The world is calling us to begin again. Are you ready to let go of safe cocoons and sweatpants, zoom shields and no-more-showering? It’s time to re-emerge into a changed world and discover what awaits. To discover how we ourselves have been changed. Some people I know are chomping at the bit, others are already regretting their quiet retreats. A lesson I’m learning from practicing meditation might help: breathe deeply – and begin again.
Like many, I took up meditation this year to try and digest the global trauma I read about from the safety of self-isolation. And to help slow me down to the pandemic’s strangely ponderous pace. I’d grown used to years of moving quickly through the world, across ideas, and among an ever-changing cast of people. The sudden physical grounding to a no-fly standstill proved an unexpected – and initially unwelcome – invitation to zoom out mentally. As it draws to a vaccine-induced end, I suspect I will look back on this time as a gift.
“Don’t just do something, sit there,” suggests meditation teacher Sylvia Boorstein. It’s deceptively simple advice. And about as counter-intuitive to our Western culture of busyness, and my husband’s addiction to to-do lists, as anything I’ve known. But with the sobering statistics on mental health, and the slow, sinking feeling called ‘languishing’ I feel at the idea of emerging from under the Covid covers, I concluded something needed ‘to be done’ about doing nothing. Mindfully.
Begin again. In addition to trying to keep in some kind of physical shape (a discipline I adopted early and am familiar with) I began to recognise the need to similarly – and just as intentionally – manage my mental moods and muscles. I’ve always been a steady, glass-half-full optimist. But a year locked up with husband, dog and Netflix creates a strange sense of unreality and vulnerability. I love my husband and dog, and we’ve managed our enforced togetherness better than either of us would have dreamed possible. But my man leans towards moody. He swings between the rafters and the depths and, conjoined as we are in a small barn in the middle of nowhere, I am swung about more by his mental music than he is calmed by mine. Thank god for the dog.
It’s not just the husband of course. It’s too easy to blame others for one’s discomforts. The unease is under my own skin. It’s myself I’ve grown tired of over this year. It’s my own voice I’ve heard too much of, and my own thoughts that turn round and round without the blustery, welcome winds of other’s interruptions. My patterns and narratives are ruthlessly familiar, corrosively clogging a foggy brain. Meditation gets you to listen to the noise, observe the onslaught without judgement, hold yourself above the fray. To let thoughts wander as they will. And learn to welcome them back as old friends you don’t need to agree with. If, as so often happens, you get hooked back in and wander off down a well-worn rabbit hole of jangling nerve endings or undigested emotions, you know what you have to do.
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It has taken as much work, of a much less familiar variety, than any exercise regimen I’ve ever tried. But its rewards are profound – and profoundly forgiving. No matter how off-course you feel you’ve wandered, how stuck you feel in an unsatisfactory present, or fearful of a starkly uncertain future, meditation offers a magically simple formula. Always available, instantaneously true: begin again. Your next breath is the beginning of the rest of your life. Our individual and collective re-emergence is the beginning of a whole new post-pandemic reality. What will we make of it?
It will be a strange, collective restarting. In the UK where I live, we now have dates to our ‘unlocking,’ like little stepping stones illuminating the ‘roadmap’ towards the next normal. Friends are asking if I’ve had my second jab (a new form of entry into a new club). The retailers, airlines and economists await with bated breath. Will we return to our old habits? Will we buy and work and travel with pent-up glee and a famished materialistic gluttony into another Roaring Twenties? Or will we be changed by our time in the wilderness – or out to pasture? Will our rub with mortality unlock deeper and more elemental hungers? Or stoke our more basic instincts? There will, of course, be as many answers as there are people. What we take from this year and carry into the next will be revelatory, unequal and reflect our degree of comfort with what we just experienced – and with the unknown ahead.
“Cultural change will become one of the most important drivers of success for companies in post COVID-19 era,” predicts Kumar Parakala. “The ground rules, beliefs, and assumptions that drive culture will require rethinking.”
Zen Buddhism recommends approaching even things we think we master with a “beginner’s mind,” an attitude of openness, eagerness, and lack of preconceptions, just as a first-timer might. It may be a useful concept as we return into a world we think we know.
What if we all returned open, eager, lacking preconceptions – and ready to begin again?