In the last week of March, having shown my first signs of COVID, I wrote my spiritual director to postpone our appointment. He wrote back something no one else said: â€œMay this be a challenging and deepening time for you.â€
Not everyoneâ€™s idea of comfort words. But he was right. The time did challenge, and it did deepen. Hereâ€™s one thing I learned and have come to cherish: the simple artâ€”long known to many people with chronic conditionsâ€”of figuring out who you are on any given day.
Learning this was not exactly a choice. While fully recovered from acute COVID, Iâ€™m still fighting two symptoms common in the aftermath: severe fatigue and cognitive issues, especially reduced attention span. These come and go as they please. This past Saturday I could barely put two thoughts together. On Sunday my brain was clear.
Because of the sudden swings in this condition, I have to devote part of my brain to simply observing whatâ€™s going on with me, what I can do and what I canâ€™t, day by day and sometimes minute by minute.
The variations in my condition go way beyond I feel tired or I donâ€™t feel tired. On Saturday, even with the dense brain fog, I quickly found I could focus on one task at a time when it was right in front of me. In between tasks, I was lost in the fog. So I managed to move myself through paying bills, turning the compost pile, mowing the lawn.
On another day, I scanned the paper over morning coffee, as always, and found I couldnâ€™t read everything I wanted to. A little voice went off in my head: thatâ€™s enough of this story. I went with it. I had to.
My life situation gives me a lot of schedule flexibility, so I have the privilege of ample time to observe myself. That may enable the weird sense of adventure Iâ€™m feeling about all this. Itâ€™s interesting to have to ask, Who will I be today? What can I do? How will COVID redraw my limitations at this moment, and this moment, and this moment? Â
A couple of people have told me Iâ€™m a â€œgood personâ€ for â€œtaking a positive attitude.â€ Honestly, I havenâ€™t taken any attitude at all. Itâ€™s arisen on its own. And I think my experience with contemplationâ€”in this case, with Zenâ€”has a lot to do with it.
Zen insists on attention to the present moment. It also asserts the idea of no-selfâ€”that there is no fixed, permanent self at our core. The way I read that, it gives me the freedom to adjust to anything â€œmeâ€-related on the fly. Zen doesnâ€™t allow me to get caught up in â€œI canâ€™t do thatâ€ or â€œthatâ€™s just not meâ€ or even â€œI was able to do this yesterday, why not today?â€ I have only the present to assess, and I can assess it (on my good days) without clinging to preconceived notions.
Lord knows, not everyone with COVID has the luxury of doing this. Still, I get excited when I see the fruit of my spiritual practice in everyday life. It reminds me that some of the worldâ€™s most celebrated mystics were eminently practical people. Thatâ€™s no accident. Far from â€œuseless navel gazing,â€ contemplation brings us deep into God, into Reality, into the Ground of All Being, and then sends us back out, refreshed, to bear fruit in the â€œreal world.â€