an angry receptacle or a happy one. Just empty. How do I get past the numbness? What do I do to find happiness and joy again?
Everything that happens during this current time is unexpected. We’ve never lived through times like these before. You can’t plan extensively for anything because things change so often. It’s hard to set up expectations for the unexpected. I thought about how grateful I should be for everything. And I was grateful. In my mind. But there was no emotion in my gratitude. There was no happiness or joy. I can’t be the only one who feels this way. Each day there is one more disaster. The emotional roller coaster has left us numb. Devoid of emotions. Empty.
Does it matter if the emotions and feelings aren’t there? How do I get back to normal? The world will never be the same, so does normal for me now have a new meaning?
In her article on The Purpose of Emotion, Katherine Peil-Kauffman posits that “emotion emerged as a primal sensibility that serves the vital purpose of self-regulation.” It would seem that a lack of emotion would be detrimental to our basic survival instincts. We consider emotional numbness a symptom for several medical conditions, including depression. It can cause a sense of isolation or emotional disconnect from the rest of the world.
What can you do to help emotions flow freely again? There are guides and guided meditations on learning to listen to your emotions. How do you listen to numbness? It may be hard to go deeper when you are trying to break through an unseen barrier.
Some things I found that have helped me are:
Keeping a feelings journal. What emotion is prevalent? Are you angry or sad or hopeful? Write about it. Write until you break through the surface of numbness. What are you eating? Have you changed your diet recently? Are there other things like food that may contribute to an imbalance in your body?
Taking a walk. A long walk. Notice what you feel when you are moving compared to when you are still. When you move your body can’t be quiet. You are loosening muscles that have become stiff and numb, or you are deepening any pains that you might have overlooked. Listen to your body.
Performing an emotional awareness meditation to realize what a lack of emotion may do to your body. Notice the parts of your body that may feel numb. There is a difference between feeling numb and feeling normal. Have you been overlooking a problem just because it hasn’t been causing serious pain? Is there any connection between the numbness in your body and your lack of emotion?
The emotional journal helped me realize that I am not numb. I go through emotions, but they seem to be a quick reaction to something. It alarmed me that someone walked up to me without a mask and didn’t observe social distancing. I was angry when my dog curbed her boredom by chewing on the seat in the car. I laughed when my granddaughter told me a joke. And I felt a bit of pride when I walked a 5K race with my daughters and wasn’t quite as winded as they were at the finish line. In Spirituality and Emotion, Thomas Schenk discusses interpreting what we feel and expressing our emotions through words. An emotional journal is a good way to do this.
Doing the emotional awareness meditation helped me to realize that even though I thought the emotions were absent, they were still there, even if they were in a diminished state. Your body and your emotions both carry information made available to you through listening, and the emotional awareness meditation helps you listen and realize this information is available.
Being mindful of my emotions and noticing them as they come forward has helped me realize that when things change outside, they are inevitably going to change inside, too. It’s becoming easier to identify my emotions and notice what they are communicating to me about my current state of being. Over the past few days I feel both emotions and my spirituality returning, little by little. They are connected and the more I notice them, the more they increase.
Chaos and change are guaranteed in this world. Even when we think we are dealing with it well, there are subtle changes that we may miss. We need to pay more attention to our body, our emotions and our spirituality during these times before they, too, become numb to the chaos.
The Spiritual Naturalist Society works to spread awareness of spiritual naturalism as a way of life, develop its thought and practice, and help bring together like-minded practitioners in fellowship.