By John Lee Pendall
My governor recently issued a shelter-in-place order thanks the promiscuous nature of COVID-19.
Basically, until (at least) April 7th, all Illinoisans have been ordered to stay at home. At the same time, all “non-essential” businesses have been ordered to shut down (they’ve also closed all the public parks for some reason). We’re allowed to leave our homes to go to the store, visit friends and family, and even go for walks (as long as we maintain social distancing), but that’s about it.
The hospitals and clinics are still open, of course, but only if you have a dire emergency, and you’re supposed to call in first.
All the schools are closed, so kids are doing their best to study and take their tests virtually. This can be challenging for kids who have school-issued iPads but who don’t have WiFi at home.
The grocery stores are still open, but the shelves are often empty due to panic buyers hoarding supplies that they don’t need. This happened even after the governor told everyone not to panic buy. All anyone needs to do is buy enough supplies to last them a week.
The only people who need to stock up are high-risk groups (like the elderly, and those with breathing problems or compromised immune systems) and those infected by the virus.
Everyone else can just chill. Seriously, just mellow out. Binge-watch your favorite shows on Netflix, help your kids with their homework, have a nice long bath, eat some chips and do the laundry. And whenever you feel cabin fever setting in, feel free to sit in your yard and listen to the birds, feel the wind and sun on your face, read a book and try to immerse yourself in your favorite songs.
I’m blind as fuck, and my parents decided to buy a house in the middle of nowhere. So, I was basically living under a shelter-in-place order for 21 years. It’s ironic that now that I’m in the city, where I can actually get out and do things, there’s absolutely nothing to do. Life’s funny.
So, this is probably a bit easier for me than a lot of people since I’m used to social distancing and isolation. It took a long time to adjust though, so here some tips I learned in Nowhereland.
I know that no one wants to be stuck at home, run out of TP, get sick, or—especially—die, but beyond following the CDC’s guidelines, there’s very little we can do to control that. There’s no point in worrying about things we can’t control.
“I know, but knowing that doesn’t help. How do I stop worrying about it?”
Great question, Harvey. It’s never enough to know something intellectually; we’ve also gotta know it emotively and viscerally. If you haven’t stumbled on a heart-level understanding of impermanence, there are still a few things you can do to ease hurt, fear, and loneliness. We’ve just gotta log some hours in mind-training.
Patience is vital, and we cultivate it by remembering that, “This is temporary.” COVID might be fucking with our lives for weeks or even months, but it is temporary. Remembering that helps us savor the good times and endure the bad times. To get the full benefits, it’s helpful to remember that whatever we experience—each sight, sound, person, place, or thing—whether it’s pleasant or unpleasant is temporary. Patience is mindfulness of impermanence.
Whenever you’re lonely, give someone a call, they’re probably lonely too. Or try your hand at journal writing, putting yourself down on paper. Once something’s on paper, then it doesn’t need to be in your head anymore. Writing is kind of like an SD card, external storage for thoughts and memories that we don’t need to carry around with us. I guess what I’m saying is, “Engage your creative, appreciative, and educational passions,” and if you don’t have any, explore some.
I don’t recommend binge-eating chocolate cake at 1 a.m. while standing over the kitchen sink, or drinking two bottles of red wine each night (in both cases, been there, done that). Morality is being mindful of what makes you/others happy and what causes harm; wisdom is doing what makes us happy and avoiding what causes harm.
When we do have to head to the store, that’s a great time to practice generosity. I’ve always let people cut ahead of me in line if they have less than I do, and I if there is only one of something left, I’ll usually leave it for someone else. It’s great to treat people kindly, politely, and with a little humor too, since we’re all in this together.
Anyone in retail could definitely use a laugh or a kind word right now. And if your friend, family member, or neighbor comes knocking asking if you have a spare roll of TP or a bottle of hand sanitizer, share—even if you’re almost out.
Why? Because then, when you’re isolated, at least you won’t feel like you’re a greedy piece of shit. Thoughts can turn sour really quick when you’re alone, and it can be difficult to interrupt negative mental loops. Practicing generosity helps with that, it introduces something positive into the mind that can even give us some light during dark times. Generosity is mindfulness of suffering.
All that said, it’s impossible to ignore all negative feelings. You’re going to feel anxious, you’re going to get depressed, you’re going to feel lonely and you’re going to struggle with not forming cynical views about our species. Whenever that happens, that means we’re slacking on our mindfulness, patience, morality and generosity.
Once we start practicing these things, we’ve got to keep practicing them to the best of our abilities—and you will be more able over time. Practice stops the second we forget that we’re practicing. So somewhere in our hearts and minds, we have to be aware that we’re practicing, that’s we’re trying to learn, grow, and be more empathetic. Dedication is mindfulness of our states of mind. Wisdom is responding to those states in skillful ways.
Isolation can be hell for a scattered mind that tends to wander. It’s so easy to grab a hold of some random thought or feeling that comes across our minds. When we do that, then we go on a ride with it. Instead of being pushed around by our minds, we’re working at learning to use some kind of focusing method, whether it’s one-point attention or open awareness. If you’ve never meditated before, then one-point attention is the usual go-to.
As Kunzang Pelden said, “If we fail to subdue our minds, it will be impossible for us to overcome anything else.” So, I probably should’ve went into concentration at the beginning. Concentration is mindfulness of attention; wisdom is seeing how attention can help or hurt us, and then putting attention back onto our meditation method.
So, whenever you feel alone, agitated or fearful about the future, that means you’ve let your mind wander. If you bring it back to your method, then you’ll be able to deal with everything easier.
There’s also a third type of concentration that I don’t recommend for everyone. It’s basically emptiness meditation, where you focus on whatever comes through you mind then try to find it within itself. You kind of crack it open and see what’s inside. It’s actually kinda fun and entertaining once you get the hang of it, but it can also stir up a lot of hurt, so I don’t recommend doing it without a Dharma friend on hand.
Of all the Buddhisty terms there are, this is the one I’ll never translate into English because no translation does it justice. In this situation, surviving shelter-in-place and the COVID catastrophe, Prajna is… the state of mind that happens when we put everything else we talked about into practice. Prajna is basically, “It’s alright, this is a process.” Prajna is mindfulness of the teachings, and mindfulness of mindfulness.
I didn’t plan on using the Six Perfections as a template for surviving shelter-in-place, but here we are. All I can say is that, for the decades I lived in relative isolation, well, they’re how I made it through. And they’re how I’m making it through it now.
I hope that COVID-19 gets the fuck out of here soon, that everyone can resume their lives, that no one else dies because of it, and that everyone who’s grieving can find some peace. Deep bows to you all, and take care.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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