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COVID19: From Uncertainty and Vulnerability to Compassion

Skills to help you understand and transform difficult emotions.

Source: Ravi Chandra/Adobe Stock
Source: Ravi Chandra/Adobe Stock

This is an unprecedented time of uncertainty, precarity, vulnerability, and anxiety. I recently spoke with a group of friends from around the country, several of whom were health care providers—and though we all were able to ask the right questions, it’s clear that no one had "the answers" yet. There are a lot of unknowns. On my recent “Contagious Compassion Zoom Session” ( more free sessions scheduled in upcoming weeks ), there were participants from California, Washington, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, and other states. Some were from France and New Zealand. This is a global situation. We’re all going through difficulty and distress. How to understand and frame this situation? How might we use this opportunity to grow, perhaps even into what former Surgeon General Vivek Murthy calls a “people-centered society”?

Uncertainty, precarity, vulnerability, anxiety, anger, frustration ... So many emotions, all of them perfectly understandable. We get to our feelings honestly. What I’m reminded of is that we are all getting a perhaps small taste of what refugees experience, what people enduring war experience, what the poor around the world experience. We’ve all lost our sense of normality. Life has been disrupted. We may see scarcity like we’ve never seen before, with empty store shelves and ER doctors pleading for protective personal equipment. We, like a displaced person, may feel mistrust of authorities or anger. I don’t want to dramatize this too much, but in a sense we’ve all lost our feeling of society, and even sense of country, or what our countries were. On a basic level, we’ve been uprooted. It’s not a far leap to imagine what someone uprooted from family and community, what someone who becomes stateless, experiences.

We’ve all been reminded of the reality of the human condition. We are all vulnerable. Life is uncertain and temporary. We are all deeply dependent on each other. We are dependent on grocery stores and pharmacies, and the people who work in them. We are deeply dependent on functioning health care systems, where they exist, and all the people who have worked hard to maintain them. We are dependent on public health systems, and public health care workers. We are dependent on the earth, the weather, the animals, the trees, the ocean, and forest. Even in isolation, we are always intimate with the effects that others produce.

Feeling our uncertainty and vulnerability, we can go down different paths. We might go down the path of fear and reactivity. Totally understandable. We might take the option of power and control, and even develop a “power complex,” thinking we can erase our vulnerability by having power over others. This might make us feel strong, at least temporarily. Again, it’s understandable. There is a third option available. We can realize that our vulnerability and uncertainty links us with all of humanity, and all of life. We can develop compassion for ourselves, and compassion for others. We can deepen our experience of interdependence.

That’s the challenge that we have right now. In addition to the concrete challenge of caring for our physical bodies and communities, we have the challenge of caring for our emotional needs. This can create the opportunity for growth. I invite you to use this time to learn about yourself, and use this difficulty to cultivate compassion, mindfulness, and relationship to yourself and others.

It all depends on what you bring to this moment. I’ve described our difficulty and some difficult emotions. By noticing and naming these emotions, you can be with them. There’s a difference between being an emotion, being caught up in its story, and being with an emotion. Mindfulness helps us create an observer awareness of our inner life. Mindfulness is defined as “awareness of present experience with acceptance.” The other components of self-compassion are cultivating a sense of common humanity—and a sense of kindness towards oneself.

You might have heard of the word umami. Umami is the "fifth flavor"—with bitter, salty, sweet and sour. Umami is the fifth taste, described as a tanginess or savoriness. It’s the flavor that makes food more tasty and delicious. I like to describe lovingkindness (or friendliness) and compassion as the “umami” of the inner life. Friendliness and compassion are the extra flavor that make our inner lives and our relatedness more tasty and delicious. Friendliness and compassion are the umami of the inner life. We might have fear, anxiety, anger, irritation, boredom, despair, and so on—but if we can add the umami of friendliness and compassion, we can make the experience tolerable, and even learn from it.

These difficult emotions can be viewed as what ancient Buddhist scholar Shantideva called “treasures appearing on your doorstep, for they can assist you in the conduct of your awakening.”

We are all suffering, and we all wish for happiness and well-being. How do we define happiness and well-being? We can get attached to houses, possessions, and status, particularly if we live in a Western, materialistic world, but after meeting certain basic requirements, these do not produce lasting satisfaction and happiness. This has been backed up by research. Where does happiness come from? Meeting goals. A sense of purpose in life. Relationships. Certainly, all of these.

I define happiness as "increasing capacity to deal with the distress of life." You might still feel distress, but you can appreciate yourself for coping with it.

There are two techniques I’d like to share for helping you develop this increased capacity to deal with distress.

Mindful Self-Compassion Break

The first is the mindful self-compassion break, derived from the work of Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer. I really recommend taking the full MSC class. I offer this in San Francisco, and the Center for Mindful Self Compassion offers it online as well. But the MSC break will help you interrupt the negative story that difficult emotions like to tell. It consists of three parts.

  1. Mindfulness: Noticing that “this is a moment of suffering”—this hurts.
  2. Common Humanity: Suffering is a part of life. I’m not alone. Others feel this too.
  3. Self-Kindness: In this moment of suffering, may I at least be kind to myself.

Investigate your difficult emotion with kindness

The other important awareness is to explore your difficult emotion or moment with kindness. For example, we might notice irritation with a spouse, or even a patient, or a stranger. Underneath our difficult emotion, there are soft emotions—such as fear, anxiety, sadness, longing, loneliness and so forth. And underneath these emotions, there is a need that isn’t being met. Is it a need for respect, appreciation, validation? Safety, control? So often it’s a need for love. After we identify our needs, we can validate them, and hold them with compassion and tenderness, even as we realize that our needs are often not totally met. Even in a fantastic relationship, our needs for love, safety, belonging, respect, etc.—might only be met 90% or 95% of the time. There’s always a gap that we notice between our need and what’s available in our environment. Self-compassion helps us care for ourselves when our needs aren’t being met.

If you’d like to hear more of the Contagious Compassion Zoom sessions, watch these videos. (The first listed was transformed into this post.) You can also find them as podcasts on SoundCloud , Stitcher , and iTunes .

Contagious Compassion #2 Vulnerability and Uncertainty during COVID19

Contagious Compassion #1 Settling the Mind, Transforming the Breath (Meditation)

Contagious Compassion #3 Active Compassion (Tonglen)

(c) 2020 Ravi Chandra, M.D., D.F.A.P.A.

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