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Staying Mindful in Quarantine

In a sense, we're all on a retreat.

Dr Amitha Kalaichandran
c/o Tim Birmingham
Dr Amitha Kalaichandran c/o Tim Birmingham

“In a sense, we’re all on a retreat,” Jon Kabat-Zinn said over Zoom, “a retreat for our minds and our hearts while we’re indoors.”  I hear ambulance sirens from my apartment and take a moment to adjust the volume. Kabat-Zinn taps two bells together to signal the start of the practice. When there’s no place to go we have no real choice but to go inwards – where there are no masks, no social distance markers: a silence that feels more welcome than the desolate streets.

Kabat-Zinn is a world-renowned mindfulness meditation teacher, and author of best-sellers such as Full Catastrophe Living. I attended one of Kabat-Zinn’s mindfulness meditation retreats in 2014:  registration fills up in a matter of minutes, and he had planned to host two more this Spring.  A quote that will always stick with me from his retreat is the idea that “There’s more right with you than wrong with you, as long as you’re breathing,” as a way to get centered. This rings as particularly melancholic knowing that COVID-19 snatches away this very breath.

Now Kabat-Zinn has partnered with Wisdom 2.0 to offer free daily guided meditations at 2pm ET over Zoom, which are also streamed on YouTube. Typically the first 20 minutes is a guided meditation. He then shares some wisdom for us to contemplate around dealing with uncertainty and anxiety during these times. Sometimes he shares poetry recited from the heart: Emily Dickinson or Derek Walcott. The sessions end by fielding questions from meditators around the world – people from hot spots such as Iran, Italy, Spain, and New York –we can see one another over Zoom. The sense of ‘togetherness’ is heightened when we see faces and hear accents. During the meditation I open my eyes to take a peek: I see 40 faces with their eyes closed as well – in their living rooms or at their desks or outside their backyards.

The term “self-care” has had its own share of backlash over the years. The same may be said about “wellness.” There’s a specific image we conjure up – a woman, typically blond, typically rich, and often totally unrelatable. Even meditation has succumbed to this. Covers of magazines only further perpetuate the stereotype of an ancient practice that originated in Asia.

The word ‘wellness’ is said to have been coined by Sir Archibald Johnston, a Scottish politician in the 1500s, who remarked “I bossed God…for my daughter wealnesse” — the original spelling was clearly discarded.  I’ve explored the interest and scientific evidence for many of these “wellness” trends: from forest bathing to sound healing to surf therapy to health coaching.

But now, in the midst of a pandemic where one section of society dealing with an acute health issue needing acute hospital care, there’s another section – loved ones of these patients, or those who haven’t been touched yet but find themselves isolated at home – who have another pandemic bubbling, the pandemic of loneliness, anxiety, and grief.  

The COVID-19 pandemic has birthed many a paradox. Corporations focused on profit before people are now extending their purpose towards the greater good. Social media has been harshly criticized as affecting mental health but now it’s a crucial part of connecting with family members, building community, and reducing loneliness. And so, the very skeptics of wellness and self-care now appreciate its benefits among widespread illness and carnage.

My yoga studio has offered free classes daily over Instagram Live, with a donation model in order to continue to support the yoga teachers who are providing their classes for free. Instagram therapists now see their daily observations as resonating even among naysayers, as their messages resonate for both individuals and couples alike. Even sound healing is finding a new audience looking to calm their nerves with the balm of Tibetan bowls.

Podcasts focusing on well-being are also springing up – Brene Brown’s podcast, Unlocking Us, gets to the heart of our vulnerability during this time of crisis and is now one of the highest ranked. And podcaster and therapist Esther Perel’s has offered YouTube sessions on relationships in confinement (ironically, her best-selling book “Mating in Captivity” has specific relevance now).  Recognizing that even start-up founders and music buffs aren’t immune to pandemic-related anxiety, the music podcast Broken Record and the entrepreneur-focused Tim Ferris Podcast have included episodes on psychology and meditation.

Headspace offered a free membership to frontline healthcare workers since early March, and has since extended it to everyone in the American epicentre of New York. And Nike began offering their exercise app for free to everyone during the pandemic.

However, when it comes to bringing “wellness” to healthcare workers, one of the biggest issues I’ve seen, and written about, is the overemphasis on individual resilience at the expense of ensuring the work environment is healthy.  I often use the analogy that to expect a soldier to mediate while bombs are being dropped all around her makes no sense. Getting that soldier into a safe space with a batallion she can rely on, a leader who leads with integrity and compassion, and, of course, the appropriate protective gear, comes first. It goes without saying that protecting our frontline healthcare workers is a must, and directly relates to their mental well-being as well.

At the end of life many patients succumb to a breathing pattern where they may fail to exhale and inhale for several moments, followed by a deep breath. In contrast, during a birth, the first breath is deep, followed by a vigorous cry. In a sense, our breath bookmarks the first and last pages of our lives.

As I open my eyes at the end of the Zoom meditation, I watch as a teacher from Pakistan ask about how mindfulness might help his anxious students. His video cuts in and out. A family in Mexico asks about how to describe mindfulness to children.  An American physician asks about dealing with fear difficulty as moments for awakening. A student in China asks about staying aware during meditation. A psychologist in Spain asks about addressing uncertainty with his patients. To all Kabat-Zinn’s responses are variations on the same message:  

Mindfulness is an adventure in discovering who you are in the ‘full catastrophe’ of the human condition, we should roll out the welcome mat for those difficult experiences. When fear arises, that’s the curriculum for this moment. Exploring how to befriend those feelings then results in a new degree of freedom.

We say goodbye in unison, and some bid farewell in their own language: one voice on top of each other in a way that would sound cacophonous at any other time, but sounds oddly soothing now (another pandemic paradox). I shut my laptop and pause as another ambulance wails in the distance, grateful that for an hour I could focus on my breath but hopeful for that patient struggling with theirs. I say a silent prayer –that they make it and that the panic and sirens isn’t one of their last memories of this world.

Medicine and meditation sound the same because they have the similar roots: meaning “to take appropriate measures” (which can mean both ‘to heal’ or ‘to reflect’). Reflecting on both self-care and wellness, at their essence it’s about caring for ourselves as much as it is others.  The now familiar sense of collective grief and anxiety taps me on the shoulder again. “There’s more right with me than wrong with me, as long as I’m breathing,” I say silently, push those pesky reminders away just for another moment, knowing that 2pm the following day can’t come soon enough.

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People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills . . . There is nowhere that a person can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind. . . . So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.

- MARCUS AURELIUS

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