“All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone” wrote the French philosopher Blaise Pascal back in the 17th century. According to Pascal, we fear the silence and we dread boredom. If at all possible, we would much rather fill our lives with distraction.
We would rather do anything than get to know our true selves.
Enter coronavirus, the global pandemic forcing billions of people to sit quietly in a room…alone.
It’s as if coronavirus was sent by Pascal himself.
Or the Buddha.
Or any one of the other spiritual teachers who, since the beginning of time, have been humming the same tune, telling us that everything we’re looking for is already here – we’ve just been looking the wrong way.
We’ve been looking outside, when we need to be looking inside.
It’s difficult to imagine circumstances more fertile for spiritual growth and development than the one that stands before us. With the entire world at a halt, our entire species faces one of the greatest opportunities we have ever had to get our proverbial sh&% together.
The coronavirus, it would seem, is not just a physical threat, it is a spiritual gift.
The other side of boredom
We live in a time when technology has enabled us with unprecedented sources of stimulation – games, articles, videos, text messages, music. An entire universe of content sits at our fingertips and if we so choose (and we usually do) it really is possible to fill every waking minute of our lives with distraction.
Boredom, on the other hand, is the state we enter when we can’t find anything stimulating to plug ourselves into. We are still distracted, in that our wandering minds are completely absent from the present moment, but we lack access to stimulation.
Put another way, boredom is distraction without stimulus. We’re neither here (resting mindfully in the present moment without the need for distraction) nor there (distracted through stimulation).
We’re somewhere in between.
From this framing we can begin to see that boredom is actually a step in the right direction. When we are bored we are one step closer to being mindful. And when we are mindful, we are one step closer to connecting with the part of ourselves that is naturally calm, peaceful, wise, compassionate, and full of joy.
The risk, of course, is that we will reach boredom and go sprinting back to distraction. We’ve spent our whole life in a state of distraction. It’s comfortable. It’s a kind of home for us.
It’s as if we begin to swim off the shore of distraction toward the island of mindfulness in the distance, but the further we swim out to sea the more fearful we become about being so far from the shoreline.
And so we swim back to what we know. We swim back to stimulation.
Unfortunately this means that we never get to experience what life is like on that mysterious island in the distance (though we’ve heard a lot about it). We never get to experience a different way of being in the world.
But what if one day a global pandemic came along, stripping us of our daily routines, restricting us to our homes, and removing a great deal of stimulation. Would we have the presence of mind to see the deep opportunity for inner growth, or would we find ourselves blind to that opportunity, incessantly clamoring for the distractions of old?
Here is my first coronavirus challenge to you: don’t run from the boredom you’re feeling during the lockdown. Run toward the boredom.
And when you get there, stay there.
Sit in the boredom.
Pay attention in that state of boredom and you will quickly notice a tug, gentle or not, urging you to start moving, to do something, to pick up anything to distract you.
You may even feel a bit of a panic.
Notice it, but don’t give in.
See if you can bring an awareness to your external environment: to your room, to your backyard. Notice something you never noticed before.
And then try bringing your awareness to your internal environment: to your thoughts, to your emotions. to the physical sensations in your body. Notice something you never noticed before.
It is right there, on the other side of boredom, where the potential lies to make the most important discoveries in your life. The other side of boredom is, in fact, the place that we are all trying to reach – that place of absolute stillness out of which profound calm, joy, and fulfillment naturally arise.
Pull up a chair next to loss and uncertainty
What is it that’s really at the root of our distress during this pandemic?
I think there are two things: loss, and uncertainty.
I doubt there are many humans on this planet who haven’t lost something during this pandemic.
Perhaps you lost your job. Perhaps you lost your freedom to go outside. Perhaps you lost money. Perhaps you lost your health. Perhaps you lost a loved one.
The natural pain of loss is compounded by the fact that our very identities are wrapped up in these things. These are all the things that we’ve been told define us.
They are us.
Our job, our title, our salary, our investments, our spouse, our children, our home, our fitness. Your identity, our culture indicates, is some kind of triangulation of all these things that you have in your life, and so we cling to them with every ounce of mental and emotional strength we can muster.
And when we inevitably lose these things, we suffer.
In fact, to lose one or several of these aspects of your life, it seems, is to lose a part of yourself.
But is that true?
Is your true self a simple triangulation of all the things and all the people you have in your life?
This is one of the great questions of life and, I believe, one of the great illusions of life.
Everything you have in your life is not actually you.
If you have it, then it can’t be you.
You have a body, so your body can’t be you. You have a job, so that can’t be you. You have money, children, friends, a home.
You have all of these things in your external world, but none of those things can be you. If anything, all of these things are, in a way, stacked on top of you.
This can be incredibly challenging to connect with, especially if you happen to have a lot in your life, because your true self gets buried beneath the layers of it all, like putting a diamond on the floor and then dumping all your laundry on top of it.
But loss can be a teacher of profound insight, slowly plucking away each piece of laundry, one by one, and it’s here where I believe the coronavirus pandemic has some lessons to offer.
Whatever loss you have suffered during this time, it is that very loss that can bring you closer to connecting with who and what you really are. Whatever you have lost, see if you can shift your focus from that which is no longer there, to that which is still there.
You might even try imagining that you have lost everything.
Take away your job (unemployed!). Take away all your money ($0!). Take away your wife, your kids, your parents (you’re alone!). Take away your name, your reputation, your education (you’re a nobody!).
Take it all away, and ask yourself: what’s left?
Is the answer nothing?
I recently uncovered that a close friend of mine has yet to see the Netflix hit, Ozark.
“I’m so jealous!” I told them. “I wish I could wipe my memory clean and watch it again for the first time.”
I’ve already seen Ozark so, unfortunately, I already know how it ends.
I have certainty.
He, on the other hand, has uncertainty. He has no idea what’s it about, what happens, or how it ends.
Uncertainty is one of the most common things that people point to in an attempt to locate their stress during this coronavirus pandemic. Somewhere along the line uncertainty picked up a bad rap and, with it, a fairly negative connotation.
Uncertainty is bad (we’re certain). Certainty is good.
We want to know how the movie ends.
When will I be able to go outside again? When will the stock market rebound? When will the economy return? Will my business survive? Will I contract the virus? Will I die?
We want to know all these answers and we want to know them now. We want certainty.
But do we really?
If the future was certain then your fate would be sealed and your actions rendered useless. You would go through your life knowing exactly what is going to happen when and how it all ends. Life would cease to be life.
No one wants that.
I think there’s another dynamic at play here. I think that when we say we’re struggling with uncertainty what we’re often talking about is confidence.
We are saying, “I’m not confident that I’ll be able to face whatever the future may bring.”
If I lose my job, I’m not confident that I’ll be resourceful enough to find another source of income.
If I have to shelter-in-place for another three months, I’m not confident that I have the mental strength to deal with it.
If my investments go to zero, I’m not confident that I’ll be strong enough to rebuild.
If I lose a loved one to the coronavirus, I’m not confident that I’ll have the resilience to continue on.
It is this lack of confidence that launches us on a futile quest to find certainty.
But there’s another approach we can take.
Instead of running from the reality of uncertainty, recognize that you have the strength, the courage, the resilience, and the resourcefulness to meet whatever life brings to your doorstep.
You can and you will meet life head on – today, tomorrow, and the next day.
One day at a time, meeting life’s uncertainties with a deep understanding of your ability to stand strong, grow, learn, and survive. That is how to dance with uncertainty.
There is no one in this world that knows how this movie ends. Life is dynamically unfolding moment to moment, day to day, year to year.
Use this time as an opportunity to realize, and connect with, that strength within. You might start by repeating the mantra below each time you wake to face another day.
I am strong.
I am resourceful.
I am resilient.
I will prevail.
Learn to live with nothing, and you will gain everything
In the 19th century, Henry David Thoreau wrote that, “Most of the luxuries, and many of the so-called comforts of life, are not only not indispensable, but positive hindrances to the elevation of mankind. With respect to luxuries and comforts, the wisest have ever lived a more simple and meagre life than the poor.”
Years ago I was robbed while traveling in Ho Chi Minh. It was one of the best things that ever happened to me.
Someone came in through the window while I was sleeping and cleaned me out – clothes, phone, passport, money. They took everything.
I woke up to a new reality.
I had the clothes on my back and nothing else.
Unable to access any money, I found myself stealing bread off the side of street vendors, sleeping outside, and bathing over the sink of public restrooms.
I was miserable for 48 hours, but then something happened.
I got used to it.
I was over the initial shock of all that I’d lost and, fairly quickly, this became my new normal.
Even more than that, I began to feel a profound sense of liberation. I had no belongings, so I couldn’t be mugged and I couldn’t be robbed! I couldn’t forget anything, and I didn’t need to watch out for anything. I didn’t need to think about things I wanted to buy or places I wanted to go.
I came to find that the public bathroom was just fine for bathing, and most vendors were kind enough to give me water and rice when asked.
What else did I need?
Though I only had to live this way for a few weeks, I found the experience so profound that it has shaped the way I live ever since.
It wasn’t until I experienced living with nothing that I could truly tease out the line between necessity and luxury.
If you are reading this article on LinkedIn then there’s a very good chance you are not one of the 600 million people living in extreme poverty. There is also a very good chance that, over time, your sense of what is necessity and what is luxury has been distorted.
What do you really need?
In the broader Western world, our general sense of what’s necessity and what’s luxury is way off.
Here is yet another lesson that the coronavirus delivers by taking many things away from us: jobs, savings, bars, restaurants, gyms, health, mobility.
All of the luxuries of our previous lives – all that we took for granted – has been stripped away.
What a gift!
We now have an incredible opportunity to be humbled and to get grounded in the true necessities of life. We each have an opportunity to edit our worldview by redrawing the invisible line between necessity and luxury.
Are you reading this inside a home or apartment that protects you from the elements? Perhaps with a comfortable bed and pillow? Do you have a fridge filled with food? Do you have access to clean water whenever you need it? Do you have your health?
The wonderful side effect of learning the difference between necessity and luxury is gratitude. When the world starts spinning again, we’ll be able to find profound joy and appreciation in hundreds of things, small and big, that we had previously taken for granted.
The ongoing challenge post-coronavirus will be to resist the natural tendency for what I call “necessity creep” – where what we think we need to be happy rises over time.
The field of psychology knows this as hedonic adaptation – the fact that we just get used to things over time. All you want right now is to be able to go outside, to go to a restaurant, to have a job again.
When you finally get all of that again you will be thrilled…for a week or two…and then you’ll start taking them for granted again.
Don’t let that happen.
Spirituality is the process of learning about, and connecting with, our true nature, and for all of the havoc that this coronavirus has wreaked on our external world, I believe that the spiritual lessons it poses to our inner world can be far more profound and everlasting.
Life will return to normalcy, but will we grow from this?
While the market slides into bear territory, I want to highlight the opportunity for a bull spiritual market.
While people go stir crazy locked up in their homes, I want to highlight the opportunity to experience life on the other side of boredom.
While people experience varying degrees of loss, I want to highlight the opportunity to connect with what’s still there after all the loss.
While people struggle with the uncertainty during this time, I want to highlight the opportunity to discover the depths of inner confidence.
While people struggle with the ways life has changed during this time, I want to highlight the opportunity to learn how little we need to live a good life.