The coronavirus pandemic, and the various infection control measures it has engendered, limit and affect us, both psychologically and relationally.
We have newly celebrated the 75th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. 75 years of relative peace in the world. Today, many feel that peace has been profoundly disturbed.
Anxiety – a complex phenomenon
We may fear something specific, and something more diffuse. Anxiety can also creep in and become part of how we experience reality in general. Corona nourishes both types of anxiety. While it is very specific, a disease you can die of, it is also vague in when and how you can get it. How the virus is transmitted is to some degree inscrutable, and this can affect what we do. What is noteworthy is that the virus makes us both potential victims (we can become infected by the disease) and executioners (we can transfer it to others).
The worries the pandemic may cause are many: What does it mean when I cough? Should I stay at home? Are there viruses that can infect me on the checkout counter in the store, in the air, in the afterwash from the jogger that runs past me, or on the door handle at the entrance to work…… We wash, we disinfect and we avoid bodily contact.
We encounter the virus in different life situations, different ages, cohabiting or living alone, with children, grandchildren, etc. How we react varies from individual to individual, and reflects not only our life situation but also our personal reaction patterns. Some of us shrug our shoulders a little, follow the rules of infection control, but are not really anxious. Others develop clear anxiety symptoms, live our lives in “lockdown”. And we all listen to the corona news as long as we are able to.
Grandfather has not seen the three-year-old in four weeks. The three-year-old comes running towards his grandfather but is resolutely stopped by his mother. The three-year-old howls: “Why has everything changed?”
Grandmother is in a nursing home and can only be visited through a glass wall. She tells us: “I can’t see who is washing me, they are wearing so many weird contagion suits!”
The TV screens are flooded with death. Coffins, for which there is not enough storage space, that are stacked on trucks. We see the transience of life with our own eyes, although we have had peace for 75 years. Perhaps we are not so scared, but in front of the TV screen, we find our tears are flowing. Patients with disorders other than corona have their scheduled operations postponed. Hospital employees are rightly afraid that intensive care units will be overwhelmed.
Everyday life has changed. Economies are faltering, bankruptcies threaten, many sit in home offices and miss their relationships and the daily reassurance they provide, while others relax more when business trips are no longer necessary and evening meetings have been postponed. Some are annoyed when they see their own faces in video conferences.
Outer – inner world
There will always be unrest in the outside world, even if we are generally better off now than ever before. 75 years of relative peace. When the corona appears, this also reflects something about who we are, how we react in the face of a threat.
Those of us who meditate have some experience in how we react when meditation brings uneasiness. When faced with turmoil within ourselves, a spontaneous desire arises: Get rid of it! We become restless, despondent, less present in our meditations, and confused in our meditation performance.
The free mental attitude as a compass
The difference between meditation and the corona situation is enormous. While the corona represents a real danger, meditation is an inner reality, a safe situation, where we can embrace and look at ourselves. Meditation also provides an opportunity where we can learn something about ourselves. When we encounter restlessness or anxiety in meditation and become despondent, we work at introducing a greater degree of a free mental attitude to our reactions. An important process – in a safe area. Not always easy, but often something we experience as meaningful, as being present in an existentially important field. We work with how we cope with life in general. Anxiety becomes something we can live with. These processes are useful, even when danger arises in the external world. We could say that we are engaged in practicing how to tolerate anxiety a little better.
In the face of the corona, we may be unsure of how much we ought to limit our normal behavior. Most of us listen to the advice of health authorities, keeping in mind that they also lack complete knowledge of the situation. Yet as the Norwegian Children’s Ombudsman says: It is better to listen to professional advice than to your own irrational fears. There is no one inside us to provide us with objective and professional advice on how to deal with the specific individual challenges we encounter in our meditations. What we are to do is simple: Repeat a meditation sound with a free mental attitude. The basic rule is to do so gently, with freedom, as effortlessly as possible. We try our best and use the free mental attitude as a compass. Along the way, we are drawn into different moods.
A new starting point
To meditate in corona times is to give ourselves some time to relax a bit, not to be “on guard” all the time. In times when everyday life is turned upside down, when relationships are more distant, when grandfather is deprived of his role, when parents are teachers, when one has to close one’s business, inner stability is indispensable. Knowing how to deal with internal turmoil also affects how we deal with external challenges. And in the search inward, we may also get in touch with something that can provide nourishment, some islands of silence and tranquility that remain with us in challenging times.
By Maria S. Gjems-Onstad
Translated by Eirik Jensen