Quarantine will do strange things to a person.
You know what I mean, like experimenting with creative facial hair, dancing like no one’s watching (because no one is), wearing the same clothes for days, eating breakfast for dinner and vice versa, making puppets with our socks and talking to them as if they were old friends—we’ve all seen the memes.
We are social creatures, not meant to be alone. The longer we’re isolated, the more our grip on “normalcy” will weaken and slip. This is nothing new. Captors will place their prisoners in solitary confinement when they want to break them. It’s hard for the human psyche to stay whole when it has no one to communicate with but itself. Rather than focusing its incessant chatter and judgment on all of those things around it, it will be forced to bore inward. Like an ouroboros, a snake eating its tail, it will begin to consume itself.
That can be problematic, but it can also be a good thing. There are certainly aspects of ourselves that will benefit from being broken or chewed over. They say there’s nothing as whole as a broken heart—often we need to be cracked open in order to find the treasure that’s hidden inside.
In the “outside” world—you know, that mythic place of social interaction and communal contact that we left behind several weeks ago—we become so entranced by all of the stimulus that swirls around us, that we tend to lose contact with that infinite realm that lives within us. Banished from that exciting outside place, we begin to experience withdrawal from all of those things that keep us high and distracted. It’s painful and sobering.
But then we wake up one day, and it’s quiet and calm. The delirium tremens have stopped, and we are still, and hey, this isn’t so bad. There’s this hush in my abdomen where a static always used to be. I was never conscious of that static, but its absence is actually pretty nice.
We begin to notice all sorts of things that had escaped our attention before. Not just newly obvious things like the value of toilet paper, hand sanitizer, face masks, and all of the other items that are in short supply. I have suddenly found myself conscious of everything I touch and where I place my hands. I have been forced to think about the food I eat, where it comes from, and whether I will be able to get it again next week or next month. I have noticed little nuances in my breathing—I am grateful when my lungs continue to fill and empty, slightly concerned every time I cough or feel a tickle in my throat.
I have become grateful for the ability, perhaps short-lived now, to leave my home and come and go as I please. I have begun to miss friends and loved ones, even those who I rarely see or speak to. I have reached out to some who I haven’t contacted in years, and even acquaintances who I encountered daily and never thought much about are suddenly popping to mind, and I’m wondering if they’re okay.
I’m becoming aware, all of a sudden, of so many things I take for granted.
You might say I am becoming “mindful.”
Mindfulness is one of those new virtues. It’s not new at all really, but it is a term that you hear now in circles where it never used to be heard. That’s a good thing. It means that we are suddenly realizing that there is significance and worth in life’s every detail which we have been ignoring or devaluing.
I have been practicing mindfulness for some time now, sometimes more successfully than others. I say “practicing” because mindfulness needs to be practiced and developed. It is hard work to be mindful, particularly in our age and culture in which our minds are inundated with competing data, messaging, and solicitation. Mindful means that we are in control of where our attention is focused, as opposed to allowing it to be pulled every which way except for here and now.
In the system I practice, mindfulness is referred to as “kavana,” which also means “intention.” Kavana can, and should, be applied to everything we do. When we act with kavana, we don’t simply act haphazardly or impulsively, but we consider our deeds, and then we perform them with intentionality, purpose, and determination. We are conscious that every act has meaning, and that its consequences ripple throughout the pond.
The system I practice has therefore established statements of intention to be recited before and after what might otherwise be considered mundane and meaningless activities. We call these statements “brachot,” which is commonly translated as blessings. We say them immediately when we wake in the morning, when we wash our hands, when we eat, when we travel, when we pray. There are brachot to be recited when we hear thunder or see lightning, when we witness a rainbow or the new moon, when we encounter the ocean for the first time in a long while, or when we are in the presence of a very learned person.
There is even a bracha that we say every time we go to the bathroom, expressing our gratitude that our body functioned properly and enabled us to separate the waste that we no longer need. And with this, I have returned us to the bathroom, and to the toilet paper, and to the extraordinary moment that we are experiencing in which something that was only recently completely inconsiderable has now become focal and momentous.
This COVID-19 is a plague. And like the 10 plagues that many are about to talk about at length when they celebrate the holiday of Passover tonight, it is not here primarily to punish or create suffering, but to redirect our attention and intention. It is here, perhaps, to make us mindful of both the small things that we regularly overlook, and the vast reality that we are missing as we focus on the images and illusions that stream and streak before our eyes.
What a revelation! What a strange way to wake us and make us pause and consider. What an opportunity to stop taking everything for granted and start contemplating the bigger picture.
What a perfect time for mindfulness to go viral.