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What is being asked of us?

April 2020: The Great Pause

I keep seeing the same images and jokes from different sources, until they are no longer funny. Early on in the lockdown of Britain, came the slogan: your grandparents were called to fight; you are being called to sit on the sofa and watch Netflix: are you equal to the challenge?

As it turns out, staying in more and doing less than usual is surprisingly difficult. It’s well known that we get far more out of work than just our payslip. Work gives us an identity, a sense of achievement, or, if nothing else, a routine, a reason to get up in the morning. For those who are lucky enough to be able to work from home, the removal of any social norms is leading us to experiment with our body and facial hair, wear the same clothes for weeks, or indulge in unbridled eating. Even if you are still working outside your house, the commute is terrifying, and there is no dilly-dallying on the way home. The fun has been removed.

And this is a crucial point, for everyone. When you pare your life down to essentials (food, household repairs, the company of those who live under your roof), it throws everything into sharp relief. And if this time is for nothing else, it is an ideal opportunity, not to write that novel or get that bikini bod or learn a language: no; it is an ideal opportunity to sort out what needs to be sorted, if only because you have little choice than to do so.

You could carry on as you are. You’re scared; we’re all scared. You could hide from your fear in anger, social media diatribes, online shopping, whatever takes your fancy. You will still be left with your fear. And perhaps you always were.

You could carry on as you are. Yes, the first festival of the year has been cancelled. Ah well, there’s always next year. The second festival’s gone: que sera sera. Your summer holiday? You are realizing, now, that nothing is guaranteed. And perhaps it never was.

You could carry on as you are. Perhaps you are accustomed to going out for drinks a few times a week. You can recreate this. The pub won’t be so much fun over the internet, but you can share a joke, take the piss out of each other, raise a glass. Except you’re not drinking in company, are you? And perhaps you never were.

You could carry on as you are. Perhaps your household is one where everyone was always out doing this and that, and you hardly saw each other. You can each walk the dog separately, every day, until anyone putting on their socks is enough to make the dog run and hide under the bed. In the end you’ll be forced to realise that you are disconnected as a household. And perhaps you always were.

You could carry on as you are. You like to be right, and you like to know where things are going. You spend hours on comparing logarithmic curves. You speculate about which businesses or demographics will be released from lockdown first. But you don’t know, and until it is in the past, you can’t be right or wrong. And perhaps you never could.

Getting the message yet? This pandemic isn't reality; it's a non-fiction version of Douglas Coupland’s ‘Girlfriend in a Coma.’ It might almost be designed to tell us: wake up. Be in the moment. Do not think of the future: there is no future. Do not rely on others: there are no others. Don’t pine for relationships: look first at your relationship with yourself.

You might still be viewing the lives of others through the lens of FOMO, the lens of the perfect social media post. You think their lives are better? You think that when our lives were all frozen where they, when we all had to play stick-in-the-mud – you think someone else had better luck? You have no idea what is going on behind closed doors. Those people you envy may be worse off than you.

There are certain circumstances that will make lockdown worse, almost guaranteed: losing your loved ones, being apart from them, being ill, being shielded, having caring duties, to name but a few. There are circumstances that will make it better: having a swimming pool in your garden, working for an employer who will not be laying anyone off anytime soon, having someone to hug, not having to live with anyone toxic.

But a lot of how you face this pandemic and the lockdown that goes with it – the removal of most distractions and most companionship for an uncertain period of time, coupled with fear about the economic future and the health of your loved ones … how you cope is not about the material facts of your life.

How you cope stems from how you face things. Can you adapt? Can you, like my local pizza parlour, start selling bags of flour and tins of tomatoes from the door? Can you set up a pop-up food shop, or start delivering plants from your garden centre? Can you adapt to doing exercise classes online instead of going to the gym? Can you find that friend you used to walk with, and both walk in completely different places, while talking on the phone?

This time is a gift, heaven-sent, to allow anyone who desires it to find gratitude. Be glad for what you have – you could be worse off. Be glad that you have been shoved into this space at this particular point in your life to learn the specific lessons that the universe has decided you must learn.

This time is about your relationship with yourself. Being limited to just a few humans makes everything frighteningly apparent. At this point, you can do what the hell you like with your time. (You always could.) Some things won’t help: distilling gin in your bathtub; stockpiling from Naked Wines before the cute vineyards run out; working out with your dealer how to do a non contact drop of coke without anyone getting ripped off; exploding in anger; opening old wounds; trying to make things as they were; not accepting things as they are.

And some things will help a lot: finding your still centre with a guided meditation app; going on a news fast; reaching out to relatives you haven’t spoken to in an age; reading the books that have been lying still on the bookshelf for years; observing the rewilding of this beautiful country, the hedgehogs and birds out rampant, the skies now free of vapour trails, the air fresh, the flowers so beautiful and the trees filling with leaf.

This is the ideal time to slow down to a crawl; to, if possible, do absobloodylutely nothing. I have not lain down and stared at the sky, or sat at my window watching the street, since I was a teenager. This is a time in brackets, a liminal time that doesn’t count, in any reckoning of your life, a few weeks of Duration, and you don’t have to make it count in any material sense, but it is the ideal time to learn patience. For me, it has been a time to become aware of my own insignificance, my ordinariness, my humanity, and my strength. For you, it will be something different. It is likely, if you allow it, to be something extraordinary. You don’t need to force it. You are only being asked to watch, wait, and listen.

One final reason why there is something perfect in the message of this terrifying virus which condemns us all to be apart at a time when we most need others: In Buddhism, we learn that everything is impermanent. We learn to let things go in order that we can have them without grasping. We learn that there is no past or future: there is just now. And we learn that we can get out of our minds, by focusing on the breath. The ultimate legal high, permanently and freely available: if we have nothing else, while we are still alive, we have the breath.

The world is fighting a disease that takes your breath away. You can be grateful for this one thing: you are still breathing. You are still alive. And that means that if there’s anything you don’t like about your life, you can change. Not: your circumstances can change. Not: other people can change. But: you can change.

Are you equal to the challenge?

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