A Spiritual Exercise During the Pandemic to Avoid Anxiety
Practicing suspension can help with anxiety and frustration.
Posted Jan 04, 2021
In this moment of global crisis, we are all called to learn an important spiritual practice called suspension which can enrich our life.
This practice can be explained through the beautiful words of T. S. Eliot:
"I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope
For hope would be hope for the wrong thing; wait without love,
For love would be love of the wrong thing; there is yet faith
But the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought:
So the darkness shall be the light, and the stillness the dancing."
– T. S. Eliot, East Coker
We must learn how to suspend our lives and the expectations that we naturally project on it. If suspension is not performed, then we might incur a great deal of anxiety and frustration which, clearly, will not contribute to our well-being.
What does suspension mean?
In ancient philosophy, skeptics used the word suspension (epoché) to literally indicate parenthesis.
This exercise became popular again during the years preceding the first World War. Exercising suspension means to put in parenthesis our judgment, expectations, hopes, projections in relation to what we are living so that we look at what we have for what it is and with higher clarity. Suspending our pre-judgment about how our life should be is a useful exercise to avoid feeling drained and frustrated when the expectations are not met.
Suspension during the pandemic
During this pandemic, many of my clients have felt very frustrated about how their life looks as if they have not been doing enough or their past choices have been a failure or their lives are a failure. They think that it was the pandemic to finally shed light on all these flaws.
The fact is that this pandemic light is much darker than the light we were used to. It is illuminating our lives barely enough to see what’s next. Hence, expecting to see things clearly through this light is already a set-up for anxiety and low moods.
Applying suspension can help us not only today to deal with this state of uncertainty but also in the future to be kinder toward ourselves and others when we cannot see well. I will explain why…
Practicing suspension: looking at life with no expectations
When we look at an object we never see the full thing because we perceive this object according to the perspective from which we are looking at it—the full picture we have in mind is the fruit of an intuition. It is very difficult in daily life to get the full picture of all the objects we interact with. It is this intuition that allows us to see in toto what we are looking at.
For example, if I see the cup as it is sitting on my desk, I see this cup from my angle. I might be able to see its color and shape. Yet, certainly, I cannot see how this cup looks from behind. I can just imagine how this cup looks from behind thanks to my past memories and my rationally based expectations of how this cup should look like.
If the behind of this cup would cease to exist or it would be a dog, I would feel quite startled—to say the least.
Now, let’s apply this to our lives
In life, we tend to approach people, relationships, and future plans in the same way.
When we meet someone whom we do not know, we tend to gain the full picture of that person based on our past experiences with people similar to them and the personal expectations we build on our experience. Or, when we plan something, we expect that the plan would pan out in a certain way because we solve its intrinsic incognita on the basis of our past memories and experiences.
Whenever the expectations of the full picture are not met, then we feel startled and disappointed.
Especially during this pandemic, it is very easy for us to feel as startled about our plans and our lives as we would if we discovered that the behind of our cup is a dog. In this unprecedented moment, we cannot rely on rational expectations about our lives because we do not have personal memories of what it means to live through a pandemic.
Phenomenology tells us that for difficult things in life we should learn to use suspension (epoche). To suspend the expectations of what we do not know yet would allow us to gather better information about what we are experiencing at the moment. When the unknown is too wide — as it is when meeting a new person or living through a pandemic — we cannot rely on our past memories; thus, we cannot build reasonable expectations. We need to suspend our judgment and just observe to gather more information.
We are living in a moment in which — metaphorically speaking — behind "that cup" there is very often instability and sometimes death. It is very exhausting for our brain to entertain so many unknowns at once because it deprives us of the full picture over and over again.
To avoid falling into self-destructive mechanisms in which we rush to disparaging judgments that force our lives into a dim but full picture, we might practice epoche so to ease any frustration or anxiety.
Wait without thought, for you are not ready for thought
For this reason, I believe that suspension is the best way to avoid this exhausting mechanism to occur. As T. S. Eliot poetically put it, we need to wait without thinking because we are not ready for thinking. We cannot use our past to project plans into the future because this moment is unprecedented; the memories we are creating now are brand new.
The time will come for which darkness will be light again and will show us the full luminous picture of our lives.
Stay strong and safe. We are almost through.