April 11, 2021

Rhythm, ritual and boundaries


“When patterns are broken, new worlds emerge.” ― Tuli Kupferberg

A few weeks ago, I wrote about what I experienced as the “strange in-between”, knowing that everything has changed, but still feeling as if nothing has changed. So much has changed since then. As we enter our third week of lockdown here in South Africa, things have most definitely changed. Carrying hand-sanitiser bottles everywhere; wearing a mask to go shopping; never leaving my home except to buy groceries; these are strange times indeed.

I still find myself in a liminal space, that strange in-between persists, but now it has evolved. Here are some of the “betweens” that describe my current experience:

Emotionally I find myself in between gratitude, guilt and frustration.

Frustration at not being able to go for a walk around the block or buy fresh flowers for my home; grateful for a comfortable home and a government who isn’t afraid to make tough decisions to keep us safe; and guilt every time I feel frustrated or complain because there are millions of South Africans far worse off than me.

I feel overwhelmed and underinformed at the same time.

So many different opinions and sources of information online. Yet the escalating numbers of infected people and deaths, and the science behind wearing masks or not still can’t answer my most pressing concerns. Will I and those I care about come out of his unscathed? We really are all being given a lesson in dealing with uncertainty. There are no certainty merchants anymore.

I feel over-connected and isolated at the same time.

This is the first time in human history (as far as I know) that everyone on the planet faces the same threat. Both world wars, as well as past pandemics, did not manage to impact the entire world. Technology makes it possible to stay connected across geographical and time boundaries. We have Zoom-mediated gin evenings, webinars with over 1000 people, and endless meetings. In a way I am very seldom on my own. Yet every time I go to the grocery store with my mask on, trying my best to avoid real-life human beings, I am struck by how the same human connection we always took for granted has now become potentially deadly.

I feel stuck between overly rigid constraints and no constraints at all

Our government took the courageous decision of putting the entire country under full lockdown just over two weeks ago. The restrictions they imposed are pretty draconian. We are not allowed to leave our homes except to buy groceries or medicine. We can’t go for runs or walks; our dogs are going crazy without their daily exercise. The sale of alcohol and cigarettes are forbidden. Police and army forces have been deployed to enforce compliance. So, confined to my home, I expected to have more time for reflection, creative practices, and maybe catching up on some reading and writing. Reality is the complete opposite. It feels like, within the draconian external constraints, I live a strange, suddenly boundaryless existence. It feels weird to at once be subject to (and slightly resent) such rigid restrictions and at the same time long for boundaries.

It feels my life has been subsumed by my computer screen. I spend my days on Zoom calls, going from one to the other with virtually no time in-between. The more I attempt to keep space open in my diary to get work done or rest; the more urgent items pop up that seemingly cannot be resolved without me. It is exhausting.

So what is going on? I believe I am suffering from a loss of boundaries: enabling constraints that used to make my life make sense and feel “manageable”. Many of these I wasn’t consciously aware of before they suddenly weren’t there anymore.

One of the best analogies I’ve heard about the importance of healthy boundaries is “swaddling” small babies to help them feel safe and secure as they adjust to life outside the womb. Swaddling involves tightly wrapping them in a blanket to prevent them from flailing their arms or legs, which can trigger a startle reflex. In a way, this is what healthy boundaries and enabling constraints like routine and ritual do for us. Having them suddenly stripped away is like ripping a blanket off a baby and having the startling experience of arms and legs going flying away. Our sense of safety and security suddenly stripped away.

So what can we do? I have no definitive answers, but theory (and experience) suggests that there are things we can manage to help us stay sane under these extreme circumstances. The first thing that is important to note is that we are not in perpetual chaos, managing our new normal from a work/life perspective is complex.

During our talk in Sweden in January, Dave Snowden shared a list of things that can be managed in complexity. I don’t want to discuss the whole list here, only the ones that I feel are particularly pertinent and that I have been experimenting with myself.

  1. Cadence and structure: the importance of Rhythm and Routine

“The same stream of life that runs through my veins night and day runs through the world and dances in rhythmic measures. It is the same life that shoots in joy through the dust of the earth in numberless blades of grass and breaks into tumultuous waves of leaves and flowers.” ― Rabindranath Tagore

While none of us misses our daily commute to the office, it did create a particular routine and rhythm. Getting up at the same time each day, heading to the office, sitting in traffic or taking a train, grabbing a coffee before settling in for the day. These all created boundaries to our lives and framed our identities. We knew where home ended and work began, and vice versa. Many of us took our work home, but even that was part of a routine. Home and work were separate, and there was a rhythm to our days that while predictable, was not entirely monotonous. Now, time seems to simply pass by in one long monotonous flow. We lose track of what day it is, we allow work to seep into every waking moment. Our lives have lost punctuation. Part of the reason why the endless Zoom calls are so exhausting is the monotony of spending every hour of every day spent sitting in the same room, in front of the same screen.

Rhythms or cadences are enabling constraints. Our lives are filled with cadence: the sun rises and sets; summer, autumn, winter, spring; our bodies have natural rhythms. Rhythms create structure and meaning to time and space boundaries. Now that the time and space boundaries or working hours and offices that used to create natural breaks in our days are no longer at play, we need to set our own rhythms and create new routines. I’ve taken to scheduling downtime in my diary. Regular times to take a break, have lunch. I think for the first time in 20 years, I have a formal “lunch hour”.

2. Ritual: The importance of ritual and role transitions

The function of ritual, as I understand it, is to give form to human life, not in the way of a mere surface arrangement, but in depth. ~Joseph Campbell

There is a comfort in rituals, and rituals provide a framework for stability when you are trying to find answers.~Deborah Norville

Rituals are essential to human beings. They mark key transition moments in our lives, and they “modulate” our roles and even our identities. In almost every culture, we mark key life journey moments with rituals: baptisms or naming ceremonies, coming of age ceremonies, weddings, funerals … our lives are punctuated by ritual. Some of the most heart-wrenching stories from countries ravaged by the virus have been of families unable to be with their loved ones when they die, and unable to perform the rituals that help say goodbye and bring closure.

Many small, seemingly insignificant rituals shaped our pre-COVID days. A problem with these rituals is that they emerge and evolve over time and become so entangled with our everyday lives that we tend not to notice that they are there. One thing that rituals do is facilitate role transitions. Getting dressed in office wear, grabbing a certain kind of coffee from your favourite coffee shop, maybe reading a newspaper on the train or completing the crossword puzzle: all of these help you transition from your role as mother, husband or partner, into your professional role.

Now we get up, sit down in front of a screen (sometimes we even stay in bed) and come lunchtime, many of us are still in our pyjamas. Our lives, roles and to some extent, our identities become a blur.

I’ve always worked from home, but before the pandemic, I had clients visits and workshops in between. I’ve used to scoff at the advice of productivity experts, who recommend that you have a dedicated office space separate from other areas and that you still get dressed and follow your morning rituals like you would if you were heading to the office. I can see sense in it now. There has to be a separation between work Sonja and private Sonja, otherwise work bleeds into everything. I’m finding the most important rituals are the ones that help me “unplug” from work. These can be simple, like putting my phone on airplane mode to stop the incessant notifications. Or going outside and playing with my dogs for 10 minutes before I make dinner. I also try to make time to simply be present to the natural rhythm of my breath for a few minutes: a practice that I hope becomes a ritual that helps me come into the present, into my body and out of my racing mind.

It doesn’t matter what they look like, rituals are powerful, use them.

3. Constraints: Or my new favourite word, Boundaries

“Boundaries define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership. Knowing what I am to own and take responsibility for gives me freedom.” ~ Henry Cloud

With the pandemic raging outside, I am suddenly inundated with urgent tasks and request. Saying no now somehow feels “wrong”. With everything going on in the world, how can I deny a request for input or assistance. But the airline truism, which at times sound trite suddenly becomes very real: we have to put our own oxygen masks on first. I will be of no help to anyone else if I burn out.

Again boundaries come into play, in particular task, role and authority boundaries. I’ve also realised that I allow myself to get pulled into unnecessary conversations way too often. Usually, it is to be a kind of security blanket, to make decisions that others have been empowered to make, but don’t feel safe for fear of getting it wrong. While it is easy to collude with that, as it tends to speed things up, if I allow that, I will create a dependency on me that is unhealthy for the system and me. I’d also effectively de-authorise others if I make decisions for them, which will be a hard pattern to break later on.

We are all navigating uncharted territory together, and things will likely get worse before they get better. It has never been easy for me to establish and enforce boundaries. Still, I realise that if I don’t, I will miss out on a significant opportunity to reflect and potentially reset in this extra-ordinary time. We owe it to ourselves to be present not allow to all of the emotions, risks as well as opportunities of being alive in the midst of a pandemic that is already change everything!

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