Still, Act: Being with the Paradox During a Pandemic
By Ashley Basta
Everything is the same, and yet everything is different. Isn’t it funny and infuriating how two opposing realities can be wholly true at the same time? It’s been three weeks since I evacuated southern Chile in an equally complicated and simple decision to get back on the same continent (if not in the same room) as my family during the COVID-19 pandemic. I would say that I “cut short” my year-long adventure in travel, but the reality is that the international portion of this journey was always going to be only one month long. I just didn’t know it yet. And that’s how life is - we make plans and take actions and busy ourselves in the drama of our lives, all based on the faulty premise that we know what’s going to happen next. Of course we don’t. And even though that has always been true, it’s loud and clear now for the collective in a way that is both exhausting and liberating. Both/and, always.
Quarantine looks different for everyone. It’s important to leave space to recognize that fact — that in any given moment, one person’s boredom is another’s shattering heart is another’s surprising joy. For me, looking out from a gracious friend’s basement lately, this time inside has cleared out lots of room and time for me to take inventory of my inner dialogue and my outer dreams. Those twin tracks in me move in opposite directions and at opposite speeds — the former quiet, still, and deeply inward; the latter bright, enthusiastic, and expanding out. And yet they are both there. Just like how, alongside our collective weariness and mourning for the way it’s always been, many are sensing a coming freedom from the way it’s always been. Pervasive death and grief for the past lives and loves we’ve lost and, like always, Earth, alive in all her precarious and precious glory. In the Northern Hemisphere, Spring is unwrapping herself. Buds are falling open again, having patiently held it together all winter. Letting it all go, like they will again in autumn, a continual inhale and exhale, over and over.
This is Being, isn’t it? Life and death and renewal in an endless cycle.
I’ve been thinking lately about right action. Two months ago I left my job to embark on a journey of open heartedness and presence. It felt like letting go. Now, in the quiet of quarantine, courage requires me to both let go and dream something new. A different life. A different world. Yung Pueblo says that you can tell the difference between a healthy goal (like the human spirit’s tendency to move forward, which tends to liberate) and an unhealthy craving (like the human ego’s pursuit of pleasure and avoidance of pain at all costs, which tends to constrain) based on how you react when you don’t get what you’re after. That is, we tend to meet unmet goals with acceptance and new goals, but unmet cravings with temper tantrums.
But how can you tell the difference before you actually pursue the thing? And in each pursuit, how can you be in both powerful action and empty surrender at the same time? In other words, I’ve been considering how I can zero in and engage my own life, crystallizing my values into tangible practice, while also opening up, freeing myself from expectation, and emptying like a vessel for whatever wants to come next.
Years ago, I learned a practice from Jim Downton, one of the founders of the INVST Community Leadership Program at CU Boulder, which shaped my young adulthood and continues to inspire my life. It’s called the “woo hand,” and it looks like this:
with your elbow at your ribs, extend your forearm forward with your palm facing up, bob your wrist a couple of times to let go of any holding in the fingers, and look at your hand. That’s it. The woo hand. See how the fingers are curled, as to hold, but the palm is open, as to receive? This is the space between action and reception where I want to be - neither clenching and already full (of myself, usually) nor so outstretched that nothing, not even a spark of inspiration, can land and take root. Simply being, both/and.
I invite you to practice this “way of the woo.” It may take some shaking loose and some stillness to get in the practice of noticing. But it’s also just how we’re built - made of the same both/and stuff as everything else. Maybe we can simply let ourselves be whatever we are and then listen for the invitation to the next right thing - whether it's curling up for a nap, following through on an exciting new idea, or sitting a bit longer with soft fingers and patient palms. We can leave room to hold it all and let it all go at the same time. No worry if it’s not what we expected. The whole fun of the Mystery is that it never is.