Where the Virus Cannot Reach
Tools for an Emergency - Blog by Piero Ferrucci
During these troublesome times I have thought of the other worldwide emergencies I have seen in my lifetime. I remember the Cuban missile crisis in 1961, when we were on the verge of a nuclear war. I was in high school, and arrived one morning to ﬁnd my classmates gathered together in small groups, chatting worriedly. I soon realized something big was happening, and a sense of gloom overcame me. Everyone in my generation remembers hearing the news that President Kennedy had been assassinated: with him, a dream also died (1963). Then there was the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia (1968) (I was at Athens airport and saw American B-52 planes doing their manoeuvres). I remember the Middle East oil crisis and the carfree Sundays (1973). After the explosion in Chernobyl, the radioactive cloud, moved around by the winds, advanced threateningly towards our continent (1986). During the Bosnian war, we saw Apache helicopters ﬂy over our heads, directed to our eastern neighbours (1995). And who will ever forget 9/11? Then came the war in Iraq for the purpose of “freeing us” from “weapons of mass destruction” (2004). 2008 saw the global ﬁnancial crisis. Later, we baked during a couple of torrid summers. Come to think of it, one positive emergency did happen: November 1989, the fall of the Berlin wall, the collapse of a division in everyone’s hearts.
In each of these emergencies (except for the positive one) I was aware that the distress was not mine alone, but everyone’s; it came as great waves of anguish in the collective unconscious, fantasies of destruction, of wars and epidemics, of ruin. It was a “primal hunger” that spurred people to empty the supermarkets; it was a terror before something inevitable, immensely stronger than each one of us. In the current case, it is the dismay before an impersonal, invisible force that advances relentlessly; worse than a science ﬁction movie. We also see the wish to immediately ﬁnd someone to blame. Such are the emotions that rage in the depths of humanity’s unconscious, that emerge with all their power, and that seep through every crack of our daily life. In thinking about emergencies, far and near, I notice that these moments have the capacity to open a window onto parts of ourselves with which we are not usually in touch. These are the ancient aspects of a humanity, which, in its history, has gone through every kind of famine, war, pestilence, and invasion. Such experiences have remained in the collective memory. And yet, as we shall see, the best in us – generous, creative tendencies – may also come to light.
The school of thought to which I belong, psychosynthesis, teaches us to see the present moment as an occasion for learning and for ﬁnding new resources. Among the complex interactions in life, the only factor we have the power to change is ourselves: what we do with our mind. Every event of every day is deﬁned and coloured by our mind. Marcus Aurelius: “Everything is but what your opinion makes it; and that opinion lies within yourself. Renounce it when you will, and at once you have rounded the foreland and all is calm; a tranquil sea, a tideless haven.”
I believe the best starting point is to acknowledge in ourselves, openly and dispassionately, our anxious reactions, our anguish for ourselves and our future, for our dear ones, and for our society. And yet we can be careful not to identify with these waves of panic and despondency. An emergency changes our relationship with others, how we feel inside our skin, how we see the future. This is not at all pleasant. But it is reality, and we had better be aware of it.
Once we have done this, we also need to look at our usual strategies for facing anxieties. Perhaps the sincerest are the “phobic”, always busy washing their hands and disinfecting their environment. Then there are the “reckless” (“it’s little more than a cold”) – who like to expose themselves more than others. The “experts” (“the percentage of fatalities is 3.4”) are thoroughly informed about everything. The “depressed” already see themselves in the intensive care unit or imagine stacked up cofﬁns. The “hopeful” sing and play from their balconies (“it’ll be OK”). The “conspiracy theorists” (“it was the CIA”) are very sure of what they say. And the “prophets” see this as a situation that will bring forth wonderful social transformations. ( I happen to see myself in more than one of these categories). These reactions are often justiﬁed and have their function; but they are also defense mechanisms that we adopt to protect ourselves from unbearable feelings.
After an honest look inside ourselves, we can turn to the more interesting part. Our compulsory withdrawal from normal living brings us face-to-face with our solitude. I think the greatest challenge in this period is that we are stuck with ourselves (many of us were already alone anyway). In solitude we can discover or rediscover various aspects, not the least our inner world. This dimension is often mistreated in contemporary life, so crowded with commitments and information. Here is the chance to win it back – a boon, because our inner world of thoughts, dreams and intuitions, is a gold mine within our grasp. Learn to be alone, and you learn to be stronger.
We can also rediscover others. I believe I can say with certitude that in these days and weeks, friends you haven’t heard from for a while have been in touch and wanted your news. We see a yearning for connection, warmth, and participation. Some feel the need to help and to contribute where possible to others’ wellbeing. Compassion and kindness, the best of human nature, make an entry. For instance, in many condominiums young people offer to do the shopping for the elderly. Then we have the Olympic champions: doctors and nurses in the trenches, and all those whose work puts them in contact with the public. For such people we cannot but have admiration and gratitude.
Often we see at work a phenomenon that has recently been studied in depth: the reaction called “tend and befriend” that arises in emergencies. In this view, two tendencies are activated in an emergency. One is that of aggressiveness: testosterone levels rise and people grow more antagonistic; the other is that of “tend and befriend”, where solidarity and sociability are activated, and oxytocin and serotonin rise. It is an ancient reaction that has enabled us to help one another survive many catastrophes. (Ref 1 - Kelly McGonigal, The Upside of Stress, Vermilion: London 2015.1)
Back to the inner world. Psychosynthesis offers many meditations and visualizations. Now is a good chance for experimenting.
Here is an easy exercise that may be useful for everyone:
Take a few deep breaths, with gratitude to your lungs for continuing their quiet work.
Bring to mind the value you hold highest, for instance: justice that we want for all, the weak or the powerful, rich or poor, and that would transform the world; beauty, which regenerates our life; friendship, which means trust and loyalty; health, not just of the body, but also of the spirit; or love, without which we cannot live. Choosing one value does not rule out the others. There is room for all of them, we simply take one at a time.
Visualize this value at the center of your being. Reﬂect on it for a few moments: how would it change your existence if this value pervaded it? For what reasons is this value so important to you? What is its promise?
Now let emerge in your consciousness an image that symbolizes this value for you. It may come from the human or natural world. Any image will do, as long as it is convincing. If it is not, allow another one to emerge. The unconscious speaks in symbols: that is its language. Receive the symbol in the ﬁeld of consciousness.
Finally, afﬁrm with an inner act of will the value you have chosen – its importance and presence in your life – so that it may inspire your behaviour and your relationships.
Values are by deﬁnition regenerating. We need them, yet we easily forget them. Studies have shown that it is enough to think of the value we hold dearest and afﬁrm it, to evoke a positive reaction in our entire organism. (Ref 2 Andrew Newberg, Mark Robert Waldman, Words Can Change Your Brain, Avery: New York, 2013.)
In our isolation we can tap into a great richness, which seems to have been waiting patiently for us. Now we can read in peace. Our reading in these last years has become fragmented, and we have lost some of the magic of in-depth reading. We have become more used to the nervous and erratic rhythm of links and hypertexts. The same can be said of music, and here, too, we have masterpieces that we can reach with a click. The great men and women who lived in other eras, in a way still live among us and guide us.
I would add that we ought to be ambitious and selective here, choose the immortal works, those that elevate us to a level where day-to-day life is a distant memory and we ﬁnd ourselves in a vaster, more luminous sphere. Enough with the incessant chatter of all that distracts us from the essential! Read, for example, The Odyssey, or Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, or Plato’s Republic, or the Bhagavad Gita, or the Tao Te Ching. Listen to Bach and Mozart. Or Beethoven: “Music is the one incorporeal entrance into the higher world of knowledge.” (Ref 3 - Bettina Von Arnim, letter to Goethe, in: Marion M. Scott, Beethoven, Dent and Sons: London, 1934. )
These are merely possibilities: each to his or her tastes. If you prefer Ravel, listen to, and watch, Benedetti Michelangeli play the adagio of the Concerto in G major (a suggestion only): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=penNqSSZTIs You can visit museums from home – without the crowds and their cell phones. Would you like to see The Hermitage? https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=49YeFsx1rIw.
How about the Sistine Chapel?
It’s easy: click here
Here is the Prado:
Psychosynthesis, says that there is a part of us, the nucleus we call the Self, which is untouched by the ﬂow of thoughts and feelings. Sensations, states of mind, images, and desires alternate and ﬁght for prevalence in a continuous phantasmagoria. But our center, our Self, remains always the same. It is to the Self that we need to return, because it is the apex of our being. There we are safe, protected, through all the events of human life. At the cost of opening myself to protest or irony, I feel like saying that there the virus cannot reach. This way invites us to ﬁnd and train the capacity to distance ourselves from the ﬂow of our experiences. We identify with anxiety, terror, the darkest fantasies, and are overwhelmed by them. We detach from them, and we are free. (To learn more about this subject, consult the various books on Psychosynthesis.) At a more basic level, this capacity has been shown by various recent studies.
One, for example (Ref 4) , divides people into “Velcro” and “Teﬂon” types. The Velcros 4 attach themselves to and identify with their emotions and ideas, and cannot free themselves of them; the Teﬂons are able to let go, and allow everything to ﬂow. Guess who is better off.
Ref 4 0 Piazza, J.R. et al., “Affective reactivity to daily stressors and long-term risks of reporting a chronic physical health 4 condition”Ann Behav Med. 2013 Feb;45(1):110-20. doi: 10.1007/s12160-012-9423-0.
Written by Piero Ferrucci