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Sarah Lipton

Sarah Lipton

Facing the Fear of Death Head-On in the Pandemic of Panic

hands of fear

Photo by M.T ElGassier on Unsplash

“Now is a make or break moment for the human race,” my friend Janice says.

“I’m worried about going in to work tonight at the hospital–they aren’t sure they have enough supplies for us to stay protected. I’m worried I’ll be walking into a war zone,” my cousin Joe in London texts me.

“I’m scared of being alone for a whole month,” my cousin Claire tells me.

“My boss is asking me to consider firing people to save our company at this crucial moment and that does not align with any of our core values,” my client says shakily on our phone call.

“I am stuck on vacation and can’t figure out where to go to have my baby–do I risk going back home or do I stay here?” my friend Ang anguishes.

“It turns out I’m on the front lines with this new job. I’m at least able to bring some semblance of calm into work with me because of all my meditative background, but my department serves the elderly, the toddlers, the homeless. What are we supposed to do right now?” my dear friend Martina asks.

I turn inwards for a moment, in the midst of all of these voices. My heart is pulled in 10,000 directions. My Nepali friends are safe, I checked. My business colleague in Indonesia is doing fine. My close business partner in Brazil assures me he’s safe, and I know he’s working hard to support the sanity of everyone around him. My brother might be stuck in Utah with his vacation…but I know that he’s at least safe.

It’s an unprecedented time.

My children are home now for the duration and so I snag this rare and precious quiet moment to reflect and write. What strikes my heart the most in this moment is that our human race is having to face the reality of the fear of death, en-masse, for the first time in this generation.

Weirdly, this is something I happen to have expertise in. You can’t sit on a meditation cushion for over twenty years and not come away with a deep understanding of how to work with the mind in the face of fear, in the face of the inevitability of death.

The mantra I want to shout from rooftops for all of you to hear and hold at the center of your hearts right now is this:

How you work with your mind will determine your experience of this moment.

Fear is the tightening sensation we turn to in the face of uncertainty. It’s the necessary protection mechanism built-in to our bodies to ensure survival. It’s very helpful, but it is never the whole story.

When we believe the story of fear, however, we escalate it. We turn a global pandemic into an opportunity to panic. We let it uproot us, and we either turn to panic-shopping to hoard food for the apocalypse, or we push others out of the way so we can get the protective gear that will keep us “safe.”

The thing causing the most harm in this moment, on a global scale, is panic.

Yes, the virus is scary, uncomfortable, and can be deadly. But we’ve all ridden through colds and flus and viruses before, and our scientists have already told us how to stay healthy.

What I’m worried about is the pandemic of panic.

At the root of the fear of COVID-19, I believe, is the underlying fear of death.

Yikes! I said it!

But, as the ancient Four Reminders from Tibetan Buddhism tell us, “Death comes without warning; this body will be a corpse.” This supreme contemplation of the truth of impermanence, we think, will just depress us, confuse us, obscure our fleeting attempts at “happiness,” and so “why bother,” we think.

Our material attachment to this state of being (alive) and therefore the consumeristic drive to satisfy our human desires ultimately leads us to dis-satisfaction. Because in the end, there is an end. Because in the end, we can’t hold on to permanence–because there is no such thing.

Contemplating the vivid truth of impermanence–the reality of death–however, ultimately frees us from the fear of death.

When we actually sit with the fluidity and movement of life (try really looking at the movement of the seasons, the flux of the temperatures, the transitions of dead-looking tree to bud to flower to leaf to apple…), we see the constancy of change. When we see the constancy of change in our own bodies, we can settle our minds in the midst of the change. (Every night, the system’s theorists say, our skin changes and we wake up in a new skin every morning; and if that’s too crazy for you, just watch the process of a child growing and changing every day.)

Every single moment gives us an opportunity to take a deep breath and be present with whatever is going on around us.

I’ll say it again: how you work with your mind in this moment will determine your experience of this moment.

It is, therefore, up to you how to work with your own mind in the face of the fear and panic obscuring and changing our society right now.

Here’s how I choose to work with my mind:

• Take a few deep breaths. Breathing in, I calm my body. Breathing out, I let go of the tight sensations of fear. Breathing in, I settle my mind into the visceral sensation of the body breathing. Breathing out, I radiate a sensation of ease and peace. Breathing in, I am simply here. Breathing out, I open.

• From this space of openness in mind, body and heart, I bring to mind the word death. And, if that’s too direct for comfort, you can start with a simpler word: transition, sickness, or whatever word is currently causing you to panic. I hold the word in my heart as I breathe in and out, calmly feeling the sensations that arise in contemplation of this challenging concept.

• Stay with yourself here. If you notice that your mind is beginning to wander, or it is “too hard” to stay with this contemplation, just come back to the breath. And, when you are ready, gently place your attention once again on the object of your meditation, which here, is a contemplation of the root of fear.

• Breathing into the space of inquiry, I let myself expand into connection with the concept of death. See if you can let your mind open to the questions that might be arising: what is an ending, anyway? Why is it scary? What does it feel like to contemplate my own death? What are the physical sensations arising in my body right now in this very moment?

• Without judging my experience of this moment, I gently thank myself for taking this time. I then gently release the practice and open back out to the environment around me. Gently wiggle your body and come back into this very moment.

I now often choose to take a few moments to journal about my experience or at least create some more space for further reflection. Perhaps you have some extra time at home with the kids, like I do. Perhaps you want to spend some time together doing some art about how this moment feels?

Collage is a great way to play in the space of inquiry.

Gather your favorite magazines (that you don’t mind cutting up), get some glue or tape, and strew everything around on the table. Let yourself (and guide your kids) to pause before you put something on the paper. Let yourself connect to how you actually feel in this moment, and then let yourself be drawn towards a color or shape or texture and place it on your blank paper. Keep going by how it feels, as opposed to how you think it should look.

Let your creation be an expression of the meditation we did above, and I guarantee you will learn something new about how you feel.

Let your mind open into the vastness of space and I guarantee you will find out so much more about how you feel in this general moment.

Give yourself numerous opportunities to come back to these kind of simple moments for “practice” in opening to the wider reality of blue sky, snow melting, spring buds popping, wind rising, storms lashing, moon soaring, hawks diving, water lapping, and I guarantee you will be panicking less.

The more we train ourselves in coming back to the present moment, the more resourced we are to deal with something as intense and weirdly personal as a global pandemic.

For the sake of all of us right now, we need as many humans as possible to slow down and feel. We need as much kindness as possible, and that has to start with ourselves.

For more instruction on how to Lean into Fear in this moment, please join me at GENUINE! It just so happens that I already have this workshop ready to help you navigate this crazy moment. If you have friends who are truly panicking right now, send them to us - we can help!!