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What has Coronavirus changed?

Enough has been written about this virus and its contagiousness so that most of you reading this will be well-informed about the virus. However, if you’ve been dealing with an unusual amount of stress, let me suggest the reason for this: your ideas about the future have been totally overturned and you’re now having to practice living in each moment.

From one day to the next, we’re now having to stay present to: our routines, our tasks, and our ideas about the future, in a way that we may never have done before. In particular, people are uncertain about their jobs, where the money is going to come from to pay the bills, and other essential survival issues. In a moment-to-moment way, we now have to live life much more spontaneously: without automatic structures and systems in place to guide our daily movements, and routines. This requires a lot more attention to the present moment, and the newness of this exercise seems to create a great deal of stress. However, it’s not the present moment that’s creating the stress, it’s our resistance to it, or our ideas about the future.

Two weeks ago, I “knew” that I would move into my new psychology office (which did happen), and see clients from Noon to 8 or 8:30 PM every day, with a break somewhere in the afternoon to eat and rest, and a group meeting most evenings from 7 to 8:30 PM. Of course, it was never exactly like my expectations but, close enough to falsely ‘rely’ on that pattern. Today, my own routine has changed entirely. Yesterday I had two clients at 3 and 5. Today, I have clients from Noon to 3 PM, and all the groups that I’ve been running, except one, have been postponed until we can meet in person. At Noon, I’m doing a teleconference session from the dining room because my spouse has a meeting with a client in the study. At 1 PM, I’m moving to the study so that my spouse can have the dining room for another activity.

Our ideas about the future may have given us a false sense of security and stability in the past. Today, or this week, as many of us are staying at home and voluntarily ‘sheltering in place’ (or involuntarily, if you’re reading this in a country that has mandated a quarantine), we are awake to the truth that has always been the truth: we never know what will happen in the next moment. In these unusual circumstances, we can now see that all of our ideas about the future are lies. We have no idea what will happen next. All we have to do is meet the next moment, though, nothing else. This doesn’t have to produce stress; it could be an immense source of creativity and resilience.

We are getting the idea that we are going to have to take care of ourselves, our families, our neighbors and our communities, because the government hasn’t done a great job and their resources are overstretched. Their “great” plan is to go into more debt to bail out airlines and other big corporations who’ve spent their profits on share buybacks to enrich their executives and shareholders instead of saving their profits for a ‘rainy day’ (write to your elected representative and object loudly); and now they seem to be planning to ‘bail out’ the average citizen with a check in the mail. Will this work? Probably in the short term; in the long term it may produce hyperinflation and totally wipe out our confidence in our national currencies. If that’s true, that would be a high price to pay for a short-term solution.

We don’t know the answer to these questions, though. What we can know and do know is that we have to live our lives in the present moment. That may include planting a garden so that you’re growing your own food, talking to neighbors about sharing resources, and doing what we can to maintain order in our homes and communities, with limited resources. It also means taking serious precautions when we have to go outside of the home ‘safety zone’ to get groceries or medical supplies or gasoline.

If there is a silver lining in this virus catastrophe, it is that you have a chance to practice “Being Present” or “Being Spontaneous” or “Practicing Mindfulness” in a way that you’ve never done before. We are all pushed into an experience of the “Present Moment” because our ideas about the future are so obviously, and suddenly false.

If you are in a lot of distress right now, let me offer this suggestion: treat all of your catastrophic ideas about the future as if they’re lies. None of us has any idea if we’ll be infected with coronavirus, or how it will affect our physical health, unless we’re already infected. (That doesn’t mean, we shouldn’t stay home and protect others from the possibility that we might be infected and asymptomatic, however. ) Even those who are infected have no idea how the disease will progress until it does. We can only do what we can do in this very moment. The answer to what the future will bring is simply “I don’t know.” Any other idea about the future is a lie, and will produce unnecessary fear and unnecessary suffering. “I don’ know” is just “I don’t know.” It is NOT: “I don’t know and not knowing is a catastrophe.” It’s “I don’t know, and that is an emotionally neutral statement.”

Stay safe, yes! Also, stay present; let’s not let our minds run away with us. When we notice our minds generating a false and anxiety-provoking idea about the future, NOTICE this, notice that it’s a lie, and notice that the distress it’s causing is from a false source. The distress is unnecessary, let it go. The half-life of adrenalin is about 20 minutes, so we will calm down quickly if we stop believing our minds’ lies. What is necessary is staying present, being responsible, noticing what’s true right now, doing what’s needed right now, and breathing deeply in each moment. Meet the current challenge, then the next one, and the one after that. We don’t have to guess what the next challenge will be, it will be quite obvious when it arises.

Life will go on until it doesn’t. While we have life, let’s live it being as fully present as we can be.