Change is in the Air Again
I’ve been trying to get re-centered the last few days, as I’m feeling a little unsure about a lot of things. For months we were told, at least here in California, that the recovery from the pandemic and the return to “normal” life would happen in fits and starts, overall slowly, and that it wouldn’t work like a light switch, but more like a dial. But someone seems to have flipped the light switch last week, as it feels like we’ve gone from zero to 60 in just a couple of days. From everything being shut down to suddenly opening up, including movie theaters and amusement parks, which have been shuttered for a year. Why? I know our COVID cases are dropping, which is good news. And of course, the vaccines are rolling out, which is fantastic news. But our numbers have dropped before without this reaction and as of this writing, we’ve only vaccinated about 10% of the population – hardly herd immunity territory.
On top of that, U.S. numbers may be dropping, but Europe recorded a million new cases last week. The variant out of the U.K. is spreading significantly across 27 European countries. The South African variant is now present in 26 European countries and the Brazilian variant, which appears capable of re-infecting people is in at least 15 European countries. Deaths are rising in Africa and hospitals in Brazil are currently overwhelmed with the latest surge there. As we have clearly seen since the beginning of this pandemic, being a global pandemic means it moves all around, not just in one location. So, I’m a little leery. I’m also questioning the timing of some of the U.S. and California lifting of restrictions. Our governor, for example, is currently facing a strong recall movement. Could our politicians be more concerned with getting re-elected than protecting the citizenship? I can’t say I know of course, but hence the leeriness.
Regardless, sports leagues are announcing a return to live events with spectators. Schools are re-opening. Nightclubs, museums, cruises and spa resorts are sending out announcements to lure customers back. And people, tired of being so restricted, hear what we want to hear – that things are better – so we’re off and running.
I’d be so happy for people not to lose their businesses, for people to be able to return to work and school, and for all of us to be able to see our families and friends again. I’d love to be entertained again, be it movies or museums or a baseball game. But I’m concerned about mixed messages, unclear standards or guidelines as to how we stay safe and who we can trust for accurate information.
Again, I want things to open up as much as anyone else, but why did we give up on the dial idea and jump straight to the light switch? The CDC, the WHO, public health officials – they’re all warning us to slow down. To keep vigilant. To continue wearing masks, social distancing, washing our hands and avoiding large crowds. Frankly, no one wants to hear that anymore. The messaging has been so inconsistent for the past year, it’s hard to blame anyone for questioning what we’re told, regardless of which side of the fence we sit on – open everything 100% or stay in lockdown. It seems like common sense would indicate that caution is warranted, but at the same time, the information we’ve received from both politicians and public health officials has not always followed common sense, calling into question what is true and what is not.
There was an excellent article in the Atlantic recently that exemplified the impact all of this garbled communication has had, pointing out that we would have been much better off if instead of giving us fixed guidelines on how to behave, we should have been informed on the details of the mechanisms of viral transmission of the pathogen in this virus. If we had received that information early on, followed by updates over time, we might have felt empowered to make informed calculations about risk in various settings. Instead, we were told to stand six feet apart for 15 minutes or less. What happens at 17 minutes? Or at 6-1/2 feet? Doesn’t exactly align with common sense.
The communication regarding mask-wearing and other precautions has been all over the place and again, I would argue that we need to use our own common sense. There is solid scientific evidence that open air dilutes the virus quickly and the sun helps deactivate it. There have been relatively few documented cases of transmission outdoors, even after a year.
There is also compelling evidence that indoor transmissions are fueling the pandemic, with the virus spreading via aerosols that can float and accumulate, with poorly ventilated indoor spaces at the heart of super-spreader events. Yet parks, beaches, hiking trails and outdoor dining close while workers are kept indoors with plexiglass and/or six-feet spacing between them. Indoor transmission in a poorly ventilated area has been shown to facilitate the spread of the virus over longer distances and in a much shorter period of time than our guidelines suggest.
I’m not an expert in epidemiology and I’m not pointing out the flaws in how this has all played out just to be critical. I’m sharing all of this because we are at a point where we need to make good decisions. And if we don’t trust or believe those in authority, it doesn’t mean we have to respond through rebellion. We can simply turn to our own intuition and common sense.
I think if everyone was willing to cooperate and be careful, we could open everything up. If we recognize that we cannot move through life without affecting others, that our every action has a ripple effect that we have no control over once let loose, and that as a species, we need to band together to protect humanity and the planet, think of what we could accomplish.
It’s up to each of us to decide how to proceed, I hope based on values, as well as consideration of others. A good example comes from states where mask mandates have recently been lifted and many restaurant owners are dismayed. They are now left in charge of deciding what is safe or not and enforcing their own rules. They desperately need customers and lots of customers are desperate to get back into the restaurants. Many owners, however, feel it is not safe to stop wearing masks for their staff as well as customers, but are afraid they won’t attract customers if they require them.
We could support all businesses reopening, and this time staying open, not by some herculean act of strength and fortitude, but by simply behaving as we would if we had a cold or the flu – protecting others from our germs and vice versa. We could step back from the rhetoric and the political nonsense and just think of our fellow man and our own well-being. No more shaming, scolding, ostracizing, or attacking each other and no putting more pressure on restaurant owners or other small businesses fighting for survival. Let’s just wear masks when in contact with others, and if possible, socialize only outdoors or in well-ventilated spaces for the next couple of months.
As I began, I’ve spent the last few days getting centered, slowing down when my mind starts racing about preparing for a re-entry into the world and what it means for my business, for my staff, for my personal life, and for family and friends. I’ve decided to stick with the dial. I’ll dip my toes in the water when it comes to going out in public and ease my way back, regardless of what others are doing. I’ve decided to adopt Japan’s public guidelines going forward, which they call the Three C’s and which are logically driving the pandemic. Avoid closed spaces, crowded places and close contact. When any of the three C’s is unavoidable, I’ll mask up or even double-mask up. And I’ll take my walks outside mask-free to give myself a break from the confinements of wearing masks indoors.
Since I’m still not eligible for a vaccination, I won’t actually be dipping my toes in quite yet, but will start preparing for re-entry by reviewing what I can still take advantage of before the rush of civilization crashes in. Most of us created a list, even in our own minds, of everything we could get done while being stuck at home for a long period of time. Many of us didn’t completely follow through on those tasks, but if there was something important to you and you haven’t gotten it done yet, maybe now’s the time. And hopefully by now, you’ve given some thought to the design of your life post-pandemic. Is there something you could be doing right now to support that new life vision?
I sincerely hope that happy days are right around the corner and that we don’t inflict more suffering on ourselves through mindless behavior, but even if 100% freedom comes this week, we have yet another challenge ahead and that’s more stress. Stress can come in the form of positive or negative emotional and physiological responses. Positive stress gets us going, pushes us through actions that we’re apprehensive about and motivates us to go bigger or better.
Sudden change, however, tends to create negative stress. It looks like we’re about to experience a lot of sudden change, at least here in the United States. If you’ve been working from home for the past year, for example, suddenly being called back into work is going to be a sudden change and figuring out the logistics of child care, carpools, and/or hybrid work and school schedules, on top of health and safety concerns, well, it’s probably going to be stressful.
Mindfulness meditation is one of the simplest methods for calming down and gaining clarity. Taking a few minutes every morning to sit quietly and focus on your breath, as you begin planning, preparing and implementing everything that is about to switch, will not only reduce your stress level, but will support you in maintaining focus and not getting carried away by the flurry of activity that feels like it’s upon us. Additionally, mindfulness strengthens our ability to stay focused on the present, so will help prevent you from wasting time making up stories about what may happen next month or this summer, to what you need to be focusing on right now.
Some people, however, just aren’t comfortable with mindfulness meditation. So as we enter another stressful stage of the pandemic, I thought we could broaden our options a little, in case there is a type that resonates more for you than mindfulness meditation. It’s always a good idea to add to our toolbox, especially when we know we have challenges ahead, so I’ll try to share a little bit about different types of meditation over the next few weeks. I encourage you to keep an open mind and stay curious as we explore because you might find something that could be very beneficial for you through the next few months of transition.
There are many types of meditation, ranging from non-secular, evidence-based practices like mindfulness, to religious meditations to mystical or metaphysical meditative practices. One long-practiced meditation style is Transcendental Meditation.
Jerry Seinfeld revealed recently on Tim Ferris’ podcast as to how he stays sane and creative in the physically and mentally draining world of comedy – weight training and Transcendental Meditation, or TM. He said that he thought he could solve just about anyone’s life due to these two practices, regardless of what they do.
Regarding TM, he shared, "As a standup comic, I can tell you, my entire life is concentration fatigue. Whether it's writing or performing, my brain and my body, which is the same thing, are constantly hitting the wall. And if you have it in your hip pocket, you're Columbus with a compass." The comedian practices TM twice a day or as he stated, "any time I feel like I'm dipping.” He and his wife have practiced TM for over twenty years and he credits the practice with his being happier and healthier than he would have been otherwise.
Lots of celebrities enthusiastically practice TM, including Howard Stern, Oprah Winfrey, Paul McCartney, Clint Eastwood, Mick Jagger, Russell Brand and Katy Perry, to name just a few. Numerous studies have proven that practicing TM can help with stress, anxiety, PTSD, and hypertension. It's also associated with an overall increase in life satisfaction.
So what is transcendental meditation and how is it different from mindfulness meditation? TM was introduced by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi and comes from the Vedic tradition. Popularized in the west by Jon Kabat-Zinn, mindfulness meditation comes from the Buddhist tradition.
TM is described as a simple, effortless meditation technique that doesn't involve contemplation or concentration. A mantra is used as a method to let the mind settle down naturally and, ultimately, to transcend thought.
In mindfulness meditation, we’re training our mind to be in the present moment and focus attention on our breathing, sensations and thoughts during meditation. The main difference between the two is that the goal of mindfulness meditation is to have our thoughts be on the present moment, whereas with TM, the goal is to transcend thought itself and experience a state of "pure awareness," in which we are aware but without any focused thought.
I find it quite fascinating that these differing approaches to meditation, and differing subjective experiences during meditation, result in contrasting neurophysiological states associated with each practice. TM activates the brain's default mode network, which is a natural resting state of the brain. Mindfulness meditation deactivates the default mode network, hence my frequent reminders that the purpose of mindfulness meditation is not to relax but to actually wake up our minds. Research shows that the brain wave patterns associated with each practice are also different. TM is characterized by alpha brain waves, which is associated with relaxation while mindfulness meditation is associated with theta brain waves, indicating a readiness to process incoming signals.
How you learn the practices is also different. TM requires learning from a certified teacher who teaches the technique in a very precise way, as the teaching and practice of the technique are standardized. In mindfulness meditation, we can learn in a variety of ways, from taking an 8-week course to reading, to experientially practicing, to listening to a podcast such as this one.
The ultimate difference is really in the goal you’re aiming for with practice. With TM, long-term practice can result in a state of cosmic consciousness, in which the experience of transcendence is always present in one's awareness, even during activity. TM leads to experiencing yourself as universal and omnipresent. Identity shifts from the individual to the cosmic. With mindfulness, the ultimate goal is to always be in the present moment, with greater clarity and focus.
This comparison between practices in no way identifies one method being better than another. It is another intriguing glimpse into our vastly untapped ability to alter our minds, health and well-being. It is a reminder that we have more control over ourselves than we think we do. And it provides an example of an alternate practice you may be interested in exploring.
Regardless of what type of meditation resonates strongest for you, the important factor here is to encourage you to meditate. We need to keep our wits about us right now. We need to be mindful, even if we practice other forms of meditation. We need to remember that the pandemic is just one event we all have to get through. Life wasn’t so easy for many before the pandemic and it’s going to be a challenging period to move into full-out living again. We can choose to develop our skills and improve our behaviors to support ourselves as well as others, to all move through this period more successfully and with our health intact.
Until next time. Make mindful decisions, stay curious and have a wonderful week.
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Have a wonderful week.