The pandemic marks “a turning point in history,” the celebrated historian Margaret MacMillan wrote in The Economist. Fault lines have been exposed in the world we’ve constructed that could, she wrote, lead us either to “reform or calamity.” She said this before the uprising that emerged in cities worldwide after the killing of George Floyd. The pandemic had reduced distractions, so that hyper-tragic event exposed another fault line that could no longer be put out of mind. We can choose to care and do more about the world we’re making—or not.
Optimistically, the science fiction writer Kim Stanley Robinson wrote in an essay on newyorker.com that “The virus is rewriting our imaginations. What felt impossible has become thinkable… We know we’re entering a new world, a new era. We seem to be learning our way into a new structure of feeling.” The depth of feeling he speaks of seems a lot like mindfulness—the kind that we are all born with access to, not merely the current fad.
Writing from within the COVID-19 lockdown, I’m finding strangeness and vertigo. The word “week” seems meaningless. Days and months and years are all based on natural phenomena, but somebody had to invent the week, and it’s not holding up when many of the routines we shape our lives by have been removed.
Time—Gumby-like, bendy, contorted, and contortable—is not its old supposedly reliable self. The tyranny of clock and calendar have been removed, which could be a relief, but the resulting anarchy is unsettling, and the future is a fog of question marks.
Lots of people say things like, “It’s Thursday, really? How do you know? One day just runs into another into another into another.” My mind keeps conjuring up lines I had to memorize in high school, like “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow, creeps in this petty pace from day to day…” or verses from songs I listened to back then: “Time, time, time, see what’s become of me… I was so hard to please,” or “Yesterday…”
As time has become so amorphous, I’m reminded of Mindful’s original slogan: “taking time for what matters.” People used ask us what we meant by “what matters.” My answer was often vague. Now, I could make a list: The health of your own mind; the unbiased care in your heart for the suffering of all people; family and friends; the people who do all the things that support your life—grocers, cleaners, nurses, doctors, drivers and deliverers, and so many more we easily take for granted; the colors, sounds, smells, and tastes of nature, magisterial and magical.
May this turning point in history turn us toward the great strength each of us has within and celebrate it together as we rewrite what we imagine is possible.
Mindfulness practice itself is a moment of isolation, a retreat. We’re not advancing into the world to do; we’re taking a moment to be. The pandemic thrust many of us into a sudden retreat, inadvertently prompting us to reflect, indeed, on what matters, to us as individuals and in community. It’s a tremendous gift to have both the spirit of mindfulness and the formal practice at a time like this, and to spread that wealth to others if they need to find strength in their own heart and mind, because that is ultimately what mindfulness offers.
When we sit there, with no project, letting go of yesterday and tomorrow for a while, who we are without all our plans and routines is laid bare. What we may discover, as we cross the threshold beyond anxiety, is how much resilience, clarity, strength, and peace we have in our mind. We see that we’re not defined by what we consume or what we’ve made of ourselves. We find out what really matters.
And if you’re having trouble finding that strength, look to strength in numbers, reach out to others ready to help you find your way. May this turning point in history turn us toward the great strength each of us has within, and may we celebrate that strength together as we rewrite what we imagine is possible.
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