Locked Down: Mindfulness in Madness

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“People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child—our own two eyes. All is a miracle.”

-Thich Nhat Hanh

The lyrics to an old REM song (“It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine”) is on my mind a lot these days. I’m not locked down exactly. I dutifully report into my office each day to speak with my clients on the phone but I am careful. I wash my hands frequently and avoid other humans in the building “like the plague” but I’m not really worried. In a sense I am locked down but I get out a lot too. I walk the river trail as much as possible and have logged a few 6-mile days. Mask sightings are rare out there. I usually only see one or two each time out. I admit I usually go maskless on the trail.

My waiting list vanished with the virus arrival and my ten-hour days have dropped to a more reasonable eight and I am only working four days a week now. I stayed home from the office last weekend for the first time in at least ten years. It felt very weird, like a vacation in my own home. It was nice. I actually have time to do my life. I’m even bored sometimes. It is very strange, unsettling and sweet at the same time. I feel guilty for benefitting in any way from a global pandemic with so much death and suffering for so many but there it is. Serenity. And I’m trying, I suppose, to be mindful; trying to stay in the moment and not over-think the fact we are living within a real-life apocalyptic, dystopian film about global Armageddon, failed leadership and the power of emotion to hijack the mind, like a stream of storming stallions spilling off a cliff. I find myself looking for and finding beauty. There is a lot more of it than I usually take time to notice.

Madness

No one knows what’s coming, especially those who claim they know what’s coming. What is clear is that we are cast in the greatest reality show of the modern era, where the rates of infection keep leaping upward like a goat zigzagging up a craggy mountain and the deaths of humans are piling up so quickly, few of us can grasp it or afford it the solemn, sacred recognition that each extinguished light deserves. The virus curve is a long way from the hoped-for flattening frequently forecasted, especially here in the US (when declining rates in New York City, Detroit and New Orleans are removed from the calculation).

More eloquent writers than me, here, here and elsewhere, have successfully made the case, as Pogo once said, our biggest enemy is ourselves, not COVID-19. Every species on the planet knows how to work together for their mutual survival, but not humans.

Other nations, like Germany, Vietnam, New Zealand, Taiwan, among many others, have found ways to tell the truth, test their citizens, trace their contacts, protect their healthcare workers, put their differences aside and commit to a common set of values that places the sanctity of human life above all others. We could do that here and hopefully we will, even though it appears that some governors are determined to gamble they can outwit the virus, forget about social distancing and get back to business as usual. One official actually said, “There are things more important than living.” Really? What is more important than living? I want to know.

Meanwhile, COVID’s karma can be cruel and quick. We won’t have to wait long to learn the results of these careless, tragic experiments. Will these leaders be held accountable? Should they be? Time will tell.

And here in the US, we have more confirmed cases than the next six countries (Spain, Italy, the UK, France, Germany, and Russia), combined. We comprise only four percent of the world’s population but we have 33 percent of the world’s COVID-19 cases and 27 percent of the world’s coronavirus deaths. And this could be an undercount. A recent Yale School of Public Health study found that “the US experienced 15,400 ‘excess deaths’ from March through April 4 compared to the year before.” More than one out of every four humans who have died from this insidious disease is an American. More Americans have died from the coronavirus in three months than died in 17 years in Vietnam. Nearly 900 Americans are dying each day from COVID-19, three times the daily death rate of our soldiers in WWII.

Test Anxiety

The good news is, we are no longer lagging far behind other countries in the number of citizens who have been tested for the virus. Two months ago, South Korea’s per capita testing rate was six times larger than the US. We have now caught up with them but still lag behind several countries, in per capita testing. Out of the twenty countries most impacted by COVID, not counting China, the US is ninth, behind six European countries, Russia and Canada. As of April 22, the US had tested 4.1 million Americans, or a little over one percent while updated figures indicate the US has now performed over 7.5 million tests, which is just over two percent.

Before we can open the economy, experts say, we need to dramatically increase our testing rates. While some have argued that “the entire US population” should be tested “every three to four days in order to catch the virus before an infected person can spread it to someone else,” the current administration thinks we are doing fine at our current rate.

According to a recently released Harvard report, we should be testing 5 million Americans each day by early June and quadruple this by late July. The report states that even this massive increase in testing may not be enough to fully protect us from this pandemic. To reach this level in the next three months, it would mean multiplying the number of Americans tested each day by over 100.

Cassandra’s Warning

Students of Greek mythology may remember Cassandra as a tragic figure cursed to accurately predict the future but not be believed. There have been many “Coronavirus Cassandras” in the last twenty years who knew this day would come and warned us repeatedly. One of them was Laurie Garrett. I remember standing in Barnes and Noble in 2005 reading Garrett’s piece in Foreign Affairs about The Next Pandemic and thinking how horrifying it would be if she was right and hoping she was wrong. But like everyone else, I suppose, I put the magazine back and chose to not think much about it since.

The author of the 1994 bestseller, The Coming Plague: Newly Emerging Diseases in a World Out of Balance, Garrett recently said in a New York Times interview that the “best case scenario” is that this virus will be with us for the next 36 months but the “worst case is that it becomes a new permanent feature on the landscape for generations to come.” She said this coronavirus is “not a single isolated wave” like a solitary tsunami but a series of waves triggering “sporadic outbreaks,” in “different parts of the world…at different times.”

She said, “And the movement of humanity is going to be the movement of virus. So, as people come out of not just lockdown in their homes, but out of their countries and back on airplanes…we’re going to once again have sporadic outbreaks.”

Opening up the country too soon will kill people who do not need to die. The only question is how many will die before we decide to listen to science and act as if we truly cared for one another.

Meanwhile, a recent Gallup poll found 71 percent of “Americans say they would wait and see what happens with the spread of the virus” and another 10% said they “would wait indefinitely” in response to a question about “how quickly they will return to their normal activities once the government lifts restrictions and businesses and schools start to reopen.” Only 20 percent of Americans said “they would return to their normal activities immediately.”

Men and residents of small towns and rural areas are slightly more inclined to return to normal immediately than women and city-dwellers but Republicans are three times more likely than Democrats to say they are ready to get back to normal “immediately,” Still even among Republicans, two out of three want to wait and see what happens before they fully commit to their normal activities.

Mindfulness

If we look up the word “problem” in any dictionary, we find a definition that suggests it has two aspects. The first part involves a matter or situation regarded as unwelcome, harmful and difficult. The second part involves the necessary action to deal with, solve or overcome it. In other words, if it is my problem, I have some level of control over the fact it exists and some responsibility to fix it.

For most of us, the coronavirus is both our problem and not our problem at the same time. A deadly pathogen that could kill you and me and everyone we know and love is a big problem. It is unwelcome, harmful and difficult. However, it isn’t a problem I can solve. Neither can you. There are no actions we can take to end this crisis besides hunkering down and waiting for a functional government that is honest, intelligent, science-based and recognizes the need to manufacture tens of millions of tests.

However, hunkering down and waiting isn’t nothing as Steve Hayes recently reminded us. He said, “I can’t remember a time when it seemed possible to save lives by staying home and doing nothing. And yet it does not feel like nothing.”

So, what do we do while we are waiting? While none of us are going to invent a vaccine in our kitchen, there are several challenges we can deal with, according to Hayes, that address the stress of being stuck at home.

Movement

The first involves movement. Hayes writes, “The link between physical movement and psychological health is well-established, and everybody ‘knows’ they should probably exercise more.” It helps to schedule regular daily activities that incorporate stretching, strengthening and cardio. Tips on all this can be found here, here and here.

Nature

The second involves connecting with nature. Forest Bathing or shinrin-yoku in Japanese “means bathing in the forest atmosphere, or taking in the forest through our senses.” One study found “people who practice forest bathing have optimum nervous system functions, well-balanced heart conditions, and reduced bowel disorders.” Another study found that forest bathing “significantly reduced pulse rate and significantly increased the score for vigor and decreased the scores for depression, fatigue, anxiety, and confusion.” Another study found a walk in the woods had memory and mood benefits. Numerous studies have consistently found physical, psychological and spiritual benefits from connecting with the natural world.

Meaning

Hayes reminds that we all do better when our lives are connected with meaning and purpose. Just because we are locked down at home does not mean that we cannot continue to actively pursue a stimulating life rich in growth and value. Hayes suggests we “re-examine what is truly meaningful” to us and “find new ways of living true to (our) heart’s deepest desires.” Consider reading Victor Frankl’s classic, Man’s Search for Meaning that was inspired by his experiences in several Nazi death camps. Create art, listen to music, and meditate. Read and write a little poetry. Look for opportunities to practice intentional or deliberate kindness as you pay it forward.

Accountability

And then there is our accountability to ourselves. Hayes writes, “When you are required to stay home, it’s easy to lose track of any structure. Waking up no longer adheres to a strict timetable and any chore can easily be postponed because there is nothing else on your schedule.” This is dangerous. We all do better sticking to a schedule and having a list of activities that we need or want to accomplish each day. Hayes writes, “Decide when you wake up, and what you do each morning. Commit to a time when you start with work and when you stop. Read a book you wanted to read; practice a new skill you wanted to practice. Grow, in the way you want to grow.” Here is a list of 100 things to do while stuck at home and here’s another 50 Ways to Stay Strong, Active, Neighborly, and Energetic (SANE).

Connection

Finally, Hayes reminds us of the most important challenge, to not forget to connect with other human beings, our friends and loved ones and anyone who might benefit from our reaching out to them. He writes, “We all crave human connection. It is one of our heart’s deepest desires, directly at the core of our being. Ask one hundred people about what matters most to them, and almost everybody will give you an answer that revolves around being connected.”

He continues, “Being safe is about physical distance, not social distance. Even if you have to stay home but can rise to the challenge and learn how to be more socially close than ever.

“Ask more meaningful questions. Listen more. Stop trying to be so interesting, and focus more on being interested. Talk with your friend. Send them pictures of things you did together. Feeling connected to other people goes beyond mere physical contact. Instead, it’s about being emotionally available for others, having people who are emotionally available to you, and knowing you share the same humanity and the same human experiences with billions of people all around the world.”

Clearly, COVID-19 is a crisis of such monumental proportions that it will be studied and debated for decades, and perhaps centuries to come. There aren’t any words truly adequate to describe this place in human history. It is difficult to comprehend the human suffering that is now exploding across our planet on top of what was already plaguing so many.

And yet what an opportunity for social, spiritual and political change. We are here and we matter to someone. When we show up in our lives and the lives of those around us, we make a difference. This is rich compost, this chaotic crash of fear, hope and transformation and through it we will grow. Let us grow together, wiser, more loving, happier even as we celebrate what is special, joyous and beautiful in each and all of us. We can go to war another day. On this day and the days to come let us make peace with ourselves and one another and our enemies if we have them. We are called to something greater now. Let us attend to this moment and rise as one. And be love, loved and loving as much as possible. Others will be grateful and you will be blessed. I promise.

Douglas Craig
Doug Craig graduated from college in Ohio with a journalism degree and got married during the Carter administration. He graduated from graduate school with a doctorate in Psychology, got divorced, moved to Redding, re-married and started his private practice during the Reagan administration. He had his kids during the first Bush administration. Since then he has done nothing noteworthy besides write a little poetry, survive a motorcycle crash, buy and sell an electric car, raise his kids, manage to stay married and maintain his practice for almost 30 years. He believes in magic and is a Dawes fan.
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