Some people are still out on the front lines caring for the sick. Some people are still working to do the essential tasks of picking up our garbage, stocking our supermarkets, delivering food, and keeping our streets safe. Our debt to all of them is immense. My gratitude and thanks will never be enough. They will undoubtedly come through this quarantine experience changed. We all will.
However, those of us doing our part by staying home, have more choices in the way our situations will play out. After a full month of being quarantined it is starting to feel repetitive. We need to focus on our personal goals. We need to rely on routines and habits to keep us making positive choices when motivation starts to ebb. If you’ve continued to wake up early, workout, eat right, spend time with your family, take moments of quiet reflection, and go to bed early, then you have set up a good system for yourself to continue to make positive change. If you are still struggling to find a routine, focus on that. Keep your alarms set, cook healthy meals, and turn off the screens for a couple of hours and read, exercise, meditate, stretch, play music, make art, or indulge in your hobbies.
I can’t claim to know what other people are going through, but I imagine one of the hardest things for people to do now and always is be alone with their thoughts. Set the time on your phone for 3 minutes, then shut your eyes and breathe and sit still. Unless you do this often, it is surprisingly difficult. Luckily we all have phones to distract us. Now we never have to sit and contemplate our thoughts because we have that distraction. But be careful because those thoughts can sneak up on you, so before you go to bed make sure you alter your mind with some alcohol or marijuana that will help distract you. Good you dodged those thoughts again.
I know a lot of people have actually spent some time alone with their thoughts and they seem to be the ones that are at peace in this situation. The blocking out of outside sensations and turning your attention inwards is a practice yogis call, “Pratyahara” The path of the yogi is described as eight limbed path (“ashtanga”). Of these eight limbs, the three I think are super important right now are the fourth, fifth, and sixth limbs. The fourth limb is “Pranayama” which is breath control it is characterized by various breathing exercises. The fifth limb is “Pratyahara” that withdrawal from the senses and turning your focus inward. The sixth limb is “Dharana” translated as concentration.
These limbs are somewhat sequential. First, you decide to breathe deeper. Then you start to ignore the outside world and focus your attention on inward on your breathing and your thoughts. Once you have accomplished that you can start to build the power of mind to concentrate. This happens naturally because your mind will want to wander. First the outer world will keep trying to overtake your senses: noises, smells, random itches, and other distractions will keep trying to draw your attention outwards. Furthermore, your own mind will try to wander and steal your focus away from your breath. Your mind will try over and over again to get you to be distracted. But the more your fight the distractions, the better you get at concentrating.
It is often a misstatement of the practice of meditation that you are trying to “clear your mind” or “empty your mind.” On the contrary, the goal is not to have no thoughts, the practice is to have the thought but not get attached to it. You see the distraction coming and acknowledge it for what it is, a distraction, and then let the thought go and turn your attention back inward. The better you get at this, the fewer distracting thoughts your mind starts to create and the faster you become at avoiding the attachment to the thought.
It is through the breath that we find the easiest access to turning our attention inwards. By slowing our breath down and focusing our attention on it we naturally stimulate our parasympathetic nervous system. That is the part of our nervous system that is transformative, it creates the condition in the body where we rest and digest. Working out is a stressor on our body and it often upregulates us and stimulates our sympathetic nervous system. In order for our body to rebuild itself and adapt to the stress we must enter the parasympathetic state. We flush the adrenaline and cortasol from our systems when we enter our parasympathetic state. Breath is our tool to affect state changes in the body. Fast, shallow breathing can cause us to go into a sympathetic state and slow deep breathing can switch us off and allow us to go into a parasympathetic state. It’s a user feature that many people do not know they have nor do they know how to use. It reminds me of the time I bought a Chromebook to use as a beater laptop that I could write on, carry to coffee shops, and even let my kids watch videos on. I had that for six months before I even realized it had a touch screen. In fact, I think it was my baby girl that was touching the screen that tipped me off.
Well all of us have had these bodies for years but didn’t realize there were all the features we could access. My hope is that over the course of the quarantine I get better at using this body of mine and likewise hope that I can help people use theirs better too. Stay safe.