On wanting to be a Zen master

With so much being written about COVID-19, there’s very little left to say. Yet writing about anything else seems inconceivable, as the virus consumes our thoughts, restricts our movements, and turns our worlds upside down.

I’ve had to limit what I read about COVID-19. I used to read just about every article I came across, but I had to stop. My mind was bursting with facts (but were they really facts?), truths (but whose truths?), and instructions (would they really work?).

Scott Berinato, writing for the Harvard Business Review, tells me that what I’m feeling is grief. I’m grieving, he says, for the loss of normalcy. And I’m also experiencing ‘anticipatory grief’ regarding the future. He likens this to getting a bad diagnosis or thinking about losing a parent or knowing that something bad is coming. He offers three pieces of advice to quell the inner angst: come into the present (meditation, mindfulness), let go what you can’t control, and stock up on compassion (think of how someone usually is and not who they seem to be now).

Himself came in from the garden one day last week and found me sitting on a bucket of paint under the stairs looking vacantly at the freezer. In the next room, Brandon Snider’s Tween book Beezer was being narrated. I’ve no idea how long I’d been sitting there but it’s not the first time I’ve caught myself zoning out. Thinking of nothing. Shutting down. I’m not sure this counts as mindfulness or meditation, though. Of the three pieces of advice Berinato’s offers, letting go of what I can’t control is the one I need to focus on. Limiting what I read has helped.

Yuval Noah Harari writing in the Financial Times, urges me ‘to trust scientific data and healthcare experts over unfounded conspiracy theories and self-serving politicians’.  But when the World Health Organization told me not to use Ibuprofen and the European Medicines Agency told me it was okay; I didn’t know who to believe. Now, thankfully, they’re both singing from the same prescription. Harari’s article deals with how the choices we [our elected leaders] make now could change our lives for years to come. And as I watch how countries are reacting to this crisis, I wonder if the path of global solidarity Harari hopes for is even within our grasp. But this goes on the list of things I can’t control.

Anne Quito, writing for Quartz, interviewed Dutch trends forecaster Li Edelkoort who thinks I should be grateful for the virus, because it could be the reason that we, as a species, survive. I completely buy in to the fact that COVID-19 will ‘temper our consumerist appetites and jet-setting habits’. And I’d really like to believe that we could come out of this as better people.

Signs of lower pollution levels in China because mass production has been severely curtailed and coal-fired power plants are idle tells us something. That fish and wildlife are back in the canals in Venice also tells us something. The environment would seem to be a major beneficiary of this global slowdown (unless we also take into consideration the mountains of medical waste and plastic food packaging that are sure to result). Edelkoort goes as far as suggesting that once this is all over, once the virus has been dealt with and people have recovered, we’ll see a utopia of sorts. ‘There are so many possibilities,’ Edelkoort says. ‘I’m strangely looking forward to it.’

I really wish I could get my head there. I used to spend a lot of my time travelling, both for work and for pleasure. This is probably the longest I’ve been in the same place for years. My workflow, always sporadic, driven as it is by the ebbs and flows of the freelance tide, has dried up. I’m left with the one thing I’ve always wanted more of…time. I now have all the time I ever wanted to do everything I never had time to do.

Last count, I’d signed up for four courses and haven’t gotten past Lesson 1 in any of them. I’ve tried six online exercise programmes and have given up on all of them. I’ve made a half-hearted attempt to get serious about learning Hungarian, but I can’t focus. I’ve walked the garden and made note of everything that needs doing. I started to weed the path. I got halfway before giving up. I’ve stocked up on paint to paint the inside of the house and instead of painting, I’m using the buckets as stools. As someone who scored off the charts as a Completer/Finisher in Belbin’s team roles test, this is frightening.

I’m nowhere near being grateful for the virus. I’m moving gradually through the varying stages of grief, at my own pace, in my own time: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.  I flitted briefly with the denial that it would ever hit Hungary or Ireland, the two countries I identify most with. But deep down I knew it was just a matter of time. I wasted a lot of energy being angry at the irresponsible idiots who refuse to stay at home, at the politicians who are shamelessly using the crisis to their own ends, at the airlines who won’t refund the 12 flights I had booked. I’ve never been a great one for bargaining, so I skipped that one. Right now, I’m straddling depression and acceptance. And I’m realising that it’s okay to be sad, to be afraid, to be worried. I just need to balance those emotions with happiness, courage, and calm.

In the words of Gavin van Horn in Kin you Keep:

I wish I could give you words at night,
the kind that could make your heart ache less.
I wish I could hum away unwanted thoughts that seep under the door.
I wish I could let go, like an ebbing tide, like a Zen Master.

I’ll get there.

In the meantime, stay home, stay safe, stay well.

First published in the Budapest Times April 2020

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