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Covid 19 blog #7: exploring the “Covid pause,” retreat and reset

There seems to be more time these days. Of course, that can’t be right, can it? More likely, it’s my experience of time that’s changed. With less traffic on the roads there has been a vehicular slowdown, but also a corresponding slowdown in my mind-or rather, the nature of my mind-traffic has slowed somewhat. Its feels more paced, as if my whole fight or flight system has calmed down.

As I walked barefoot along the beach today, I was aware of both how my mind creates this thought traffic, and that there are actually gaps in between the thoughts-as similarly there are normally always gaps between the cars on the road. These gaps; tiny openings, small tastes of liberation, freedom from conceptual thoughts and thinking, what my life should be, ought to be, must be, a whole set and system of imposed, yet internalised preferences. These gaps are-in Buddhist terms-bardos-or mini bardos which (for me) open and close quickly like the aperture on a camera.

It’s often said that thoughts (and emotions) do three things: they self-arise, self-display and then self-liberate. It’s this middle bit which is the tricky bit; in the self-display the whole of our situation as crazy humans becomes exposed, with our habit of grasping and attaching to our thinking, emotions and the supposed meanings we derive from this we keep the self-display going, nor matter if it’s healthy or not. It’s habitual, familiar, and it is to the familiar we are drawn before what is true, good, healthy or beautiful.

I bring-or direct-my attention to walking along the beach. The sensations, walking barefoot, are very immediate. Lifting my foot, swinging it forwards, putting it down. Repeating this, I walk; sensations of wet sand, sea water, cool and refreshing, the movement of my legs, my pelvis. The felt sense of my embodiment, of being human. I breathe, it feels free.

This time, this time of a great pause, is open and more expansive that normal (is it really?) and it is for me redolent of being on retreat. Perhaps, at this time of lockdown, we could all try a little of the retreat experience at home?

I try to remain silent. My wife works upstairs. I practice developing a sense of acceptance to sound intruding from the neighbours’ children, DIY next door, drills switching on and off. We often, I reflect, in the absence of stimulation, try to fill the gaps not with an exploration, a savouring of the gap, but with distraction; gaps can be fearsome, especially if we have never experienced them before. What do they mean? Will we fall into the gap and vanish? It might mean that we are more that our distractions and our thoughts, and this can be so unfamiliar to us, loss-threatening perhaps?

If this could be a retreat, perhaps it could follow some of the retreat domains: the outer retreat, the inner and the secret.

The outer: that’s just the outer environment, yet this outer world is pervasive in entering into us, impacting and triggering us in often wild and unpredictable ways. There’s a kind of feedback loop here in the sense of how we in turn impact on the world. How we might work skilfully with the neighbour’s drilling, how this sense of irritation feels to us, how the sun shines and then the days cool as clouds arrive; we’re happy being warm, sad being cold. This opportunity to reflect; sound only exists in silence-before and after sound there is silence, and silence is like a container for sound, just as sky is a container for clouds. This is exploring a shift in perspective, and vaster view, is it not?

The inner: this is the body, the soma, rich in all of its internal experiences, the felt sense of the embodied me. This is an embodiment that we are, to a greater or lesser sense alienated from: “Mr Duffy lived a few feet away from his body” as James Joyce wrote in Dubliners. The drilling stops, and I follow my internal sensations, bring my attention to them, this allows my triggered mind to settle. Mindful walking, on the beach or otherwise, activates this feeling of being, of grounding and belonging, of embodiment.

The secret: this might pertain to the reason, the intention to do retreat. And then the why, the motivation, which can be very personal. To deepen and develop. Deepen and develop what? If I can deepen and develop my fledgling capacity to become more familiar, more intimately connected with not just my mind but my embodiment, I can both relate to my stories, stories of pain, stories of suffering and my methods of liberation more skilfully. Why would I do this? Because if I can do this, I might be able to help others do the same. Is this arrogance-that I suggest this? I don’t think so, not if I keep track of my ego.

The learning here is that we cannot escape pain. Life will be full of pain at times. But this resistance to pain creates a story of suffering and, in turn, disempowers us, leaves us victims to a narrative of suffering which we in turn maintain and project out into the world. Crazy humans with crazy minds, drawn more to the familiar than the healthy! We can explore our narratives of suffering though, and seek to let them go.

Attention and soma: bringing our attention to the body right here and right now outside the conceptual mind.

So, is this a reset time for us? If it is, perhaps we could ask ourselves, in the “Covid bardo,” in the midst of this, some questions, reflection questions that might help us reset our lives as we go through then exit this time (which we will). We might like to take time to appreciate what we gained from this experience that our normal, frenetic life did not provide, the connections we made, the spaciousness and expansiveness of these days. We might ask ourselves what truly nourishes me in my life? What depletes me in my life? And, how might I re-relate to my body and mind, my deeper sense of self to bring more nourishing thoughts, feelings and activities into my world?

Delivering sessions of mindful counselling, an integration of mindfulness and psychotherapy, has given me the opportunity to explore with clients this “Covid pause” in our lives*, and investigate how, at this time, we might not get so caught up in thoughts, anxieties, ideologies and conceptual dead ends; in a sense, the self-display of our suffering.

This pause is unique. We don’t know yet what the long-term impact will be, and though many of the folk I talk to are held in abeyance, being patient, this waiting has produced in some a sense of disquiet, a sense of unease that feels close to a potential dis-ease. This pause in normal living has allowed folk to register how uncomfortable they are at times with their own minds,** and may be allowing what they have suppressed in their lives to come to the surface: old and denied wounds, regrets, truths about relationships, intergenerational hurt, repressed desires. This could be a “ticking time bomb” -or not. We just don’t know yet, and we have no idea this might impact on society.

My hope is for a kind of reset, an retreat into an exploration of where we are, how we are, what we relate to and what we might be able to liberate; the very stuff that holds back and yet drives our minds, an exploration with a sense of greater attention and more compassion.

As Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche writes in his book In Love with the World

“make friends with your experience and see if you can notice the spacious awareness that is with you all the time. Everything you ever wanted is right here in this present moment of awareness”

Right here, and right now.

May you all be well

May you all be happy

May you all be safe


*of course, for those in the frontline of the NHS the notion of any kind of pause is laughable to say the least. These personnel may have other long-term impacts.

** and some are not, some are settling into this very well.

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