Who will you be on the most stressful day of your life?

The novel coronavirus pandemic is a generational shift. A “narrative collapse” the likes of which we have little individual or institutional memory.

Strangely, our duty is not to throw our shoulder behind the wheel of the economy and soldier on to work like the Brits of the Second World War during the months-long bombing of London. It is instead to stay home. Practice social distancing. Cut off contact with the outside world, while a bare-bones economy provides essentials and develops vaccines and respirators for a valient cadre of healthcare workers.

As constant news of the novel coronavirus rolls in like the error logs of a computer terminal, I find myself glued to screens, every development stimulating a cascade of emotions: an urgency for resolution, anxiousness over the uncertainty, fear for our individual and collective safety and well-being.

It’s a potent cocktail for mental anguish.

Yet the news is also of dubious value. There is a limited quantity of actionable, useful information available in in the traditional journalism outlets and sundry social media. And you already know it: wash your hands, mind where you cough, don’t touch your face, keep six feet or more distance, and stay home if you can. The important local developments reach you as a matter of interacting with friends and family.

What happens when we gorge on the firehose of coronavirus coverage and commentary? We exhaust our physiology and attention, and deplete the readiness of our most precious and important asset: our minds.

Mind your Mind

Sam Harris released a twenty-two minute piece of audio on March 20th that I’ve been thinking about since I heard it, and has given me strength and clarity.

Please, give it a listen.

Sam admits to having fallen prey to the nonstop energy of coronavirus news. And he realizes that it is getting in the way of his being there in the most helpful way for himself and his family. How much help is chronic anxiety? How helpful is it to have an endocrine system soaked in cortisol and adrenaline? While anxiety can be useful and apposite, it is dangerous in its extreme.

“An untrained mind—a perfectly normal one—can be an extraordinarily unhappy place to be in. Your own mind can be terrible company. And if it is, you can be sure it’s less than ideal company for others. If you care about your own sanity, and you care about offering effective support to those around you, it’s worth paying attention to the mechanics of your own mental suffering, your own anxiety, self-concern, and agitation. The alternative is just to propagate your unhappiness to others.”

Learning to understand the limits of the usefulness of anxiety, or any emotion, and restoring yourself to a mindful state, is a skill that can be trained. That skill has been variously called meditation or mindfulness. At bottom, it is the mental state of awareness of the present moment—the acknowledgement and the non-identification with each passing thought and feeling. We are not our thoughts. Now is the time for that skill. Moreover, in the space the coronavirus has created in our lives, now is the time to practice it.

“Who will you be on the most stressful day of your life, when you lose your job, or when someone close to you gets sick and dies? You will only have the mind that you’ve built for yourself; you’ll only have the skills that you’ve acquired.”

Try meditation yourself

If you would like a month’s free trial of Sam Harris’ Waking Up meditation app, please contact me. I also want you to be aware of Sam’s policy of providing a free subcription to anyone who can’t afford it.

The utility of a mind well-calibrated to stress is eminently apparent. Why not train for it?

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