How to thrive as we shelter in place

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(If you are considered an essential worker, you probably don’t have time to read this, Thank you for all you are doing. Save this post for a time when you can give it a try. Meanwhile, please take good care of yourself.)

Have you been told to shelter in place? If so, and if you have a home to shelter in and you have not simply moved your work online and are working harder than ever, then you might consider that this is very much like what a personal retreat would be if you ever gave yourself one. If it doesn’t feel like a retreat, here are some ways to make it more like one:

Stay present in this moment. We torture ourselves when we get caught up in thinking how long this situation might last. The only way ‘out’ is ‘in’. Pause to focus in the sensations arising in this moment — Where is there comfort? Where is there pleasure? Where is there beauty? If there is pain, discomfort, and disharmony, notice that too. But as much as possible, focus on all the little things that please you in this moment. This moment lived with full attention and appreciation is your well-equipped lifeboat. You will be fine.

Attune to the body’s needs. So often we are externally driven, living by other people’s schedules and live up to other people’s ideas. We don’t know if we are hungry or tired unless we look at the clock. While it is good to develop a schedule, it should be based on the body’s own natural rhythms. So try waking up naturally without an alarm clock. Okay, on retreat a bell-ringer comes around at 5:30 AM or so, but hey, this is a personal retreat! Our bodies need sleep and they have their own rhythms. Here’s a time to find out what your body’s own rhythm is, if you haven’t already. So turn off the alarm clock. You’re not going anywhere, you have no plane to catch and no one is expecting you. But you do have a life to live, so don’t keep rolling over and ignoring the body’s urgings to rise.

Rest when you are tired. Notice when your body-mind is at a low point, and see what wants to happen. It might be a nap. It might be just putting your feet up and reading a book or watching a show.

Go to bed when you are sleepy. This seems so simple, but how often do we turn off the light when we’re not ready to sleep and then toss and turn? How often do we feel sleepy but ignore the signals and fall asleep on the couch, then have to wake up to go to bed. Consider doing your pre-bed hygiene after dinner and then whenever you feel sleepy, you won’t be waking yourself up by brushing your teeth, etc.

Eat when you’re hungry. How often do we eat when we’re not hungry because it’s ‘mealtime’? How often do we use food as a way to pass the time, change our mood or reward ourselves? How often do we eat too much because we’re in a habituated chow-down mode and have been taught to ‘clean our plate’? How often do we eat because we’re at a social gathering at a restaurant or a friend’s home, and the meal is part of the deal?

This is a perfect opportunity to learn how to pay attention to the stomach before making our meal. And then when we eat, we can slow down to appreciate the sensations of the experience and notice when our stomach says “Thanks, that’s enough.”

Move! “Shelter in place” does not mean put our bodies’ need for activity on hold. If you have exercise equipment gathering dust, time to bring it out! (And if you don’t use it during this period, get rid of it!) If you don’t have an exercise program, what better time to start one! But see if you can make your exercise more meditative, attuned to sensations of the muscles, rather than being stuck in calculating how many reps, measuring your abilities with comparing mind, or thinking how good you’re going to look this summer on the beach. Stay in the body and feel the bliss!

Get fresh air. For now, and as long as everyone behaves responsibly, “shelter in place” doesn’t mean staying indoors all the time. If you don’t have an outdoor area, then take a walk, keeping six to ten feet between you and other people. If you have open spaces nearby, enjoy them! This will refresh your body and lift your spirits. And if there doesn’t seem to be a safe space outside, at least open the windows when the air is pleasant. Timing is of the essence to avoid crowds, so really plan your outing. If everybody is going out and basically mingling, the rules will be changed for our own protection and then we’ll all be stuck inside. So please be responsible!

Meditate more! On a traditional retreat we have seven or more periods of sitting meditation, plus a number of walking meditations. In your personal retreat, you might set aside a few hours for a dedicated meditation period, 40 minutes sitting, 20 minutes walking, 40 minutes sitting, and then take a walk in nature or prepare and eat a healthy beautiful meal, or read something inspiring. What a gift to yourself!

Create structure. On an insight meditation retreat, there is a set schedule, a time to rise, times to sit, walk, eat, and do yogi jobs that contribute to the smooth operation of the retreat. We humans appreciate structure. If we have been over-structured, sure, it’s nice to sleep in, lounge around and indulge. Earlier I talked about getting off clock time and finding the body’s rhythms. Once we do that we can create a schedule that makes the most of our natural energy. What’s the time of day you most enjoy social engagement on the phone, Zoom or social media? How do you feel after you end a conversation? Refreshed, exhausted? Allotting both the right time of day and the right amount of time will keep you in balance. When do you have the most energy for bookkeeping, gardening, cleaning, long-term projects, etc.? Plug them in as suits.

Your well-structured schedule will include time for self-care, relaxation, reflection, social engagement (by phone or online), and a yogi job of your choosing. All done with mindfulness and compassion. If you can’t do it with mindfulness and compassion, you may be doing too much.

If you are an advanced meditator who has attended many long retreats, you might want to recreate that formal schedule and structure for yourself at home, especially if you were scheduled for a retreat and it was canceled!

But remember that there is a reason we go on formal retreats to do this. In that retreat space, we safely give up a certain degree of our autonomy to a predefined structure in order to allow ourselves an inner freedom within that framework. We live by the rhythm of the bells that someone else is ringing. We eat meals someone else has prepared. There is a sense of community that normalizes and regulates the rhythm of our day. There are no intrusions, no phones, no decisions, and no responsibilities beyond our commitment to an hour doing a prescribed yogi job.

So, even an advanced practitioner will be challenged to fully recreate the retreat experience. For a novice to do so would be like a person who hasn’t done any exercise entering the gym determined to do every class and use every piece of equipment to the max. It would be self-sabotage, a way to make yourself feel like a total failure and give up. 

But we can take cues from traditional retreats as to what makes them work, and then apply them to our own shelter in place retreat. So once you see what your natural rhythm is, develop a schedule that supports it. This might not have to do with clock time. It might rely on both inner rhythms and outer clues, like the rising and setting of the sun, to determine when to do things.

Rediscover an abandoned project or a forgotten interest. Now’s the time to bring out the sewing machine, the musical instrument, the power tools, the textbooks, the first three chapters of your novel, the advance care directive you never filled out, or all the stuff that needs organizing. Now’s the time to rekindle an interest, take care of business, or revisit a favorite activity or book, try new recipes or learn how to cook. What have you promised yourself the time to do, but have never come through? If not now, when? But don’t overwhelm yourself with a to do list. That’s counterproductive.

Have compassion for yourself and others. Especially at the onset of these ‘shelter in place’ orders, whole countries on lockdown, etc. people freak out to various degrees and fear makes people unskillful. So cut everyone some slack. We’re all learning how to manage this experience, and people have different ideas of what is sensible, safe and smart. Within a family, these opinions vary and those variations can cause problems.

Share space respectfully.  If you share a living space and aren’t used to being confined together indefinitely, have a compassionate conversation about how to assure that all needs are being met in this arrangement. You may need to claim a room at a certain time of day for your own meditation or other activities. Doing so, you set a good example, and allow for other people to do the same. Just be sure it is equitable. And if you are in an intimate relationship, you might consider this a second honeymoon, an opportunity to share more deeply and to cuddle up more. And maybe take on something together, like learning a language neither of you knows. Lots of opportunity for laughter there!

Carry on online. As you know, many activities have simply been moved online, so work and classes are being done on Zoom or similar services. The meditation class I teach Thursday mornings is now taught on Zoom. If you would like to be included, contact me.

Reach out. If you feel lonely or if you know someone who might be feeling lonely, this is a good time to get in touch.

Whatever you do, let your words and actions arise from compassion instead of fear. Remember your intrinsic part in this sangha of all beings. And remember the nature of impermanence: ‘This too shall pass!’

Let me know your thoughts on this.

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