What’s the mindful response to coronavirus? Amid the turmoil, is it possible to create peace? Is it all just a horror show, or may it be that somewhere in the experience we can find a silver lining?
Mindfulness of hand washing
I must begin with a confession. I recently read an article offering medical advice on living in the age of coronavirus. It began with the most basic of subjects: how to wash your hands. I realized that I have been doing it wrong. I haven’t been washing for twenty seconds – that is, for the duration of two renditions of “Happy Birthday,” or the recitation of two Vajrasattva purification mantras, take your pick. I have not been intertwining my fingers as prescribed. Nor do I always ensure that my hands are completely dry afterwards. Why? Because I am usually in too much of a hurry to get onto the next urgent thing.
Since reading that article, every time I wash my hands I have been doing so more mindfully – paying attention to what I am doing with a deliberation I previously lacked. It is interesting how much peace can be found in such a simple act. Our subjective experience of time slows when we bring ourselves back from what neuroscientists call ‘narrative mode’ – the world of our thoughts – into ‘direct mode’ – what we can see, hear, smell, taste and touch.
I am going out on a limb here, but I would suggest that the need for more mindful hand-washing probably applies to a lot of us. From my observation of hand-washing behaviour in the Gents toilets of restaurants and airports – even in the past week – I can hazard a guess about how many men follow the twenty second rule. It wouldn’t be a happy statistic – definitely sub 33%. To make matters worse, it can be hard to avoid touching the same door handle or other surfaces as those unsanitary grubs who feel no need to wash their hands at all.
Mindfulness of face touching
Which brings us to the next practice recommended by doctors: avoid touching our own faces. Coronavirus penetrates our bodies via a moist eye, lip or nostril. How does it get there? Usually we give it a free ride on our fingers.
Have you ever tried being mindful of not touching your face? It’s amazing what a sudden compulsion you have to scratch your cheek, rub your eyelid, or stroke your nose. Bringing to conscious awareness actions that are usually automatic, we can begin to change them. Which is especially important when we are out in the world, coming into contact with shopping trolleys, counters and other surfaces on which any number of unpleasant, microscopic bugs may lurk. The avoidance of face-touching is one reason why some people choose to wear face masks. And of course the frequent use of hand sanitizers offers another opportunity to be mindful – that is, to pay attention to the present moment, deliberately and non-judgmentally.
Mindfulness of speech
Just as we live in a world with people who don’t share our ideas about physical hygiene, many are pretty messy in the verbal department too. Repeating sensational and relentlessly negative media stories, speculating on how terrible things could get, normalizing other people’s panic-driven actions – not only does none of this help, it actively harms ourselves and others.
Negative thoughts lead to negative feelings and, within minutes, change our body chemistry for the worse. If you don’t believe that thoughts trigger physiological change, consider sexual arousal. What’s more, even if we like to vent, what about the impact of our speech on others? Do we really know what effect we’re having on those around us?
It seems to me that people today are more sensitized, anxious and fragile than ever before. Perhaps we could all benefit from being more discriminating about what friends, acquaintances and media sources we pay attention to. Never has that illuminating quote attributed to Bernard Meltzer seemed so appropriate: “Before you speak ask yourself if what you are going to say is true, is kind, is necessary, is helpful. If the answer is no, maybe what you are about to say should be left unsaid.”
Mindfulness of mind
Coronavirus is spreading rapidly around the world, rendering 14% of infected people severely ill and 5% critically ill. As of 3rd March, the World Health Organization says it is too early to make any conclusive statement about the death rate, but experts are estimating anywhere between 1% – 4%: a very wide margin. The biggest threat posed by coronavirus would seem to be that so little is currently known about it. We spread it before we even know we have it and there is presently no vaccine or cure.
That said, containment policies so far are pretty effective, and every day we’re able to inhibit the spread of the virus is a day closer to its retreat. Public health organisations around the world are working rapidly and pulling in the same direction. The best brains in the medical profession are working on solutions.
For most of us, the main challenge we face is not physical, but mental: how to deal with the stressors of living with a new biological threat. Many of us are experiencing these already: our pension/401k/superannuation has just slumped in value, directly impacting on our retirement income. Should we ride out the storm or move to cash? We’ve booked a vacation later this year, but not travel insurance. Do we hope things will turn around or potentially risk losing money and who knows what level of inconvenience if the worst happens? What if we are older, or already have compromised respiratory systems – can we risk going to that conference/party and how much can we trust using public transport?
What we need to do is to make the best call we can about such decisions, then move on, reviewing matters only if the information changes. What we tend to do is to make a decision, then worry it’s not the right one. Or to dither, anxiously, fretting over every article or story we hear that challenges our point of view. Our problem is no longer the coronavirus. It is managing our thoughts about the coronavirus.
Advice frequently offered by the Dalai Lama is that if something can be fixed, why worry about it, and if it can’t be fixed, what is to be gained from worrying about it? This goes beyond a glib homily because he also suggests how this it might be done – specifically by acknowledging, accepting and letting go of negative thoughts as and when they arise.
If we experience anxiety and depression we are, typically, victims of our own harmful cognition. Instead of showing unhelpful thoughts the door, we entertain them – something which not only encourages them to stay, but makes their return much more likely. The thoughts themselves aren’t doing this to us. We’re doing it to ourselves. Mere thoughts, elevated with undue attention and importance, become facts, truths, even heartfelt convictions. One of the most helpful things we can learn is to undo the habit of being a “Thought Victim” which, for most of us, is our greatest cause of suffering.
The coronavirus is as good a place as any to start. Of course we should plan, be alert, and keep informed about the virus. But when this lapses into habitual patterns of negativity, it is up to us to step in and take action. I’ve made a short audio recording on the subject of thought management and also a guided meditation to practice this vital skill, which you’ll find under the Free Stuff button on my website – www.davidmichie.com. Look out for ‘An introduction to mind watching mind meditation’ and ‘Mind watching mind meditation.’
In summary, mindfulness offers not simply a helpful response to coronavirus. It presents an opportunity to create more calm in each day by cultivating new mindful habits. To become more aware of who and what we give our attention to. And most especially, to better manage our own minds, freeing up precious mental bandwidth to focus on those things that offer greatest fulfilment – both for our own benefit, as well as for others.
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