Staying Sane in the Pandemic

Glen Chiacchieri  /  April 2020  /  Reading time: about 10 minutes

Staying at home practicing social distancing to limit transmission of the covid-19 coronavirus, I notice it's easy to let things in my life get out of balance. This is something a lot of people are dealing with at the moment, so I thought I'd write a little bit about it.

The first thing I'll say is that for me mindfulness is the number one most helpful capacity to have in this situation. In taking stock of my present-moment thoughts, sensations in my body, and my sensory experience of my environment, I can attune to what I'm truly needing with clarity and compassion. In repeatedly practicing bringing my attention back to my thoughts, my feelings, my body, and my surroundings I find that I am mindful more of the time and have fewer "lapses" in my mindfulness.

An example of a lapse in mindfulness is when I'm on the computer for a long time and I forget that I have a body to the point where my body may have unconsciously taken a posture that is causing me physical pain. I was not mindful, so I didn't notice the pain and I suffered.

Another example of a lapse of mindfulness is when I identify with my thoughts. If I have a thought like "I'm trapped here in my house" and I am identified with that thought, if I buy into the story it's telling me about my experience, I will suffer as a trapped person because I will interpret my experiences through that lens. If instead I'm mindful of the thought, if I have some distance from it, then I can hear the thought compassionately as a good parent hears a crying baby and attend to its suffering. In the case of a thought like "I'm trapped here" I might respond by going for a walk, dancing, looking at the sky, or calling a friend to connect. Any of these responses might be good, but the best response is the one you generate yourself out of compassion, drawing on your own wisdom.

Many of us right now are having thoughts of fear and worry, traveling in our imaginations to the possibilities of the future. And some of those possibilities may come true. In mindfulness, we acknowledge the truth of those worries and our situation, but we also recognize that if we let the threat of possibilities consume us, we won't have the inner peace and resilience we need in order to deal effectively with the situations we are imagining. As the Dalai Lama recently said echoing the ancient Buddhist scholar Shantideva, "If there is something to be done—do it, without any need to worry; if there's nothing to be done, worrying about it further will not help."

Lapses in mindfulness don't just create the opportunity for suffering, they also make us less available to the simple miracles of life. If you can openly examine your experience right this moment, you might discover the incredible gifts you have right here: the lovely sensations of your clothes on your skin, the wondrous machinery of your breath always with you, the incredible paradise of colors and shades making up your visual field. With lots of practice, even painful feelings can become another one of these marvels when beheld in the loving gaze of mindful, open awareness.

But when I'm not mindful, my awareness of all these miracles fades and I'm lost in my suffering. It's as if my inner eye narrows and I see only my suffering. When we're lost in sadness, we can only think about what is making us sad. When we're lost in our anger, we can only think about what's making us angry. When we're lost in fear, we only see what's making us fearful. Lost, we are no longer connected to ourselves or the conditions that will help us to feel better.

When I become lost in this way, I've come to feel a lot of compassion for myself and for others because I know they are going through similar or even worse things than I am. In Buddhist teaching we are taught that, in fact, all beings are suffering in this way, and knowing that others are suffering as we do, we can feel connected with them through compassion. So even if our mindfulness has lapsed and we're suffering deeply, we can still feel compassion and connection. And if we can't nourish ourselves with compassion, then maybe we are fortunate enough to have others that can help us feel the compassion we're sorely needing.

Recently, I had the opportunity to feel what a kind of "optimal" mindful environment could be like. It was a class I took in my graduate program at Lesley University called "Spirituality as a Resource for Well-being" with the teacher Jared Kass. It took place over the course of a weekend: five hours on Friday night, nine hours on Saturday, and nine hours on Sunday.

Normally for these weekend-format classes this is a grueling schedule, requiring a lot of concentration and effort. At the end of weekend classes I am usually exhausted. But this class was different — at the end of the weekend I felt more energized after the class than when I came in! This happened despite the long class hours and tackling some very deep and emotionally challenging material. How did this happen? And amidst the many challenges of the pandemic, is it possible to stay peaceful and engaged like I did in this class?

Yes, I think it is possible. And I think one of the most important parts of what Jared was doing to help us stay energized and engaged was setting a mindful rhythm to the day. While he had a general idea of how he wanted the class to go, he was open to sensing the needs and energy levels of the students. For example, when one student began talking about their spiritual doubts, Jared intuitively knew this was an important topic and we discussed it at length as a class to great effect. After this heavy and serious discussion, he invited us to dance together light-heartedly, revitalizing our spirits.

Another example of our teacher's mindful attunement is a beautiful activity he planned. He gave us all peacock feathers and asked us to balance them upright on our fingertips, mindfully noticing our experience as we did this. When many people shared that they had critical thoughts of themselves while trying to balance the feather, Jared modified the activity. He asked us to pair together — one person would balance the feather while the other person would act as their inner critic, telling them out loud how bad a job they were doing. In this way, the person balancing the feather could hear their inner thoughts from an external source and examine their reactions to this criticism. It was very illuminating.

In both these examples, Jared was open to sensing the needs of his students and ensured that we had a balanced rhythm to our activities. He lead the class in a variety of experiences: some light-hearted and some serious, some intellectual and some emotional, some stimulating and some restful, some inner-directed and some connecting with classmates. Because of the support of his attunement and the rhythm and variation of activities I felt I was able to stay enthusiastically engaged no matter what was happening. I'm sure Jared would say this is because I was connected with my "inner wisdom".

In our disrupted lives now, I think creating a mindful rhythm is more important than ever. Staying home and limiting our physical contact with others, we no longer have the comforts of our daily rhythms to support us. Yet we still have the same emotional needs as before the pandemic — for love and connection, for health and protection, for peace, for joy, for meaningful activity, and so on. In difficult times, it is even more important that we find these sources of nourishment to maintain our happiness. Without consciously attuning to these needs, we begin to lose our resilience and drift toward the draining emotions of anger, depression, and fear.

For example, recently I was feeling depressed and aimless. What is the point of continuing on with my activities when the world is so disrupted, I thought. Through mindfulness, I was able to notice I was having this thought, and out of curiosity I began to examine the effects it had on me. I noticed that when I had this thought it drained my energy, I felt awful, and I was unable to take any sort of action, including things that might help me feel better. I was able to recognize that this was a rather severe kind of suffering, a spiritual suffering. Feeling compassion for the thought and the suffering it created, I began to think about why this thought would arise in my mind. It occurred to me that this thought pointed to a larger need — a missing sense of purpose and meaning in my life. I began to think about activities I could do that would help me connect with my deeper sense of purpose and then did one of them. I felt better immediately. I imagine if my original thought was a person I was responding to, it would have been very grateful that I had heard its suffering with mindfulness and acted skillfully to help it. And now I know that to nourish this part of myself, I need to connect to my deeper sense of purpose throughout the rhythm of my days.

Having a deep source of purpose is very important in difficult times. When the prisoners in German Nazi camps were being starved, abused, and killed, the psychologist Viktor Frankl, himself a prisoner, appealed to them to find any source of meaning they could. He recognized that those that couldn't cultivate meaning and hope in their struggle would die as surely as if they didn't eat food. When we are nourished by a deep sense of purpose, we can endure extraordinary hardships.

On the positive side, when we are connected to a sense of purpose larger than ourselves we are also more joyful, caring, satisfied, and effective. We begin to see that our actions are aligned with our vision of the world, that our actions can make the world a better place. We feel more satisfied with how we live our lives. Like mindfulness, with enough practice connecting with our deepest inspirations, we begin to operate out of our sense of purpose every moment of every day. Our lives become sacred, suffused with meaning. We enjoy tremendous energy and vitality, and our actions become beautiful and creative expressions of our very best qualities that we can share with others.

I believe that now, with the many disruptions in our lives caused by the pandemic it can be a good time to pause and reflect on our deeper purpose. What gives us energy and purpose in our lives? How can we remember this purpose throughout our daily activities and interactions with others and use it to create happiness and satisfaction for ourselves, our communities, and our planet? When we can connect in this way, staying sane won't be a big problem. Instead, our concern will naturally turn toward actualizing our unique vision of the world for the betterment of all.