The last week or so has seen some dangerous, disturbing, and frightening developments, especially in the USA. Some of you have written to me to express your heartache about the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis on 25 May. For some, your response has been despair and horror, for others anger and outrage, and for a few something like resignation. And then many of you appear to be struggling with how to feel about the protests, the destruction, and the violence that has been unleashed in the period since then. Some of you have been directly involved.
To be honest with you, I too have been listening to various responses to this terrible situation and I have also been struggling with how to respond. As I mentioned in my mail last week, the COVID pandemic has both revealed and exacerbated social and material inequalities in all societies. Racism and other forms of bigotry and chauvinism, none of which are new to our societies, seem to be being emboldened as the pressure-cooker of lock-down is beginning to be released. People are venting, sometimes in the most offensive and dangerous ways. ...
I hope this message finds you well. And I hope, too, that you’re finding some support for yourself and others in your mindfulness practice, whatsoever that might look like for you at the moment. These are complicated emotional times for many of us, if not for all, and there is no shame in accepting that we might need a little extra support to help us get through, or to bolster us enough to be able to help others as we would like.
Judging by the messages I’ve been receiving over the last week or so, I’m guessing that quite a few of us are now trying to come to terms with the sensations and feelings that emerge as the ‘lock down’ eases and more people are moving out of isolation into something that resembles society once again. Of course, that emergence, such as it is, is far from being a return to ‘normality,’ whatever that might mean for you. The virus that occasioned this lock down has not vanished, and people are still at risk, especially the more vulnerable segments of the population. Our responsibilities to each other are not eased just because the terms of our lock downs have eased. Indeed, the more freely we move through the streets and stores and pathways of our world, the greater our responsibility to be mindful of our responsibilities to others and ourselves. Ironically, frustrating and disorienting as it may have been, being shut into our homes for the last weeks made our movements much simpler, since we were not endangering people with our actions while sealed behind our doors and windows.
It seems that there are two main themes to your messages this week: ...
First of all, my apologies for taking an extra few days to write this email. As for many of you, I know, this has been a challenging time for me as well. So, I’m a little behind with things. Many thanks for your patience and understanding.
The last week or so has seen some big changes for many people, as the conditions of ‘lock down’ have eased in many countries around the world. Perhaps you are one of the people impacted by this change, and perhaps you’re not. Whichever is the case for you, it’s good for all of us to remember that the easing of ‘lock down’ restrictions is not the same as the ending of the pandemic – it’s simply a change in the way we’re living with it.
Judging by some of the emails I’ve received, I’m going to guess that the significance of this change is going to take a little while to settle. On the one hand, for some people, the easing of restrictions feels like hope; I’ve had a few messages that spoke of the beginning of a return to ‘normality’ (whatever that turns out to be). On the other hand, for some people, the easing of restrictions feels like anxiety; even without clear progress on a vaccine or a cure, many people now feel obliged to be outside amongst other people...
I know it’s hard to believe, but time is actually passing as its usual pace. No matter how much it might have seemed to drag on (or flash by), last week was simply another week. Judging by some of your emails, it certainly seems to be case that many of us are experiencing the passage of time differently at the moment. For some, it feels like time is passing very slowly, making the present circumstances of quarantine and uncertainty feel interminable – as though we will never get out of them. For others, the days are just vanishing as soon as they begin, and we get to the end of them unsure what we did and where they went.
Sometimes philosophers refer to this idea of ‘lived time’ as ‘duration,’ precisely to differentiate between how time feels to us as we move through our days and how it continues to pass in the scientific way at the same … time. For most everyday purposes, the fact that we can measure time accurately to within 1 second every billion years with an atomic clock is far less important than the fact that anxiety, stress, boredom, or depression might make that second feel like a lifetime. That is to say, ‘duration’ matters to us. And, thankfully, although there is nothing we can do about the flow of time, we do have some degree of control over duration. ...
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? ...
I hope this little note finds you, and that it finds you well, even as we all continue to navigate these uneven and unusual days.
For many people, these are days of concerted effort and deliberate action, even if only in the very small things that we might normally take for granted. Some of you have told me about making the choice to establish new routines for your days, perhaps including walking or exercise or painting or meditating. Some of you have written to describe your renewed resolve for your mindfulness practice, attempting to timetable 10 minutes or 20 … or 40 … or 90 into each morning, afternoon, or evening, as though replacing your regular work schedule with a practice schedule. You’re setting goals to give your days shape and purpose. You’re exerting some control over the world as you encounter it, perhaps fully cognisant of the fact that there’s so much that is probably out of our control right now. Many of you have asked me what I think about this …
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? ...
It’s been great to hear how you’ve been doing during these unusual days – many thanks to everyone who’s been in touch, and my apologies for being unable to get back to everyone individually.
Further to my previous note about the various ways in which your mindfulness practice might be able to support you through these days of anxiety and dis-ease, I wanted to let you know that we’ve been developing some new meditations for you to try while you’re physically (and perhaps socially) distancing yourselves. For instance, some of you asked for some guidance on the idea of the ‘hand washing practice,’ which I outlined last time. So, we’ll post some audio guidance for that and other things very soon.
In the meantime, I wanted to respond to some of the comments and questions that I’ve been receiving from course participants over the last week or so. Most people, for instance, are observing higher than normal levels of stress as their daily routines have been disrupted and their freedoms of action restricted. People are describing wandering aimlessly around their homes. Wringing their hands. Biting their nails. Being unable to settle down or focus on activities. Perhaps you will recognise these behaviours? ...
People quite often talk about how ‘these are stressful times.’ After a while, such sentiments fade into platitudes and we risk losing sight of what they actually mean; they’re as routine as tying our shoelaces or saying ‘good morning.’ And yet, these last few weeks have been particularly stressful for many societies and individuals, as we all struggle to understand what it means to live in the midst of a pandemic. We strive to understand our responsibilities at these times, even as we try to guard against illness and panic and dis-ease of all kinds. At such times, the observation that ‘these are stressful times’ takes on particular weight, and it would be wise for us to be mindful of how that weight impacts upon us and on those around us.
I’ve been receiving quite a few messages from people asking about how their mindfulness practice might help to support them in these stressful times, and so I thought I should simply send this out to our wider community in case this is a general concern. ...
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.