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: “May this be a challenging and deepening time for you.”

Not everyone’s idea of comfort words. But he was right. The time did challenge, and it did deepen. Here’s one thing I learned and have come to cherish: the simple art—long known to many people with chronic conditions—of figuring out who you are on any given day.

Learning this was not exactly a choice. While fully recovered from acute COVID, I’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 what’s going on with me, what I can do and what I can’t, day by day and sometimes minute by minute.

The variations in my condition go way beyond I feel tired or I don’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 couldn’t read everything I wanted to. A little voice went off in my head: that’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 I’m feeling about all this. It’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?  

A couple of people have told me I’m a “good person” for “taking a positive attitude.” Honestly, I haven’t taken any attitude at all. It’s arisen on its own. And I think my experience with contemplation—in this case, with Zen—has a lot to do with it.

Zen insists on attention to the present moment. It also asserts the idea of no-self—that there is no fixed, permanent self at our core. The way I read that, it gives me the freedom to adjust to anything “me”-related on the fly. Zen doesn’t allow me to get caught up in “I can’t do that” or “that’s just not me” or even “I was able to do this yesterday, why not today?” 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 world’s most celebrated mystics were eminently practical people. That’s no accident. Far from “useless navel gazing,” 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 “real world.”