Blog: Look for the Blessings

Blog: Look for the Blessings

By Joanna Adler, PsyD, CHT

Editors’ Note: Joanna Adler, PsyD, CHT is a licensed clinical psychologist and certified Depth Hypnosis Practitioner. Joanna is the moderator of Mamas Resource Network in San Francisco, and the Founder of the Marin Perinatal and Parenting Group. She teaches on the national level and in the Bay Area on issues related to perinatal mental health, and the spiritual path of service called parenting. Joanna has a private practice in San Francisco and San Rafael, California.

In Isa Gucciardi’s upcoming book on Tara and the Sacred Feminine, she recounts a story told by the Tibetan Buddhist teacher Bokar Rinpoche about his flight from Chinese occupation in 1959. He was only 18 years old when he had to make the dangerous crossing of the Himalaya mountains with a group of 60 others. Early in the trip, the group asked for a divination from the Tibetan goddess Tara to help them plan their escape. They were told unequivocally they were not to take the easy route, but instead they were to travel over a steep mountain pass where if it snowed, the journey would be quite difficult.

They did indeed encounter a snowstorm, and were told by a group of nomads that they were being pursued closely by Chinese troops as they attempted the high pass. They lost many of their belongings down the mountainside as the pack animals struggled and lost their footing in the deep snow. The snow blinded them, and yet they had no choice but to push on. In the end, they made it safely over the pass and into Nepal.

The next morning, they realized that without the blinding snowstorm, they would have most certainly been apprehended. Word came that the Chinese troops pursuing them had been stymied by the snow and had hunkered down on the Tibetan side of the pass. As Bokar Rinpoche said, “If the snow had not fallen, or had fallen slightly earlier or slightly later, we might have been caught. We could not help thinking that this timely snowstorm had been Tara’s blessing.”

I love this story so much, and it dawned on me recently that it offers us a possible template for navigating this strange and difficult time we are having with the COVID-19 pandemic. One in which we can work to understand our responses to these difficult times and be curious about any surprising blessings that may be embedded in this experience that we might not have seen before.

The template goes something like this.

The snowstorm created tremendous difficulty for the fleeing Tibetans, and in the moment of enduring this great ordeal, the group was not aware of the blessing the snowstorm was offering. But knowing that many of the people in this escape party were monks, we know their mindfulness practice was strong. We know they were working to be present with all of what was happening, and we know they were seeking support from Tara to help them stay steady on their journey and arrive safely.

So, let’s unpack this a bit. Let’s look at what it really takes to be present with our experience and access resources in a crisis.

In this time of COVID-19, we are all undergoing our own version of an ordeal, which involves uncertainty, fear and stress. The world as we knew it has turned upside down. In response, we are having strong feelings. Esther Perel describes these feelings in her recent blog as “prolonged uncertainty,” and “anticipatory grief.” We feel uncertain and don’t know when this situation will end, and we don’t know if we will be experiencing the loss of loved ones or jobs, not to mention when we will be able to have direct human contact with others. It is incredibly important to pay attention to any feelings we are having, as the remedies for our difficult feelings grow from understanding the nature of our experience.

We each have an array of resources or coping strategies to call on when we need them. They may involve stories about who we are, images we project, or ways of responding to difficulty. They may also include meditating or praying or accessing support internally as the monks in the story did. But during an ordeal, our normal way of navigating can be stripped away, and our patterns of coping can be laid bare.

With the new understanding that this stripping away affords, we have the opportunity to look at what is actually happening, and to see how we have been reacting to it. We can notice if we have been living through a story, or a belief that might not be accurate as a way of coping with something uncomfortable. An ordeal can bring into focus a place of pain or difficulty that needs attention.

This is a blessing.

I want to offer a few examples of this kind of blessing that I have seen over the last number of weeks.

During this time, I have witnessed acts of extreme fear, and acts of expansive kindness. As many of my clients are parents, I have seen parents struggling with their own reactivity and frustration (and trying to do this while relating to their children who also have strong feelings), and parents struggling to lay down boundaries. I have seen parents avoiding responsibility and ones who dive into their responsibilities so deeply they are losing themselves. In some ways this is what is always happening. But, it is all highlighted and magnified during this time of great stress, and so the possibility of seeing the solutions needed (the blessings) are also highlighted.

One client I see relatively regularly is a mom of two school-age children. Her oldest is in her first year of high school and is on the cheer team. The mom had noticed that her daughter had become pretty picky about her food recently, only wanting certain things, wanting to “eat out” a lot with friends, and generally avoiding family mealtimes when it was possible. The mom initially thought this was normal teenage spreading of wings behavior, and didn’t want to believe her daughter was struggling. With the Shelter in Place order, it became clear that her daughter’s eating habits were actually quite problematic – she was refusing to eat much at all, and didn’t want to eat with the family.

The Shelter in Place presented this mom with the opportunity to come to terms with the truth of what was happening. She had always wanted to see her children as perfect, but this behavior was far from perfect, and probably anorexic. With my help, and her own meditation practice to steady her, this mom was able to let go of the story she had held of her perfect daughter and perfect family. She was able to talk to her daughter about her relationship to food, and how much she didn’t want to see her daughter harming herself. The daughter is now getting into therapy for an eating disorder, which might not have been discovered without the Shelter in Place order.

Another client, a high-powered mother of two children, has also been Sheltering in Place with her children for these last weeks. This mom, like most others, has found herself pushed to the limit to care for her kids, supervise their schoolwork, cook and clean, and also tend to her own business, while her husband, a world-class CEO, focuses on his business from their home office. Although these relentless responsibilities have been more than overwhelming, this mom has had the opportunity to see her children’s actual day-to-day schoolwork and to see that they were actually struggling with their work much more than she had realized.

As both she and her husband are highly intelligent, type A overachievers, she had believed her children were sailing through school easily, and she had created a story in her mind that she was attached to about how her children were following in their parents’ precocious footsteps. But with the dawning awareness that homeschooling had afforded her, this mom allowed herself to see the truth: that her children were not sailing through school as she had imagined and hoped. She saw her attachment to her story about her kids, and with support, she was able to adjust to the truth of what was actually happening.

With this new understanding, she was able to find an online tutor, and her kids are now meeting their educational challenges in their own way with much more support. She told me she considers this a great blessing coming out of this time – she was able to let go of the image she had been projecting, and her children will not need to struggle as they were.

This time can be difficult and stressful in many ways, but important things are being highlighted, and opportunities presented. What is being highlighted for you? Can you stabilize yourself in the face of what is happening, take stock of your challenges, and access any resources you need in order to be flexible and adaptable? Can you let go of the image of who you thought you were and allow yourself to be present with what is? Can you meet your ordeal (whether it is fleeing your country in a snowstorm, illness, financial concern, endless one-on-one time with your children, or something else) with enough softness to allow your heart to grow in response, and your awareness to awaken? Can you see your blessings?