Mental Health

So Apparently This Is Happening: Mindfulness and COVID-19


Whatever is ok now, is still ok now…

It’s been pointed out to me a few times that I am disturbingly calm about all of this. Working from home during the COVID-19 crisis has given me some pause to consider why. By calm, I don’t mean disinterested or in denial. Actually, I was uncharacteristically early in this event to sound the alarm and point out the severity of what’s going on. And still, I have largely remained calm. Concerned, but calm. To be calm in the midst of a crisis is to be serious, sober, and rational. Yes, years of learning and teaching uncertainty acceptance is a factor. But I think the real explanation for this stance is simple, old-fashioned mindfulness. And now, I am more grateful for my meditation practice than ever before.

The Story Unfolds

A meditation teacher once asked me to consider that when doing a walking meditation, it is not me that’s moving, but the world that is moving in front of me. I went outside that day and walked along a trail with this in mind and noticed how each tree entered my field of vision, each gust of wind arrived at its own choosing, and each sensation in my feet simply made itself known. I was not the creator of any of this.  It got me thinking about those open-world video games I sometimes enjoy. The character you play is always positioned in the center and the world of the game reveals itself as you move the character forward. You can control the direction the character goes in and the actions the character takes, but you cannot control the world that gets revealed by that movement and those actions. I think this applies to the nature of consciousness in important ways. We get overwhelmed with anxiety and frustration when the world in front of us does not reveal what we want or expect. I often find myself asking, “Why am I angry?” and then discovering the answer to be, “The universe is not doing what I told it to.”

This concept applies to more than just walking and noticing what we sense, see, or hear. It applies to our thoughts and feelings, which also arise without asking our permission. It applies to everything. We think we have control over a narrative, the movie of our life, as if we are the screenwriters, but really we are the actors. We influence the presentation with our creative responses, but we don’t write the script. This is a good thing. It means when we strive for the best “performance” in life’s movie, we are not doing so out of selfishness or narcissism, but with the quality of the entire movie in mind. In other words, your mental health, your self-compassion, your efforts to align your life with your values are for the benefit of all of us. Just like staying at home and following the scientific guidelines isn’t just about avoiding getting sick, but about keeping all of us safe.

The Script Changes

A few months ago, I was struggling with anxiety about a number of work-related projects. I was resistant to the absence of answers, angrily waiting for them to show up as if my anger would hurry their arrival. My “story” was about this, every day, for months. This is what I decided was important in so many moments where I was not otherwise distracted. Then COVID-19 arrived and said, “There’s been a change in the script.” That’s all it took. I’m walking through life thinking I control what arises and then I’m reminded that I am not being consulted at all by the universe! Like the character in the video game or the actor in the film, I cannot control what arises, only my behavior in response to it. And even if my behavior isn’t perfect- no, especially when my behavior isn’t perfect, I cannot control that discovery. I, again, can only control my behavior in response to it.

The best way to learn how to recognize when you are trying to control something that is out of your control is to learn how to meditate. If you have a meditation practice, this is the time to explore it more deeply. If you don’t have a meditation practice, this is the time to start one. If you tried meditation and it didn’t click for you, now is the time to re-approach it with intention. Intend to develop the skill of seeing thoughts as thoughts and to view the present moment without judgment. Intend to let go of predictions of catastrophe or relief and simply show up to what’s in front of you. We don’t know exactly what’s coming next. It does feel like a flying saucer has been floating above us for weeks, just menacingly charging its destruction beam, you’re right!  But at least we have some power, some skill to build upon. We can improve our performance in the game by enhancing our awareness of the present. Whatever is ok now, is still ok now no matter what the future holds.

The Scene Comes Alive

As I write this from my home office between hours and hours of giving teletherapy sessions, I can look out the window and see my wife and kids walking the dog. No one else is around. That’s ok now. I miss my office, but I can step out of this room and thaw something to cook tonight. That’s ok now. We get crazy beautiful sunsets at my house and I am usually not home in time to see them. They’re ok now. I can see inside my own mind the gratitude I have for being in a profession that allows me to continue to work, that allows me to be an anchor for some people that feel swept up in this storm. That’s more than ok now. Practice catching yourself wandering into the future, creating terrain you cannot control, and come back down here, to the present moment. You can try it right now.

Notice what’s OK now.

For more info on this crisis and OCD, go to:

  • Jon Hershfield, MFT

    Director, The Center for OCD and Anxiety
    Anxiety Disorders, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD)