Cultivating Mental Health During the Pandemic Winter
…in the midst of horror
we fed on beauty—and that,
my love, is what sustained us.
— Rita Dove, “Transit”
To cultivate mental health during the pandemic winter, the first thing is to avoid categorizing feelings as “mental health”.
Doing so tells a story of separation of body from mind, other beings – including plants and animals and people – from mind, earth from mind, spirit from mind. Mind here defined as much larger than brain, and including the heart.
And so even in the best of times, slotting the multidimensional nature of feelings into a shallow container called “mental health” is inadequate.
In times like these, it can be downright dangerous.
Business as Usual
Why? Because the big story of our culture — which ecophilosopher, Buddhist scholar and activist Joanna Macy calls “Business as Usual” — has been disrupted by the pandemic.
Business as Usual refers to the story of the domination and subjugation of nature, including humans, but the humans are trained to believe they are separate from nature, so many believe they are free, or would be free if they just tried harder. This story revolves around profit-making to a degree that would be defined as mental illness, were not the mainstream mental health professions also not enculturated in the story of Business as Usual. Specifically, as Woodbury notes, mainstream Western society should be diagnosed with narcissistic personality disorder.
(Maybe occasionally one can use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.:))
Once Upon a Time
The Business as Usual story came out of Europe’s colonial empires, settling into our current corporate-financial-military- industrial complex, which supports power and profit for a few and misery for everyone else, most especially those at the bottom and/or those who otherwise don’t fit in, are not “winners”.
That misery, in turn, often gets categorized as character, which can be further categorized as dominant mood or “individual mental health”. Your feelings are your fault, in other words. Either you are thinking the wrong thoughts, your brain is imbalanced because of your faulty genetics, or both. Point being: You alone are the one who needs fixing. You must work harder to adjust.
Don’t question the storytellers of Business as Usual. In fact, there are no storytellers, silly: This is just reality.
Now go dust yourself off and get back to buying things, dammit.
And Then Came the Plague
But coronavirus does not fit neatly into the story of Business as Usual.
People all over the world have lost lives, loves, jobs, businesses, ways of life and an overall sense of stability through what is clearly nobody’s individual fault. This tends to break the brains of those of us in the Western world, especially the U.S.: That things can be bigger than us, bigger than individual grit, bigger than money, bigger than muscle.
We come by this honestly. Confusion around and blame for matters of misfortune — specifically poverty — was codified at least as far back as the late 16th and early 17th centuries, in England’s Elizabethan Poor Laws. These laws created categories of “worthy” and “unworthy” poor people. The worthy ones included orphans, widows, people with disabilities and others of circumstances apparently beyond their control, who were awarded subsistence charity by the church — never more than subsistence, of course, because even the worthy poor shouldn’t be allowed to have fun. After all, they didn’t “earn” that charity through hard work. Those deemed unworthy (read: “lazy”) poor were refused assistance, and/or sold into indentured servitude, or imprisoned.
This model carried over to the American colonies and remains encoded in our laws, social welfare programs and charities and deeply — sometimes angrily — cherished beliefs today: That income level, or personal fortune, is an accurate reflection of character and work ethic, which is to say, worthiness.
What was not examined was what had created English poverty during the Elizabethan era in the first place. Even today, when you look it up, you will see population growth as the cause, which certainly exacerbated things. But go back a few centuries further, to the beginning of that particular story, as the ancient beliefs of groups of people being owned by the land, a kind of sacred mother, and thus tied generally to certain territories with ample communal lands, began to coalesce into something different. In this part of the world it was the English feudal lords who re-characterized land into commodity via private ownership. They made up a story about how they had the right to lord over the plants and people and animals and rocks and waters, creating a perpetually and intentionally impoverished peasant class — and, worse, enslaved people, of varying types — to work that land for them.
There is real genius in this, making “hard work (for the wealthy)” the supposed arbiter of character and thus individual income: Point your fingers at one another, peasantry, rather than us, the ones who made up this story.
Even more so: Point your finger at yourselves, at your hearts, your minds. If something is not going well in your life, if things just don’t feel right, then it is because you are not working hard enough, not thinking the right thoughts and/or you come out of lesser people with faulty genetics.
But can you hear the story beneath the story we’ve been told, the canto hando, as Clarissa Pinkola Estes puts it, or deep song of the wild?
In reality the misfortunes that humans face — from war to poverty to disease to personal feelings of worthlessness — are nearly always rooted — one way or another — in domination and subjugation of the landscape.
Because we are not, in fact, separate from that landscape. We are as much a part of the living collective as the coronavirus.
And so, like a wildly invasive plant species in a fairy tale, coronavirus grows amongst and inside us and our centuries of inherited certainties, unspooling an enormously larger story, of what kind we likely will not fully understand for some time yet.
The Great Unraveling
“It would appear that we’re at the beginning of the ending of something,” Stephen Jenkinson notes in Stone Fence Sagas. “It’s cause for celebration in some circles and remorse in others. There’s such a lamentable pining to return to normal.”
Why lamentable? Because the instability of right now — what Macy calls the second story of our culture, “The Great Unraveling”, or accelerated collapse of ecological, economic and social systems that began, at least in the U.S., under colonial invasion and rule — can also be a time of possibility, of magic, albeit magic grown in blood-soaked soil.
Magic, but not safety.
Despite all of this, there are moments when we peasants do need to pretend that everything is still normal, Business as Usual. After all, it’s how we and probably our mothers’ mothers and fathers’ fathers were brought up, and can be as comforting as those weirdly disgusting bowls of Froot Loops from childhood. Having some compassion for ourselves in those small moments is not only okay, but often necessary for long-term emotional survival.
So what do we do the rest of the time with our shaky circumstances and the uncomfortable feelings pushing up out of our hearts like weeds thick as ropes, while we wait to see what new big story begins, eventually, to take shape?
We go deeper.
1. Reclaiming and Rewilding Feelings
“The wounds in the world
are reflected in us.
Or…did those outer wounds
begin long ago
when we locked a part of ourselves away?
Who can say just where the reclamation of the world begins?”
– Stephen Harrod Buhner, The Secret Teachings of Plants
People seem to be doing — which in our culture is to say, buying — a lot of stuff to cope with the anxiety of the moment, from houses to canned goods to outdoor heaters. They’re not the worst ideas, either, especially those that bring us outdoors more often. Simply being outside lowers stress and strengthens the immune system.
Trying to suppress weedy feelings like anxiety, however, works about as well as trying to suppress weeds. Sooner or later they’ll come up anyway — lifting whole sidewalks — twice or thrice as strong. And in the meantime, now the pesticides have poisoned the whole area, and biodiversity is diminished, with escalating consequences down the road.
Remember that magical, radical moment when you learned — maybe from Albuquerque Herbalism, or elsewhere — that the plants categorized as weeds can be nutritious, medicinal, and individually, communally and ecologically healing? This is the attitude to take toward weedy feelings as well.
How? First, take a moment to acknowledge the feeling rather than trying to suffocate it. This is often easier said than done.
Next, literally name the feeling aloud, to honor it. Adding contextual validation of that feeling — also aloud, preferably, though in writing could work as well — takes this a step further. Why on earth would any of us not feel anxious at times during a global pandemic, violence in the streets, etc.? Is it not rather… un-human, and inhumane, to march on, trying to pretend to be unaffected? Externalizing feelings provides the pathway toward compassion for self. It can be amazingly healing to speak aloud to yourself as if you were comforting a small child or pet who has been startled by loud thunder.
Critically, making the honoring and contextualizing of feelings a daily practice helps to disrupt centuries-long patterns of Western linear thought, which also happens to center all feelings around the individual, one’s particular circumstances, immediate family and romantic relationships, etc.
While those are equally important, remember that the peasantry is always conditioned toward the personal so that there’s not as much room to contemplate the rest of the lifeworld, specifically, the destruction of that lifeworld for the benefit of the modern day feudal lords.
You may wish to further honor whatever feeling has come up into a short song, prayer, chant, quick drawing, whatever. Doing so need not take more than a few minutes, nor be a work of artistic genius. However, it can be very difficult to break the overculture’s staunch intellectualism around feelings, so don’t beat yourself up if you find yourself feeling quite resistant to this idea. Simply know that land-connected, traditional folk healers all over the world, as Tedlock describes in The Woman in the Shaman’s Body, often provide dramatically cathartic experiences via making space for public performances of clients’ feelings, dreams and visions as art.
Maybe one day expressing feelings artistically may begin to come more naturally, and you can perform your own rock opera for the neighbors!
More seriously, making space for and touching our wounds in these ways rewilds them, over time, in ways far beyond venting to friends or talk therapy (though those may also be helpful).
Reclamation of the world starts with reclamation of ourselves, even the weediest, darkest parts. Perhaps those most of all.
2. Reclaiming and Rewilding the Body
Our brains aren’t really the-end-all-be-all of our bodies. It’s really quite a neato organ, but your left brain in particular is probably the one that is trying to get you to think it’s all that really matters. Collectively the dominance of the left side of humans’ brains, in fact, is considered to be a driving force behind the most reductive swaths of the Western world. Land-connected cultures, conversely, tend to employ their whole brains. See The Master and His Emissary for more on this.
Accordingly, our culture — especially in recent decades —markets — quite profitably — huge separations between mind and body, body and brain, which comports neither with ancient thought nor reamsuponreams of recent research.
For instance, many, many, many seemingly “mental health” symptoms are not coming from the brain, per say, as in an inherited organic “brain disorder” that messes up neurotransmitters. Instead, these (very real, by the way, and very not-fun) symptoms typically arise from the body as a whole, specifically one that is trying to manage systemic inflammation resulting from the modern day feudal lords’ pollution of land, water, soil and air, as well as increasingly less nutritious food crops and extraordinarily stressful living conditions for many.
For now, a quick and practical way to send a message of safety to the body — one of connection to place — is to take in a bit of the wild or wildish every single day. If gathering plants from the wild, please harvest thoughtfully, ethically and thankfully.
Some simple ways to do this include incorporating into your daily routine any wild tinctures you’ve learned to make, such as Wild Lettuce before bed. Or freezing prepared Prickly Pear pads, for use in smoothies (about 1/4” section), jelly or grilled. If you gathered Piñon during the abundant harvest this year, it’s delicious roasted and added to coffee, or the resin makes a wonderful incense or body oil, for instance. Dried and ground Cholla fruit can be added to other flours or corn meal to use throughout the winter, while a simple Pine or Spruce needle tea brings a healthy dose of vitamin C. Or create a morning &/or evening routine by burning a Juniper smudge.
The point here is not to get elaborate, especially if that’s going to induce more stress. Instead, pick ways that are easy to help weave the landscape into your tissues, strengthening connections to the wild and sending a signal of safety to the body and mind.
Synchronicity or congruency of self/world has always been the sign of health to land-connected traditional healers on every continent.
3. Reach Out to Ancestors and Elders
Reaching out to one’s ancestors is much easier in practice than it sounds.
Altars and cultural or personal rituals can be lovely and deeply meaningful, but in a pinch, simply closing one’s eyes and asking for help works just fine.
What can get tricky sometimes is deciding which ones to ask. Not all of us come from smart or even very nice people, or some of us may not have known our direct ancestors for one reason or another. That’s okay: Each of them most likely still had their strengths, real or — in the case of unknown ones — imagined. These strengths can be called upon in times of need, and love and appreciation for what they have contributed to your own current life and learning should always be expressed as well.
If your knowledge or suspicion of your ancestors is that they did truly terrible things, such as murdering or enslaving people, or otherwise being the kind who “shot for love of power to kill alone”, as Simon Pokagon describes in Red Man’s Rebuke, you may consider asking them what, if anything, they’ve learned since, and humbly take positive action in any number of ways to help rectify the imbalances they helped to create.
Another idea is to reach back to your pre-Industrial Revolution and/or even more ancient peoples. Meditations with plants — especially plants (even food plants, such as cabbage or manioc) tied particularly to their cultures — can be a bridge to these ancestors.
Reaching out to Elders — currently alive or dead — is a related act. An Elder here is defined not so much as chronologically aged as someone who has gained some piece of genuine wisdom, typically through not being especially tied to the dominant stories of Western society, but larger, more enduring and/or timeless insight. They are easier to find, again, in land- connected cultures, but could pop up anywhere, even in a Target, or, say, in all the articles interviewing Noam Chomsky lately.
If you have a genuine Elder in your life who is still alive, now is the time to tangibly express gratitude. For a beautiful example from a young person to her grandmother, see here.
It’s not unusual, however — the past several hundred years, especially amongst white mainstream culture — to not know or know of any true Elders amongst your own circles, as Stephen Jenkinson has touched upon extensively in his work.
Several years ago in a therapy session I asked a man in his mid to upper twenties if he had ever met someone he considered truly wise. Unlike many people when asked this question, he nodded quickly and described his father’s friend, who had been like an uncle to him. What made that man wise, he said, was his real estate investments. He had invested some years ago in a part of a city that others considered run-down, and now it was worth millions.
Loss of Elders can be one of the many prices to pay in for-profit, land-disconnected cultures. If that is the case for you, grieving that loss only deepens your humanity. Never stop seeking true Elders. Also, consider taking on certain plants — with permission — as Elders.
4. Cultivate Humility
Have you ever thanked the foods of the earth that make up your meals? If not, this is one simple way to cultivate humility — and thereby emotional stability — on a daily basis. It need not take more than a few seconds.
Also consider cultivating humility toward the coronavirus itself. This is not the same thing as freaking out about it, or pretending it’s not a big deal.
The Great Turning
Macy calls the final story of mainstream Western culture “The Great Turning”, in which cultural values finally shift through wide-scale genuine gratitude for and incorporation of the wisdom of indigenous, land-connected practices, with contributions of new, equally reverent ones, for the sake of justice to all forms of life. Already — after the recent wildfires — some of this has begun to occur.
Another way to begin to re-imagine a sane, emotionally healthy world can come from asserting our own mental health through remembering that the multinational corporations have not always ruled over us. We don’t have to believe their story that this planet and its people are commodities.
As for the outward shifts, they have not been thus far nor likely ever will be easy, or short. The pandemic, the social unrest and all the rest have and will continue to have painful aspects.
But also, as my partner has said to his wife and children at every hard knock: We’re all in this together forever.