Calming the Mind in the Time of COVID-19

As news about coronavirus flooded every media outlet in March and early April, my mind began to jump all over the place like a scared rabbit.

            One day, as predictions became increasingly dire, I pulled a book off my shelf, “The Yoga Sutras.” The sutras are a series of aphorisms, or sayings, that are meant to help the reader explore their perceptions of reality and how these impact their responses to the world.

            The premise of the Sutras is that it is possible for each of us to achieve peace of mind in virtually any situation by mastering the way we think. One of the first yoga sutras is: Yogas chitta vritti nirodha.  Or, “Harnessing the power of the concentrated mind provides us with the means for restraining mental chatter so that we may see what is.”      

            Could this help me? 

            In the midst of what was sounding like the end of the world, I sat down, took a deep breath, and contemplated the idea of “harnessing the power of the concentrated mind.”  That is, I decided to be present in the moment.  I shut off my computer. I took more deep breaths and brought my full awareness to my surroundings. Paying attention to what was actually going on in this moment helped.  Somehow I felt calmer.

            I met a friend for a walk outdoors, both of us mindful of ample “social distancing.” For that single hour we turned our attention away from coronavirus and focused on each other’s company. We both had recently seen The Great Gatsby, and had fun pondering the literary question that might seem irrelevant in the midst of a pandemic but was somehow still fascinating: Why is it nearly impossible to convey, in real life, what Fitzgerald meant when he wrote that Daisy Buchanan’s voice sounded like money?  

            In the afternoon I stood outside and watched the birds. With snow beginning to melt and temperatures warming, the chickadees were ignoring the birdfeeder and chasing each other instead. I heard a familiar soft whistle and looked up to see the first bluebird of the year in our neighborhood. Later, I called my siblings to see how everyone was doing, and checked in with a friend living along. Alan and I made another excellent dinner. Spending time at home has not only led to a very clean house but also some excellent meals.

            None of this changed the seriousness of the coronavirus outbreak. But what it did was allow me to calm the fearful chatter in my head and to approach the situation in a different way.

            First, although I had a strong attachment to the idea of certainty, and wanted to know for certain just how bad things would get, there really was no definitive way of knowing.  And therefore my incessant checking for updates to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus map, for example, or Colorado COVID 19 Case Summaries, could not provide certainty but instead just increased the anxious chatter in my head.

            Second, people died unexpectedly every day. Lots of people. My belief that somehow, if I had all the facts, I could prevent myself and those I love from ever being one of those people was false and had always been false. It didn’t exactly make me happy to recognize this—but it made me feel steadier to understand that it was true. Frantically checking the internet was not going to change this reality.

            Finally, good information was beginning to be available from reliable sources about the potential spread of the virus, how lethal it might be, and steps that each of us could take to make ourselves and our communities safer.  And while I couldn’t control everything, there were simple things that were effective that I could do: wash my hands, wear a mask, and for the time being meet friends for “virtual Happy Hour” rather than actual Happy Hour.

            It is also within my power to recognize the beauty around me and to be grateful for each day I am alive.

            And there are signs of hope. People across the globe are working together to share information, to try to help one another.  Locally, stories are multiplying daily—and are now being shared by Building Hope through #HopeBuildersCO—about all the small ways in which our neighbors are reaching out to care for one another. Maybe we are beginning to see more clearly how our actions ripple outwards and that we are all responsible for each other, and for all living things.

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