I hope this email finds you safe and well and … perhaps even sane? These are trying times for our bodies as well as for our hearts and minds, so it’s appropriate to check in with ourselves occasionally to see what’s going on and what we might need. Like putting your mask on before helping others (precisely so that you can help others) on a plane, self-care matters a lot in times of difficulty. Ironically, this often means that self-care matters most when it’s least on our minds.
So, in that spirit, let me ask you: how are you doing right now – what do you need at this moment? Take a moment to breathe, to settle, and to feel what the answer might be for you, accepting that it might be different from the needs of others; it might surprise you. Perhaps you’re more stressed than you realised? Are your shoulders taught and tense? Is your breath high, shallow, and tight? Is your mind racing in search of new distractions? How many windows/apps are open on your electronic device right now? ...
So now, breathe.
Once again, many thanks for all the emails over the last week. It has been great to hear how you are making use of your mindfulness practice to support yourself during these unusual days, and also to hear how these unusual days might also be supporting your practice. It sounds as though many of you are finding ways to keep some kind of balance in your new routines, challenging as it might be. Remember, balance is always a challenge, not only now, so don’t feel bad about struggling with it.
One thing that has arisen in the last week or so is the question of the relationship between body awareness and so-called ‘social distancing.’ While most of us have now internalized the importance of maintaining a distance of about 2m (that’s metres not miles!) from the people around us, it’s also becoming clear that actually maintaining this space requires a kind of effort and awareness that easily lapses.
In a previous email, I wrote a little about the challenge of patience, frustration, and compassion in these stressful times. This was not only directed towards the people we encounter in our quarantine ‘bubbles’ and the people we encounter when we venture anxiously outside those bubbles, but also directed towards ourselves. Today, I’d like to offer a few words of reflection on those moments when we lose awareness of how much space our bodies use up in the world …
What does this mean? Well, I suppose it means something like this: our ability to maintain social distancing relies upon our awareness of the space we occupy and the space occupied by other people. Our sense of this ‘inter-relational space’ (or the ‘in-between’) is something we usually take for granted. That is, it is rather automated. Anyone who has encountered somebody with a different sense of the ‘in-between’ (or of ‘personal space’) will probably have experienced the jarring awkwardness of feeling out of place; we feel either too close or too distant – intruded upon or alienated from. Instinctively, we step back or lean in to adjust the gap, bringing it back into the realms our ‘comfort zone.’
For many of us, keeping 2m from everyone is likely to feel very strange and disconnected, and yet this is what we are being asked to do. We are discomforted. We are, very literally, outside our comfort zones. And being constantly outside our comfort zones takes effort. One consequence of this might be that we feel tired and stressed simply by navigating space, by walking down the aisle at the grocery store, or by jogging along the sidewalk.
Another consequence is likely to be that we sometimes lapse and drop back into ‘autopilot,’ just naturally falling into a more conventional sense of distance, or a more conventional expectation of the behaviour of others. For example, we might experience this in the grocery store when we stop to look at an item on the shelf and for a few moments lose ourselves in its label or in memories of what you were doing last time you ate that particular pasta (or whatever it is). And while you’re doing that, others in the store are standing at the end of the aisle, tapping their feet, unable to get by, waiting for you to notice them and respect social distance, or others are pushing past you in forgetful (or sometimes grumpy) disregard of social distancing. Indeed, some people blunder through the world with very little awareness of the existence (or integrity) of other people.
So, what’s my point? I guess my point is that one of things the practice of mindfulness encourages is an awareness of the boundaries of our body (often in the form of our skin) and the space that our body occupies (sometimes in the form of the texture of a cushion or the floor, or the movement of the air, or the temperature, or the occurrence of sounds, or the presence of other people etc etc). If you’ve tried the ‘mindful walking’ practices, you’ll already be aware of how challenging it is to move through the physical world in a mindful way – you’ll know how long it takes and the effort required.
It’s possible that it could help (or at least be interesting) to see how it might feel to make use of the constant effort involved in maintaining ‘social distance’ in public places as an opportunity for the cultivation of mindful awareness. If that distance is disorientating, what does the disorientation feel like? How do you know you’re disoriented? Remember, there is no ‘natural’ distance for the space ‘in between,’ there’s only the distance to which we’ve each become accustomed in various contexts. What kinds of skilful choices can you make about the meaning and intention of a 2m gap today, and how can you work with the discrepancy between that intention and the sensations you experience whilst maintaining that distance? Rather than being an expression of alienation, can maintaining that particular distance be the embodiment of respect, of compassion, or even of affection?
Another interesting and possibly helpful experiment in our ‘mindfulness lab’ might be to see how our ‘open awareness’ practices might work in more public situations. In this course, we learn various mindfulness practices that encourage us to look inwards at our sensations, emotions, and thoughts, but we also learn ways in which mindfulness opens us to the world (and the people) around us. The last step of some of our practices (after feelings and thoughts and sounds) involve so-called ‘open awareness’ – that is, allowing our awareness to touch into whatever is happening around or within us, as it happens or arises. How might it be if we folded our awareness of a 2m gap and the presence of other people around us into that practice? Noticing whenever our mind wanders from that awareness (into reveries about the pasta sauce, or whatever), and then gently but firmly inviting our attention back to where we intended it to be? How might it be to move through the world purposefully aware of the other people around us?
Now, as with almost everything to do with mindfulness, this could be a very simple but excruciatingly difficult practice. But, just as we considered last week, remember that every moment of success counts. The goal is not to sustain this state perfectly, but rather the work is in the constant endeavour to return to it. The Way is a path not a destination – that’s why we call it a way. So, tread softly and move with grace.
OK, I think this is more than enough from me this week.
I wish you safety and balance and health in the days ahead.
Dr. Chris Goto-Jones.
Leiden University - Centre for Innovation; University of Victoria. www.mentalpraxis.com
During the 2020 COVID19 pandemic, Chris Goto-Jones writes weekly emails to the participants of the MOOC DeMystifying Mindfulness on Coursera and FutureLearn. Following requests to put them all in one place, they are reproduced here.