I hope all is well in your part of the world, even as things seem to tumble and swirl around in the eddies of these unusual days. Once again, I wanted to thank you for your messages and comments over the last week, many of which have been very inspiring.
Most of us seem to be in some form of ‘isolation’ at the moment, either in an imposed ‘lock down’ or a more voluntary ‘stay in place.’ But many of you seem to have found a great deal of richness in your newly delimited environments. For example, some of you have been keeping diaries of your mindful moments each day, mapping some instants of experience that felt positive or negative or simply neutral, and then reflecting on the ways these impacted on your days. Isn’t it amazing how much changes for us every moment of the day when we bring some attention to it, even when we’re ostensibly stuck in the same place for days or weeks on end? Perhaps you changed your toothpaste or your regular brand of toilet paper? Perhaps you did a workout on the rug in your living room, instead of on the rubberized floor of a gym? Perhaps you tried washing your hands with a new kind of soap? Perhaps you spoke with someone you love online instead of in-person, and really noticed the colour of their eyes for the first time? Perhaps you noticed the cherry blossoms bloom, flutter, and fall outside? ...
For me, here on Vancouver Island in Canada, I’ve been noticing the way the sunlight and shadows transform the trees outside my window, and I’ve been watching the clouds drifting across the startling blue sky, like my thoughts. Some of you will have already tried the ‘sky meditation’ as part of our ‘mindfulness of thoughts’ practice – well, having time to watch real clouds is a rather luxurious treat, at least for me. The heavy, slowly passing rain clouds always remind me of a line from a movie (starring the late, lamented Brandon Lee): ‘it can’t rain all the time.’ Like everything else, this too shall pass.
I had promised to write to you with some notes about mindfulness and isolation or solitude, and I’m delighted to see that so many of you have already made interesting and important insights into this topic through your own experiences over the last few weeks. In fact, my sense is that you’ve already discovered two of the most important approaches to solitude in this field. I’ll discuss each in turn: the first views isolation as aspirational, and the second views isolation as an illusion.
The first approach actually situates solitude as aspirational, as something for which practitioners search in order to help them create an environment conducive to their practice. The basic idea for this approach is that the craziness and stress of everyday life, and especially the emotional complexities of interpersonal relationships, obstruct our practice, like rocks or dams obstruct the flow of a river. You might imagine this approach as embodied by hermits or the desert fathers or monks (of various traditions) or other recluses. Many contemplative traditions praise the value of solitude as a support for immersive practice.
So, today, as we reflect on the various ways in which we have each moved into relative solitude, it might be helpful also to consider the opportunities for practice that such solitude might afford us. Rather than being (only) a source of stress and distress, there is also a way to view solitude as form of support.
This is not an easy mental shift for everyone, and part of the reason for that might be because (for most of us) our isolation at present has not been voluntary or desired or anticipated or planned. Rather, it has been (or feels as though it has been) imposed upon us. We might feel like victims of isolation, rather than like intentional recluses. Our solitude might feel more like solitary confinement or imprisonment, which are usually seen as forms of punishment.
However, as you’ll remember from our course, one of the things that mindfulness attempts to teach us is that we can transform the quality of our daily lives by making deliberate changes to the way we pay attention to ourselves and the world around us. At least to some extent, the experiential quality of each moment can be sculpted by our intentional choices – if we choose to engage with ‘staying in place’ as a supportive form of solitude rather than a punitive form of confinement, then, at least in those moments of intentional attention, that is indeed what we will experience. Perhaps that will be for a few seconds, or for 30 minutes, or for an entire day at a time, but all of those possibilities are better than nothing. Try it right now … can you find a way to embrace your temporary quarantine as an opportunity for mindful self-reflection, even if only for a moment of quiet?
A second approach to isolation in the field of mindfulness, which seems to turn the previous approach on its head, is simply to observe its basic irrelevance and impossibility. We are never completely isolated. We can never remove all distractions, all demands, all attachments, or all aversions. In this approach, the deliberate search for solitude and isolation is muddle-headed – it mistakes an attempt to control and manipulate the material world around us for an attempt to discipline and nurture our internal awareness of it. This is another way of saying that no matter where you go, no matter how much you can (or can’t) control your physical environment, it’s still YOU who is there. In the immortal words of Jon Kabat-Zinn: wherever you go, there you are.
In other words, as we’ve seen in our course, one possible key to peaceful, enriching experiences is simply the quality of attention that we bring to them rather than material substance of things themselves. Eating a raisin. Washing our hands. Sitting in silence. All of these things can be wonderfully luxurious or invisibly routine. Likewise, being on top of a mountain or sitting next to a silent lake can be tediously boring or gloriously uplifting. And so, being in our living room surrounded by noise and family will mean different things to each us, depending upon the quality of attention that we bring to being there and then.
So, while the first approach to isolation might help us if we are quarantined alone (or just more alone than usual) – it helps us overcome the anxious feeling of imprisonment – this second approach might be helpful if our quarantine finds us surrounded by more family or people than we’re used to in such a confined environment – it helps us overcome the stressful feeling of being trapped or penned in. Many contemplative traditions include this kind of insight as an alternative to (or perhaps even as an antidote to) monastic imperatives. This is the quest for peace in a frantic world (rather than the quest for an externally peaceful world).
As an opportunity for practice, this second approach reminds me of the well-known motto ‘train hard and fight easy,’ which is often attributed to elite military units like the SAS. The idea here is that if you can practice even in the midst of the turmoil of everyday life – if you can transform your cramped, crowded apartment into a place of peace even more a moment – then imagine how much easier it will be when you’re not ‘confined in place.’ You might think of this as a training opportunity, as though you’ve added weights at the gym.
OK, I think that’s more than enough from me for this week, but I hope this was useful. The work involved in finding (or creating) a form of isolation that feels supportive for you is not trivial, but it is also not an all-or-nothing game. Each and every moment that you transform for yourself each day is a win. So, be gentle with your goals and reserve judgement on your successes, especially in such testing times.
Take care, be well, and remember: it can’t rain all the time.
Dr. Chris Goto-Jones. Leiden University - Centre for Innovation; University of Victoria. www.mentalpraxis.com
During the 2020/21 COVID19 pandemic, Chris Goto-Jones started writing periodic 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.