Exercising New Muscles

When is the last time that Americans were asked to stay home and limit their activity? Unless you have recently had surgery or some other physical problem, the answer is probably never. When is the last time an American or a modern citizen of any country chose to slow down and limit activity? Seldom if ever.

This prolonged stay at home is challenging many skills. One of the most needed skills is patience.

Patience might be associated with passive resignation but in fact patience requires determination and endurance. Patience requires us to take the long view, to keep our eyes on long term value over short term satisfaction. What better way to describe our current state of living.

The long way home

It’s well and good to say that we need patience. It begs the question, “For what purpose?”. Patience without purpose would be an ignorant waste of time and effort. The purpose for our patience is clear; in order to eventually get close to people, to enjoy the social world we once knew, we need to stay apart. We need to do the opposite of what we want and listen to the reason of science; wash our hands , wear face protection in public and keep distance from one another. We need to stay home to return to the home we knew.

The desire to return to normal (home) has been enough to inspire patience in most people. It has inspired us to take coordinated action like we have never known. Not just in one town, state or country but worldwide. We are (mostly) acting in concert with one another, with the common goal of return.

The path we have chosen or agreed to walk has unintended benefits and challenges. Each day brings these to light, both on a national and a personal scale. Even in isolation we have found ways to be together with hope through Passover and Easter celebrations. We have continued to connect teachers with students and family with the sick and dying. We are learning to cook again. Parents have become teachers and are getting to know their children in ways they never dreamed.

As weeks are turning into months, the novelty of our isolation is becoming a long march home. As this continues, our patience is being tested. Can we endure for the long term? Will we build a new economy with liberty and justice for all?

Managing hope, fear and distraction.

Distraction is one of our favorite pastimes, in good times and bad. Distraction is used by mothers and fathers to manage infants and toddlers around the world. What better way to cajole a fussy baby or remove a prized possession from a two year old than sleight of hand. “Would you like to play with this?”

Modern adults are both victims and masters of distraction. And when the going gets tough, distraction provides the salve. Remember the last time you flew in an airplane? The fear of flying (is anyone immune?), the long wait, the cramped space in close proximity to strangers; all inspire us to get creative with distraction. With the discomfort we label as boredom, we come prepared or improvise various forms of distraction to fit the length of the en capsuled ordeal.

Distraction is the balm that soothes whatever ails us. It holds the promise of taking us away from where we are to the land of promise. Though the promise is seldom met, we feel we have made a skillful and satisfying move away from our discomfort and dis-ease.

Is there an alternative to distraction? What would it feel like if we reject distraction and just feel the feeling whether it is discomfort, fear or hope. What are the advantages to meeting discomfort head on?

Discomfort – my friend

This morning I woke at 4:30am. As I assessed my level of wakefulness while my thoughts began to search about and consider my options. I heard my dog Beau at the bottom of the stairs (always ready for me to greet and feed him). I considered the upcoming day and potential tasks and then considered my options for the moment; go back to sleep, read a book, meditate, write. As I lay with my stream of thought, I finally took some time to simply feel the energy of my body in it’s calm repose. In this relaxed mood, I took time to listen to my breath, scan my muscles and simply BE in the quiet moment.

This moment is all we have and each moment holds a choice. I am familiar with 12 hour work days, and 7 day work weeks. I chose to drive fast through the day’s agenda and drive my staff through it with me (though I had to beg for the overtime). I understand what it’s like to ignore my feelings and my family, eyes scanning the horizon for the next item. I have been hospitalized for ailments that were probably related to the push of work. Despite it all, I was sure that I was doing good and getting somewhere. Fortunately, I took time to meditate every morning and acknowledged the power of silence and watching my thoughts. It saved my life and made me much easier to live with.

Yesterday, Joni and I committed ourselves to a day of silent retreat and meditation. Given our required isolation, it seemed like an opportune time to make it complete. In the past we have done group and solitary retreats to improve our meditation practice and spiritual well-being. Self imposed isolation and silence can be a bit challenging at first but we have found it satisfying and enriching in the long run. Through repeated experience, we have made friends with silence and solitude.

The point of retreat is to draw a boundary and limit activity to the contemplation of the mind and body. Retreat allows for an increase the amount of time in meditation and contemplation; reading, listen, and contemplating books that connect us with our heart and mind. Except for eating and drinking coffee, we restrict our activities and indulgences like alcohol, watching movies, talking, recreational reading, news and surfing the internet. Essentially we cut out our usual preoccupation with business and general busy-ness.

Retreat isn’t something people are accustomed to and it isn’t magical. Just like any other exercise, the benefits are subtle but evident over time. Solitary retreat leaves us without the filters of distraction, alone with only our thoughts and emotions – whatever arises.

“Hello feelings. We have to talk”

This heading is a favorite of my meditation teacher, Tsoknyi Rinpoche. He uses it to remind us to say hello to whatever is troubling us, whatever is buzzing in the background of our mind. In his teaching, he points out what becomes obvious with practice, that much of our behavior is driven by forces at the periphery of our awareness. He suggests that we bring these forces to light, make friends with them, shake hands with them. Give them a job.

This moment in history is unprecedented. With the pressure to “return to normal”, it may soon change shape. Obviously there are important reasons to get back to work and revive this economy. At the same time, some of the instincts to get busy are unnecessary and destructive to loving one another and building a healthy community. Who would have ever thought that being apart would bring people together in this way. Given this, it isn’t a stretch to think that coming together again could tear us apart. The difference will be in the details of the method.

While we are always at a turning point in life, this is a moment of greater clarity. As dark as it is, the pandemic has opened a door of possibilities and choice. Many of us will take lessons from this time, allowing us to enrich our daily life. We will either nurture the lessons or rush to the next moment, only to reminisce about the good old days. There is hope that we can be the next, “Greatest Generation”, improved by these days of sacrifice.

On the other hand, there are political and social forces at work that beg us to feed the beast of the big economy; to buy and borrow or way back to “normal”. These are the same corporate forces that leveraged their way to dominance and will be hedging (literally) for their survival on the backs of consumers and the Gross Domestic Product. The alternative is that we recognize this folly and value living within our means, just as we might recognize the turbulent nature of our thoughts. We can set aside our expensive distractions for the value of family and friends. It is time to acknowledge the moment, whether it is uncomfortable or not. There are dreams to strive for. Many of them are right here at home. We can take the lessons of our retreat (stay at home) to bring us back to our center.

“Hello friend, we have to talk.”

Politics or People?

Warning: This post is full of my political perspective. 
I have condensed my opinion into this post so that I can
get it off my chest and focus on more unifying messages.
So you can take it or leave it.
If this is going make you disown me, don't read it.
I hope you enjoy my less political thoughts in other posts.

In a culture in which history is easily discarded or crowded with news cycles, one of the biggest stories of history is now being written. Time for us to pay attention and act.

Social disruption due to the spread of Covid-19 and the inevitable economic consequences are filling our awareness. With time on our hands, we watch the reports: Infection rates, economic indicators, stories from the front line, the state and federal restrictions, supply chains. These are trends that tell the evolving story of the problem and our collective remedies (promised and/or delivered). It’s clear, that this pandemic will impact ALL OF US sooner or later.

Interjected into the science and business of the emergency response are the political (who’s in control) questions of how, when, where and who will deliver. Where are the supplies of masks, ventilators and other protection? Do we have a test yet? When will unemployment checks arrive? Who is in charge of the federal response? What precautions / behavior do we agree on?

The Trump administration’s approach to this crisis puts the president front and center, in a position to steer the conversation and the response. This is as it should be. He is president after all. The question is whether he is squandering this responsibility to legitimately coordinate a response for screen time in front of the American people. Surely he has better things to do – people to learn from and work with – than stand in front of cameras. I used to think that he was unaware of the random diversions in his speeches. The message isn’t as much about the federal response as what he has accomplished and how other people are failing and incompetent. He is aware of what he’s doing though he doesn’t always give second thought to what or how he says it.

With the corona virus at the top of the agenda, it is more difficult for him to divert away from the main topic. It has forced him to have some semblance of an ordered, humane, message. But slowly the showman has found ways to do more magic and distract the public from the reality of the federal government’s faltering emergency response.

While people and networks might debate the competence of our response, it is evident that the president is mean spirited in his language. He has provided no rationale for distributing supplies and pits states against one another to compete for emergency resources. This approach is counter to unifying our nation. Perhaps that is the point and purpose Trump’s response. Divide and conquer.

Enter more distractions

We should expect to see more distractions injected into the news in the weeks to come. Trump has had time to read the field, to search for new wild herring. If we continue to allow him to dominate the microphone, rallying his base with divisive invective we will be dancing to his beat. The alternative is to take the offensive as some governors have done, holding his administration accountable for what is delivered and how it is coordinated (or not).

Invective is abusive, reproachful, or venomous language used to express blame or censure; or, a form of rude expression or discourse intended to offend or hurt; vituperation, or deeply seated ill will, vitriol. The Latin adjective invectivus means ‘scolding.’

The latest distraction is the evolving story behind the export of N95 masks. Trump has found a way to continue his nationalist agenda while creating a stir in the media. “Look at me flex my muscles!!!”, is the message. He is essentially saying, “I may be failing the country in organizational terms but I can still make sh$t happen.” It just so happens that this move resonates with the “close our borders” crowd. We’ll see if he changes his mind after talking with the Canadian Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau. First the tough guy headline, then the negotiation is the pattern.

“We know it is in both of our interests to work collaboratively and co-operatively to keep our citizens safe and that’s very much the tenor of our conversations and I’m confident that we’re going to get there.”

Justin Trudeau – April 5th

This critical, though factual, account of what I have read and observed of our president doesn’t mean this isn’t a difficult position that he’s in. Any president would be overwhelmed with the data, the unprecedented geographical scope, the economic impact and the shortage of supplies. My beef is with his vague, “I’m doing great”, “everybody else is an idiot”, “go it alone” routine. Why not let the experts do the work? Why not guide and support people with a clear message?

One of the president’s complaints is how surprising this situation is, how he was distracted by the impeachment trials and/or how the failures of his predecessors laid the groundwork for this event. While there is fault to go around for a lack of preparedness, this virus was identified on December 31st, 2019. What is notable is the lack of action there was on the part of our government in the from January 1st and forward.

There was warning, there was some time for the mobilization of resources. Some of these warnings were expressed formally by Democratic Presidential candidates at the end of January. Elizabeth Warren published her concerns and plan and Joe Biden expressed the same. They both recommended that we mobilize for the worst. Congressmen had opportunity to divest stocks in January so alarm was circulating.

As for the years of his administration leading up to this pandemic, there are a host questions of regarding funding, disabling or de-funding agencies responsible for a response. It appears that the Trump administration treated the threat of a pandemic much like they have with other public health and safety concerns:

The Trump administration slashed agencies and government programs responsible for detecting and responding to the virus, it ignored multiple warnings of a potential surge, and it publicly downplayed the threat of the pandemic even after it had secured a foothold in the country.

Business Insider – April 7, 2020

Of course the administration is denying their negligence. But Trump’s long pattern of behavior cannot be denied. His success at disarming public institutions who’s mandate is public health and safety is well established. It all falls under his banner: Remove government oversight. It shouldn’t be any surprise that he acted in the way that ignored good sense in favor of his disdain for government personnel, and his isolationist agenda.

As painful as it is to watch, Trump’s pattern of isolationist rhetoric and action is continuing today, April 9th. Rather than collaborating with agencies that can shorten the impact of the pandemic, he is adding to the discord by accusing the World Health Organization of being “China-centric”. Once again his best defense appears to be attributing HIS behavior to others. Stay tuned…

Balancing Anxiety with Awareness

As we entered this week, we were told to expect infection rates and death to dramatically increase. While we have consistently been told that things will get worse before they get better, this headline highlights the dread of this long march.

This long march

I begin every day with meditation, to get in touch with the state of my body and my mind. I simply sit up in bed, say prayers and rest with whatever is going on. The point isn’t to fix anything, to change anything but to rest in the nature of my mind. In the face of the intense suffering of people around the world, the desire to understand it, the fear of how the disease and the turmoil will evolve, the impulse to DO something, resting takes resolve.

Gone are the days when my thoughts floated among more mundane events and news and relationships. While there’s always something buzzing in my head, passing like clouds in my awareness, this p r o l o n g e d event has special weight and it presents a special opportunity. It calls me to be resolved and clear about what matters; people, kindness, consideration and care. It calls me to get out of my narrow concerns for myself and to pay attention to the welfare of others.

This solitary experience of writing is one of my feeble attempts to make a connection with others. While recording my thoughts in print may appear contrary to the experience of letting thoughts pass in meditation, it is a vehicle for facing the reality of today (recognize and release, recognize and release). While I would love it if someone benefits from my stories (connect with me), I am content with the connection that this exercise gives me to others. I intend to use it to to deepen my awareness without stealing my ability to be a support to others.

How Much News Can We Bear

In order to understand the daily news and make a connection, I am taking quite a bit of time to read and listen to the news of the day. I’m trying to discern the pattern of events, stories, edicts, and pronouncements. All this reading can take it’s toll on my psyche. It has the potential for generating anxiety and fear, grasping and avoidance.

This morning I woke wondering how these emotions are being processed. Am I capable of staying informed, bringing information to this blog, while maintaining a degree of balance? Can I maintain composure in the face of the pounding waves of uncertainty and death?

As I ponder my own ability to weather this storm of uncertainty, I wonder about the resilience and commitment of others (my community, state, nation and world). We have never faced an “event” that requires such extended commitment or concentration. We have been engaged in war. But while the conflicts in the Middle East have been raging for almost 2 decades, most of us, save the service men, women and families, have not felt the sacrifice and dread in our homes. This pandemic event is more aptly called an all-inclusive proceeding. Not only is it a slow process but no one is immune from it’s effects. It will require continuous adjustment on the part of everyone and a renewal of our intentions as it evolves.

Long Term Sacrifice

There is no doubt that this all-inclusive proceeding will continue through the years to come. The question is, will we unite as a nation following best health practices for the greater good OR will we take sides, argue and dilute the best advice of scientists under the banter of partisan opinion and individual autonomy.

Given the immediate resistance of some politicians to provide clear guidelines for isolating the virus, it seems likely that partisan opinion will persist. This will happen despite the fact that people’s physical health is at stake. Their objections to sheltering take many forms. One governor expressed doubts that people can handle isolation at home.

Even as Iowa’s coronavirus cases have grown to more than 1,000 with 26 deaths and the state’s medical board has recommended a stay-at-home order, Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds maintains that demanding people not leave their homes would threaten their mental health.

570News

Other state governors cite the economic impact (a reflection of their popularity). All appear to value their sense of autonomy more than pragmatism. They ignore the advice that stay at home rules will shorten people’s suffering while building a banner for doing it their own way. Having worked with rebellious teenagers, their opposition feels very familiar to me.

I realize that we will have differences of opinion and act differently. Just as people on the street conduct themselves in different ways; face mask or not, 6 feet or not, gathering or not. We should accept that this is going to be the case. But laissez faire leadership the muddies the water of healthy practice presents a much more dangerous precedent. I am puzzled by their audacity to count themselves differently than the rest of us and put their agenda in front of the health and welfare of the community.

The cost of gathering and spreading covid-19 will be born by us all. While individual rights and the right to act unilaterally against tyranny deserve respect, this is no such time. Their actions degrade the general welfare of our national community. It is selfish, and borders on neglect and dereliction of duty. The virus has no boundary, no nationality, no state identity. It favors human contact and WILL spread. While some lead and act on the behalf of the group, these contrarians act unilaterally just because they can.

https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/unilaterally

This pandemic is a lesson. We are learning a lot as we suffer through it’s mystery. But our insight will need to be applied consistently, across communities and over the long term. The virus and the remedies don’t leave much room for individual expression. They are beyond politics and negotiation. This isn’t something I or any leaders relishes or invites. How we adapt to the virus to provide distance, in the heat of increased infection or in the aftermath of rebuilding, will be shaped by creative solutions of individuals but the rules it imposes will be prescriptive. There is no negotiation of it’s existence or power. Take your medicine or take the consequences.

Rules of Engagement

Precautions or Restictions?

Yesterday our governor encouraged people to wear a mask when they leave the house

“We’re asking all Coloradans to wear face coverings when they go out of the house for any of your essential functions like grocery shopping.”

Jared Polis – Fort Collins Coloradan

Also yesterday, Trump announced the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now recommending the use of non medical cloth masks, either homemade or purchased, in public settings. Notice he didn’t say that he is recommending or standing behind this recommendation.

The CDC recommendation is just that, Trump said, and not mandatory, though he said he probably wouldn’t be wearing a mask. The recommendation does not replace social distancing measures, he said.

USNews

We are in the process of setting new social norms. This isn’t rocket science, it is social science that has been established for 70 or 80 years. If you want to change human behavior you need to be clear in your expectations and communication. You need to repeat your message and model it in various ways. Contrary to this science we are being provided half hearted directions. Of course, if you never really decide what you want people to do OR if you are vague in your support of the change you will NEVER see any change. You will see confusion and even passive and aggressive division among the masses.

Behave Yourself

Today I filled a prescription at Target and I saw very few masks or face coverings of any kind on shoppers or the staff. I realize that this is the first day of the recommendation but I wonder when or if people will take action. Covering your face is a big change of style. The fact that it has taken us so long to believe the benefits of a mask is incredible. This has been known for a the past month at least:

The new coronavirus spreads mostly through person-to-person contact within about a 6-foot (1.8 meters) radius, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). People with COVID-19, which is the disease caused by the coronavirus, spread viral particles through coughing and sneezing. The particles can land in the mouths or noses of those nearby. – Live Science – March 3, 2020

Wearing masks is only the most recent recommendation of behavior change. Social distancing was recommended before masks probably because the fear that there would be a run on masks and that it required less change for the public. Distancing does run counter to the human desire to be social and engaged but the consequences are disastrous.

Service to our Country – What does it look like?

Clearly, all recommendation, whether for scientists or government, might feel invasive and counter to personal freedom. While I haven’t been bold enough to ask, I see people in stores who blithely move in and out of groups of people, who don’t appear to be concerned at all. I wonder if they are simply unaware of personal space or defiantly ignoring recommendations. The problem of course is that they are endangering others, not just themselves.

As this crisis moves into it’s second month, I wonder if we are going to see greater defiance or greater cooperation. How will people deal with the behavior of others coming close or not wearing protection? Will there be open confrontations in public? One of the hallmarks of the Trump administration’s narrative has been freedom for the individual to do whatever s/he wants and a rejection of scientific, expert and government recommendations (hoaxes). This message is reinforced by his lackluster recommendation to wear a mask. This nature of this crisis challenges this defiance forcing the individual to weigh the facts of science seriously. It requires that we consider other’s safety as our own. It connects personal choice to the greater good.

The difference between a precaution and a restriction is one of perspective. If I feel someone is “making” me do something it feels like a restriction. If I am making the choice myself, it is a precaution. What’s your perpective?

Time, Fear and Hope

The Latest Trend

What day is this? Oh! It’s Friday April 3. How long have we been sheltering? When did this start? I’m afraid I’m losing track.

Has time slowed down for you? It has for me. While my options for activity are more limited, there is no limit to the number of concerns I have, the number of reports, and the lack of resolution in all this information. There is steady stream of new and critical information entering my awareness and yet there is a short list of what I can do to make a difference. This stream is different than the regular news-noise we’ve become accustomed to over the past 3+ years. Rather it contains speculation about people living and dying, suffering, in isolation and facing present and possible loss.

I came across an interesting explanation for the time-warp we are currently experiencing:

There’s a well-known idea that time feels like it speeds up as you age. Summer break feels like an eternity when you’re nine years old but your 60s can skip by in a flash.

The leading theory for why this happens is that the perception of time relies on the number of memories formed in a period, and memories are encoded from new and surprising experiences. The monotony of commuting to work on the same road for 20 years passes without leaving a mark. But every day is a memorable surprise to a child experiencing her first summer camp, or learning how big the universe is for the first time.

Time slowed in March because for the first time since childhood many of us are being bombarded with new and surprising experiences.

Collaborative Fund

Surprise, novelty? These are things that modern people have come to crave aren’t they? The latest music, trend, fashion, technology, idea… The young have craved the “new” as long as I’ve lived and from what I know of history, they always have. Only the pace has changed. But now we are physically at full stop but mentally speeding, with eyes wide open to the novelty of change that is out of our control.

As I have aged I have less need for novelty. I am content with routines aimed at a few goals; family, friends, health, and understanding my world through reading, meditation and observation. Of course I appreciate surprises and a novel experience but I approach them differently than I did as a young man.

As a 64 year old man, days do fly by. It seems like only yesterday that my first grand-child was born, but now she is 7. At the same time she was born, I was retiring. I can’t believe I’ve been retired for 7 years! I returned from Asia 2 years ago. Time did slow while I was there. As I have recounted in my entries from that time, Nepal was like a dream – like a slow unfolding dream. Each day carried unexpected moments of sights, sound, smells and human interaction.

Young Men Nepal – David McGavock

This Present Moment

From what I am reading and hearing, there are but a few categories of activity in this moment of historical crisis. People are doing the best they can based on their geography, profession, age, and socioeconomic status. Some people are challenged with following necessary restrictions while providing service consistent with their profession. It is a shakeup of our sense of normal:

  • People sheltered at home. Limited activity of shopping for “necessities”, exercise, gathering with distance. “At least 297 million people in at least 38 states48 counties14 citiesthe District of Columbia and Puerto Rico are being urged to stay home.” While some of us are in a relatively secure home with access to food and shelter, some are unemployed, some are without shelter and food, some are in crowded situations or institutions where they are close to other residents.
  • People on the front line of health care. With families sheltered at home, these dedicated and precious individuals are working to hold the line on the pandemic. They are the doctors, nurses and all the support staff required to keep hospitals up and running. Some are overwhelmed in the current battle while some are waiting and provisioning for the coming emergency.
  • People on the front line of essential services. While “essential” is currently being debated, people DO need food and other supplies to keep going. Grocery stores, post offices, delivery services employ people who continue to provide us support. These people are exposing themselves every day as the public gets face to face. They are generally low paid and dependent upon the salary.
  • People working to secure supplies. hospital administrators, local, state and national agencies and leaders in a position to identify gaps and do their best to fill them.
  • People reporting on developments, providing information through print, digital and broadcast media. As we shelter in our isolated locations, there is an increasing need for accurate information; to guide our behavior, help us secure support, allay our fears, prepare us for the future.
  • People who are providing service from the shelter of their home. Teachers, unemployment personnel (State and Federal), therapists, social workers, lawyers, technology support services, banks, and other support services too numerous to count.

This is a simple snapshot of the current social shift of work in the United States. Some likeness of this is being mirrored around the world, though we are blessed with an infrastructure that makes adjustment easier than a village in Peru.

While news, digital communication and direct observation are providing us with a small window into the activities of our fellow citizens, each of these groups is experiencing this crisis differently. My small window into the hospitals in New York and other cities of high infection gives me some appreciation for their sacrifice, but it doesn’t do them justice. This ignorance of other’s effort is evident in the denial that some cities and states maintain, despite daily news of the tragedy. There is an attitude being above it all, continuing with business as usual.

Silver Lining of Fear

We are all hopeful that the tide will turn quickly and we can return to business as usual. At the same time we are fearful. Fearful for our personal safety, for our livelihood, for our children and our future. For some this fear is motivating and bringing us greater appreciation for our community and our blessed, comfortable life.

This moment of crisis can be a moment of clarity. We are fearful and want to protect ourselves and our loved ones. That’s understandable. This virus, shows us our connection, our interdependence. It shows us how our protection is dependent upon everyone in our midst in a chain of connection that goes all the way around the world. We can take this moment to share other connections; our kindness, compassion, appreciation. These are also infectious.

A retreat for Buddhists is a time for drawing a boundary. It provides one with time to come to terms with the mind and how it creates our reality. Isolated from daily distractions we are left with only our thoughts and feelings, the disturbed and the blissful. Through reflection we learn that we have a choice to create an angry world or a peaceful world. When we are willing to pay attention our thoughts we will discover one important source of our suffering – ourselves.

Paradoxically, this retreat (safe at home) can provide us with a sense of connection to others. In recognizing our personal suffering, we realize that all beings create suffering for themselves, even as they strive for happiness. Like a mother responding to the suffering of her child, this realization brings us compassion for others. I pray that this crisis, and the retreat it has forced upon us, will bring people to realize their common humanity and spark compassion for the welfare of all beings.