I frequently use the word “normal” to mean familiar and unquestioned. It was just a couple of weeks ago that everything seemed predictable. All that certainly changed while I was gone. Nothing seems familiar or unquestioned right now. Nothing seems “normal”.
It would be a logical fallacy to equate my leaving the country with the increase in chaos as reported in the media, although it appears that there are some who would make that causal connection. I find taking a breath has become my primary strategy in managing my environment. Taking a breath is a very effective technique to address the floating anxiety. Taking a breath has given me back some control.
Pausing is an equally essential skill. Before COVID-19 took over our world, my experience of time was like watching a train passing at full speed. For those of you who have never seen a train, the cars are actually separate, but at high speeds they appear to blend into one solid object. You cannot see the space between each car when they are moving at high speed. While I had become used to the incessant merging of one activity into another that has been life in the 21st Century thus far, it was taking a toll on me that I don’t think I fully appreciated until I left for my trip.
Once away from the demands of a private practice, managing a small business, and trying to stay on top of laundry, grocery shopping and doing my taxes, the spaces between the cars started to re-appear. I began to notice my breathing. I began to notice the space between my in breath and out breath.
For those of you not familiar with meditation, these are some of the first skills taught when learning to meditate. Noticing the breath. Noticing what it feels like to inhale. Noticing what it feels like to exhale. Slowing these parts down and putting both intention and attention around them. The trick here is not to become better at breathing in and out; rather it is to become better at noticing.
The consequences of paying attention are many. Just think about all the things you have noticed since COVID-19 has forced you to pay attention! How frequently you wash your hands; the essential need for toilet paper; just how far six feet actually is; how much stuff you have in your closets! Routines that once were unquestioned are now opportunities for exploring alternative strategies for getting needs met. Our brains are getting a work-out and so are our hearts.
I was out of the US for 15 days. In that short period of time, an unseen virus shut down countries, caused world-wide businesses to revamp their game plans, forced governments to come together and face a new reality, and slowed life down to a crawl. When I returned from Australia, the airport was a ghost-town. Few cars were on the roads. People were out walking. These were sights I hadn’t experienced since I was growing up in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s!
The underlying tensions of faster, better, more, escalating, palpitating, demanding, louder, “me! me! me!” had dissipated and what was left was spaciousness. I acknowledge that for some people, this spaciousness can actually feel threatening. For me, it was a welcome relief!
Interestingly, this spaciousness is similar to what I experience when I meditate. My thoughts slow down. My mind relaxes and my inner peripheral vision opens up. I begin to experience things other than the frenetic synaptic leap from one thought to another. My need to “do” decreases as my enjoyment of “being” increases. My breathing slows down.
I have to believe that this is a good thing.
I have not noticed a great deal of difference from how I lived my life before I left since coming home and being on self-quarantine, with one marked exception. The tension is gone. I don’t mean that I am not concerned about COVID-19; of course I am. But I have seen with my own eyes how people can quickly change habits and take steps to lower risk of exposure.
I realize that many people are scared since their jobs and livelihoods are no longer guaranteed. I am hopeful, though, that these fears will be decreased as we find ways of connecting and supporting one another. We will be forced to change how we do things, and we will be making mistakes along the way. Still, there are many wise people among us who have experienced challenges and understand that sometimes it is better to just pause briefly, catch our breath, re-set, and then move forward. And there seems to be no end to the creativity that folks are tapping into as they navigate these new and challenging waters!
I am, by nature and preference, an optimist. I am not, however, a Pollyanna. We are going to be asked to make changes to how we think, do things, and relate to one another. These will not be easy to do or sustain. Many of us have to re-learn patience and for some, it will be a totally new experience to defer gratification for more than a few moments. Yet these are the skills that we must bring to bear if we are to be successful in a post-COVID world.
It is a sad truth that many will die due to this pandemic. The virus has little respect for how much money you make, where you went to school, who you know, or what God you pray to. It is single-minded and purposeful. Find a host and replicate. From what is known now about this process, fierce adherence to washing hands (top and bottom) with soap, using hand sanitizer, doing self-quarantine and keeping personal distance seem to be effective in slowing the virus in its search for hosts.
It is also a sad truth that too many people out of ignorance or lack of options, will take actions that actually increase their exposure to the virus. These actions may in turn put more of us at risk. It is hard not to judge or condemn these people, but that will do nothing to make the world safer or free from COVID-19. I encourage you to decline the invitation to blame. Save that energy for more creative actions.
Several people have commented that the silver lining of this pandemic is that the Earth is getting a time out. There are reports that the canals in Venice are clear and dolphins have returned to swim in them. Pollution monitoring in China has shown dramatic drops in particulate matter in the air over Hubei province. While toilet paper and spaghetti may temporarily be in short supply, there is ample evidence that these staples will be replenished if we can just be patient.
The Center for Aging and Values is committed to providing psychological and spiritual support to those who are feeling isolated and scared during this pandemic. If you have a need, please reach out and we will make every effort to see that you are connected with the support and care you need.
In the meantime, please wash your hands and just take a breath!