I’ve been Zoom-ing along, which is to say using that Internet conferencing platform to participate in online yoga and meditation classes; I’ve had a couple of Skype dates; and I’m having “Zoom cocktails” tonight with some neighbors. My brother created a family text group he calls “The Clan.” Much of it is filled with updates on what we’re doing — a lot of jigsaw puzzles and crafts, for sure — but also about how we’re feeling. A sister-in-law refers to “this challenging and uncertain time.” A niece advises us of an online class about “well-being and happiness.”
Under a stay-at-home order, because nothing is open except for essential services, I’m doing my best to stay outwardly connected to friends, family and colleagues.
But I’m also connecting inward.
This winter I spent a week at a silent meditation retreat in snowy Finland. The intent was to disconnect from our usual ways of being: No talking. No use of devices. No reading. No sex and no eye contact with others. (I was permitted to keep a journal because I was on assignment; otherwise that, too, would have been forbidden.)
I initially thought the prohibition on eye contact was silly if not excessive. But then I came to realize that there’s a language of the eyes. Think about how much we connect through our gaze: humor (the eye roll), flirtation (the arched eye) and anger (the perfect smoky eye).
Early on, Leena Pennanen, one of our teachers who runs Finland’s Center for Mindfulness, advised, “The goal is not to do but to be.” Distractions and diversions are actions — “doing” of some sort, Pennanen said, reminding me of what Jon Kabat-Zinn wrote in Mindfulness for Beginners: Reclaiming the Present Moment — And Your Life: “If we are not careful, it is all too easy to fall into becoming more of a human doing than a human being, and forget who is doing all the doing, and why.”
With shutdowns and lockdowns in place, I understand the urge to continue to be a “human doing.”
At the retreat, the goal was to reconnect with our inner selves (our feelings!), a terrain that is challenging to me, especially as a guy who’s flown more than 2 million air miles in the past two decades. But having cut the external umbilical cord, I now suddenly found myself face to face with what Bob Stahl, a senior teacher at Brown University Mindfulness Center, referred to in a talk as “our thousand joys and sorrows.” I leaned toward the sorrows, which I’d describe as feelings of loneliness, fear, grief and anger. Busyness masks a great deal.
We meditated for 11 hours a day. “Who’s counting the days?” I scribbled in my journal in longhand. “Who’s counting the number of sits?” (Believe me, I was.) Today, with the whole world confronting coronavirus, I am doing the same thing: How many days, weeks or months before we can come out from under our rocks, sit down face-to-face, embrace and hug again? I’m asking myself.
At the retreat I feared that I was the outlier; but I could see I wasn’t alone in this restlessness. My fellow retreaters got up, then sat down. Or laid down. A fellow turned his chair away from us, and meditated looking out the window. It felt as though he’d given us the finger.
Now many are being bludgeoned with stay-at-home directives, more than 90 percent of Americans. “It is not easy meeting change, especially when it’s not welcome,” said Stahl to me this week in an email. “And yet, this is the way it is right now.”
What did I learn in my meditation retreat that might be helpful now?
Be honest about the challenge. On day four of the retreat we had a group check-in, where eight of us could talk together for 30 minutes. I went first and confessed to my struggle of detaching myself from my devices. One by one the others piled on: “I’m exhausted from doing nothing — nothing!” “I am so unsettled.” “My life is unmanageable.” “Too much stress, too much fear of living in these times.” And “too much pain of loneliness.” A mother broke down in tears, missing her son. A scientist told us, “I fear for the planet.”
“We are frankly a beautiful collection of frayed and wobbly human beings,” I wrote later that day. “Connection made.”
“For many of us,” Stahl explained later, “it’s not easy to be inside our skin, muscle, connective tissue, bones, bone marrow and being.”
Back to the now, my friend Jennifer, a publicist in New York, emails me an update about her now confined coronavirus life: “I was so much better last week. Now I feel every breath and wonder if I have tightness. I’m constantly feeling my face for temperature change.”
Her disclosure allows me to do so in kind: “I’m working, worrying, meditating, worrying, eating, worrying,” I tell her, “This week is so much harder.”
Do something for others. Before the start of the retreat I had obsessively confirmed that there would be coffee, which is how I became barista-in-chief. Each morning I arrived at the hall at 6:30, 30 minutes before everyone else, to fire up the water.
Yes, I wanted my cup o’ joe, but this task allowed me to give something to the group. In silence, eyes averted, the others nodded in thanks, or made a small namaste bow. This, I realized, is “being” with my new circle of friends. I was unhurried enough to recognize this is what’s often called the “kindness contagion,” where kindness begets kindness in a viral way.
Now I’m calling friends who are home alone, to make sure they’re okay. I’ve put a Post-it reminder on my door to remind me later this week to call back a friend in Los Angeles whose husband just died; she is not okay.
Allow for the unexpected. By the end of the retreat my hips and back had settled. My mind, too. I’d lost count of the remaining hours of meditation to come, just as I’d forgotten how many we had done already. Without so many of our modern-day distractions — especially devices — I found myself sleeping better than in years, which meant I was actually rested.
After one of the final meditation sits, I wrote in my journal: “A slow turning to the big question on the horizon — what do I do with my life? A life more directed at service?” All those cocktails get-togethers — Zoom or otherwise — have prevented me from this inner monologue. At long last, it’s begun.
And now, I’ve been self-quarantined at home for nearly four weeks. I’ve lost count of the days since this all began; and like everyone I have no idea how many are to come. I wonder, “When will it end?” and the thought makes me very uncomfortable.
“Impermanence can be a powerful teacher, it can help us awaken, and remind us of the preciousness and fragility of life,” Jan Landry, a co-leader of the retreat, reminds me in an email. She urges me “to live fully, here, now, to become present.”
I’m not immune to how woo-woo these words may sound. Still, I translate them in my own way. I am going on food shopping runs for older neighbors, helping them to limit their exposure to the virus. I am posting a photograph daily on Facebook, one that embodies beauty and gratitude to remind us all that this pandemic cannot kill our spirit. I am telling jokes in phone calls and on social media — bad ones I admit — but they sometimes make people laugh. (“Did you see the cartoon of the dog and his master who’s wearing one of those dog cone collars? Says the dog, ‘I’m just trying to stop you from touching your face!’ ”)
On one level these might seem like “doing” — after all they’re actions — but they feel like a part of the new me that’s emerging and turning my life to be more of service to others.
And maybe that’s some good that will come about from these very unsettling times.
So Zoom inward. Who knows what you might find there.