The beginning of the lockdown felt surreal. The eerie silence of the streets and the shared feeling of looming uncertainty was like seeing things in grey and the sound was muffled.
I recounted the first two months of the pandemic as I reflected on my state of consciousness while writing this blog. My hope is to come to a full circle and affirm that I am where I should be and that my mind is where my body is.
I remember looking out the window, breathing a few deep breaths to calm my thoughts and recognised that this is a reality the world is collectively experiencing. I woke up that day thinking that the past days have been a dream since it was an unfamiliar feeling watching mine and other people’s normal routines change.
I took a piece of sticky note and wrote, “We have never been more connected than NOW.”
As I wrote, there was a recognition that an event of this magnitude — where the entire world is waiting for a singular story to unfold — may only happen once in my life; and that this rare opportunity would be missed if I overlooked documenting my thoughts as they came.
My worries about my children, my parents, my practice, and the safety of those I cared for was getting at me. On top of that, arrangements for my flight were, as expected, not going smoothly because the airline was also dealing with the influx of cancellations and rebooking from customers.
I then received a response to an earlier message I had sent to my dad. The message said that he and mum were having a good and calm day.
I read that message over and over until my thoughts slowed.
I wrote, “Today was heavy but thankful that they are ok.”
Staying present right now was quite a challenge. There was so much to think of.
It was almost two months into the lockdown and I found myself back home in Germany with my mum and dad. Flying on an empty plane, staying at empty airports, being in a two-week quarantine had been strange and surreal.
I stepped outside for a break and heard the rustle of leaves as a gust of wind passed through the trees. I welcomed the chill on my face and suddenly felt excited for a cup of tea. I went inside after a few more minutes and turned on the kettle.
Frank Sinatra’s “Stella By Starlight” was softly playing while I continued to type away on my computer with my fresh cup of tea. As the chorus swelled, I stopped to write on my journal, “The cold breeze, Sinatra, chai.”
Das Sein (“Being”)
The journey of our consciousness through this global pandemic — fear, frustration, isolation, grief, relief, hope, and all the other states of which we’ve been, shed a light on the German philosopher, Martin Heidegger’s observation, that humankind is in a constant struggle with presence and that we have a tendency to forget being in the world.
The sense of “being in the world” is what Heidegger called Das Sein, or in English, Being.
The personal anecdotes shared at the beginning of this blog demonstrated how easy it can be for us to get caught up in our negative thoughts and how this hinders us from being present.
Yet ironically, it is also worth acknowledging that getting overtaken by negative feelings can prompt us to pause and reflect on the strangeness of how and why we’ve become so concerned with “the nothing” or Das Nichts (the opposite of being), thereby, not living in the moment.
To simplify presence as “being in the world” may leave us with a two-dimensional understanding of how it is to live in the present. For this discussion, it may serve us better to examine the nuances of existing in the Now during times of great despair, such as this global pandemic. In the same line, perhaps we can also gain a higher understanding of what being present is when we identify what it is not.
Being Present is NOT:
Ruminating on our thoughts for the moment – This is what is also known as discursive thinking. Getting stuck in a loop, even if it is of-the-moment, delays our arrival at a goal. Discursive thinking can even seem like we’re taking action because of the exhaustive way we dwell on a few roadblocks when in reality, we have gained little traction.
We can observe this when checking social media where friends post about their lives and their thoughts excessively. While platforms like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter have given us an avenue to express ourselves and connect with other people from all over the world, a good portion of these websites has also morphed into caverns of the superficial.
How strange it is that we’ve made it a habit to take photos of our food yet we forget to appreciate how good it tastes and how the experience has created a special memory with the person whom we’ve shared the meal.
How peculiar it is that we are more preoccupied with wanting to appear compassionate by typing a few hundred characters in our phones instead of actually stepping outside of ourselves to volunteer or lend an ear to a friend who feels alone.
Using social media and being unaware of its superficial rewards such as getting Likes and having people agree with our sentiments can keep us in a perpetual thought-loop. Instead of deeply reflecting on the Now, we become distracted in our desire to reinforce a thought from the past or feelings of anxiety about the future.
We may unknowingly be creating a vacuum of unchallenged beliefs that retards our personal growth. As a consequence, it becomes more challenging to rifle through our present feelings and we become less self-aware.
Having self-critical thoughts – There is a difference between knowing and accepting our limitations from being too self-critical. It is okay to question our decisions and our skills because it allows for room to grow. However, working with the belief that our emotions and perceptions get in the way, can lead us astray from being present.
We are deserving of love.
We are worthwhile.
These statements are real and true.
Eckhart Tolle once said that “Nothing real ever changes.” Being loved and loving others is real, therefore, that does not change. Focusing on things that do change, such as the state of our finances and our career during this pandemic, distances us from being present with what is.
To overcome being stuck with self-critical thoughts, we can take inventory of the things and people that bring us hope in this moment while also recognising that we can only do and control so much of our lives.
How do we become more present?
- Know that everything in the universe is connected.
Respecting nature and other people helps us move away from egoism, or as Heidegger put it, “they-selfness”. Sometimes, we see other people and things merely as a means to an end.
Our depleting natural resources and the loss of entire species are directly related to they-selfness and our forgetfulness of our connectedness. We often focus on what we can gain, and in so doing, forgetting that we are causing the destruction of our home planet.
The awareness that a ladybug, a flowing river, and our self, all exist together in this very moment brings us to our senses (thus the term, “coming to one’s senses”) — what we see, touch, feel, etc. Tolle calls this “being conscious of the surface of the present moment.”
There is a reason why our pets sleep soundly and always seem happy. It’s because they immerse themselves in the Now. Our cats stay with the comfort of a scratch on their chin and dogs wag their tail when they know we are at the door because that is their Now. For our animals, they-selfness does not exist. It’s just us and them, all living in one moment.
- Ignore the chatter.
The chatter pertains to our perceived expectations. Reacting to and accommodating other people’s expectations, as well as, living by narrow definitions of how we should act and think, prevents us from being authentic to ourselves.
Learning to tune out the chatter by consciously disconnecting from our regular routines at work creates a space for quiet reflection. Breaking unhealthy patterns that cause us to become affected by the chatter is also a step forward.
Logging out mentally and physically from social media and other sources of unnecessary noise also gives room for us to stay with what feels good, whether that is a daily Yoga practise, meditation, reading a book, or journaling.
Is our mind where our body is now?
How deep/shallow is our breathing now?
What can we feel in our body at this moment?
What feels good to us about this situation?
During the pandemic, a few friends started baking bread and it was fascinating to learn how the process of kneading dough reminded them of how good it felt to be in the moment (“The dough feels sticky and heavy in my hands”; “Fermented dough smells like beer”) and to be aware of being aware (“I’m happy that my mind drifts to a blank space when I’m shaping the dough”). It’s sitting in the in-between of everything else and allowing the surface of the present moment to make itself known.
- Honour our thoughts and feelings including the negative ones.
Let’s allow these feelings to settle as we strive to become aware of how we react to them so that we can make decisions that resonate with the self.
Uncomfortable feelings are part of the present and distracting our mind to be aware of something else counteracts the concept of being in the moment. What we can do instead is welcome these thoughts while approaching ourselves with gentleness until the wave passes. Giving attention to uncomfortable feelings as we feel them in the moment will free us from the effects of unattended emotions.
- Spend more time in graveyards.
Heidegger was the proponent of visiting graveyards, not for anything morbid, but for the purpose of reminding ourselves that we only have this one life. We can have our version of a graveyard. It can be a small corner in our room or an empty street at dawn.
The idea is to continuously reflect on how we can live authentically in the present without regrets when we reach the end of our life.
Isolation during the pandemic can teach us many lessons, one of which is the fragility of life.
As a way to end this with a short exercise, may I request that you close your eyes and allow the music to take you to what your present is? It’s “Okuribito (Memory)” from the film “Departures“. The movie is a wonderful story about life and death and how we can live without regrets.