27 Mar Pandemic to pandemonium – and how yoga helps us cope with uncertainty
Our leaders’ “attitude to uncertainty”
The performance of our political leaders in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic, according to the latest Economist, depends first of all on “their attitude to uncertainty.”
If we rely on world leaders to keep an open and curious mind through uncertainty – when their professional craft relies on convincing us they have the certain solution to every problem – it’s going to get even uglier.
“Uncertain,” “unprecedented,” and “unheard of” are the news clichés of the day. In weeks we’ve moved from pandemic to pandemonium – a situation in which there is a lot of noise and confusion because people are excited, angry, or frightened (according to the Cambridge Dictionary.) That just about sums up Nanna’s trip to the supermarket yesterday. If we can’t trust our politicians to deal with the uncertainty of this situation, where do we look for guidance?
Help from science
A professor at the University of New South Wales suggests we turn to scientists, not just because they’re working on a vaccine for Covid-19 disease, but because they are trained to deal with uncertainty. Darren Saunders said he confronted the magnitude of life’s uncertainties in a “crippling” moment, while working on his PhD, when he saw that things didn’t work the way he thought they did, and he had too many questions with no answers. Those moments, he realised, would have to become his new normal if he wanted to work as a scientist.
“I learned to let that uncertainty wash over me,” he said. “Like being caught in a rip in the surf, resistance just tires you out and makes things worse. After swimming around in it for a while I soon learned to float.”
What Dr Saunders doesn’t tell us, is how he learned to float. Yoga – which my first teacher described as “the spiritual science” – has some practical tips on how to deal with uncertainty. But it requires using the scientific method, just like Dr Saunders and his colleagues:
Hypothesis – yoga will improve your coping skills;
Experiment – try the techniques and see what works for you;
Replicate – keep practicing;
Conclusion – this bit is personal. The specific technique that works for me won’t necessarily work for you. Over thousands of years, however, one or other of the cluster of techniques we call yoga have been working for millions of people to lower their stress, reduce reactivity and build equanimity. These are all good skills for coping with uncertainty and, as they used to say at the all-you-can-eat buffet when such things were legal, there is something for everyone.
Some potential experiments
In the Bhagavad Gita Lord Krishna – yogi numero uno – described a true yogi as one who was: “not shaken by adversity, not hankering after happiness; free from fear, free from anger, free from the things of desire. . .” Nanna calls that a bit of a stretch goal, but the essence of Krishna’s description is this: equanimity. And a bit of equanimity in the face of this global crisis would help us all.
What can you experiment with to improve your coping skills?
How about savasana – that delicious pose that comes at the end of every yoga class where you get to lie on your back and do absolutely nothing? Savasana is about learning to deal with what is. You lie down, get symmetrical, completely relax, surrender your weight to the floor and stay still. No scratching that itch, no adjusting your waistband, no rubbing your eye – watch the urge to move, watch discomforts come and go and stay entirely still. It’s great training for accepting what’s happening and not reacting to the compulsion to do something. Because in a pandemic, there isn’t that much you can do.
Meditation is another way to train yourself to be with what is. Whether you sit for five minutes or fifty, set an intention of staying still, and focusing on your breath, no matter what comes up. And plenty will come up. Emotions, thoughts, the urge to shoo the fly buzzing at your face, just sit and watch your breath and let it all come and go. Particularly the thoughts. The imaginary conversations, the items on your to-do list, that old regret, this new urge – they’ll all come, and they’ll all go. And so will this crisis. The Buddhist teacher, Pema Chodron, says meditation trains our undisciplined minds to “stay”. It’s like the command you give a puppy: stay, stay, stay. As long as we are bouncing around, running away, trying to control things, needing to get comfortable, we feed our anxieties rather than build equanimity.
Then there is asana practice. You can do every yoga pose ever invented on a mat just 65cms by 180cms. What a gift to the socially isolated! Even in a small flat. You can do many yoga poses on a chair, in an even smaller space, if you’re isolated in a bedroom. There are hundreds, probably thousands of yoga studios and teachers offering classes and instruction online. Regular practice will improve your flexibility, strength, and range of motion, but even more important right now is learning to slow down, stay with your breath, focus inward and pay attention. Get curious. How is the body different today from yesterday? How do your shoulders feel? Belly? Hips? Watch the mind to see where it’s taking you – to comparisons? to frustrations? to overachieving? Every pose can be approached with an intense curiosity about what is going on down there below the skin, and what is really going on up there in your head. It’s training to stay present, rather than racing ahead to what might, or might not, come next.
Accepting being vulnerable – and disposable
Uncertainty is a bit like death. We know it’s essential to the human condition, but we’d prefer not to think about it or experience it. And we really don’t want to do anything about preparing for it.
It’s too late to prepare for this pandemic, but never too late to develop the equanimity we’ll need to help us cope with it. We may feel like we’re drowning in uncertainty, but we can still learn how to float.
Nanna is working on both equanimity and preparing for death. She is, after all, on the ‘vulnerable’ list being a woman of a certain age. Plus she belongs to the disposable generation. We are the ones who will drown in our own lungs while the ventilators go to the young. It’s a fair cop. My daughters are in their 30s and have young families. I’d give them the ventilator first on any day of the week.
I do hope, however, that if Coronavirus is my nemesis, I’ll be bombed on morphine when my time comes. This goes against all Nanna’s Buddhist-style pretensions to aspiring for a conscious death. But in a crisis like this, something’s gotta go.