Into the Wilderness: On Isolation and Awareness

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I’ve come to a point in my self-isolation/sheltering-in-place experience where I am getting much more restless and stir-crazy. I feel both awake and drowsy, my mind seems to be both panic-driven and floating as if in a dream. 

But there is also an acute awareness at times. I notice the light in my room more and how it filters through my window differently during the day. I am more conscious of the space that I am occupying (I am tidying up and cleaning more) and the noises around me: the sound of neighbors coming in and out of the building, construction next door, the laughter in the street at night that wanes with each passing day. I am more aware of my mental state: what triggers my anxiety, what makes me calm (chamomile tea and poetry before bed works wonders, in case you were wondering). And I am paying more attention to my body: how it feels without the gym and outdoors, how it smells without cologne, how it looks without a good night’s’ sleep and hair wax, but also how sick do I feel, and does that cough or sneeze mean something more ominous.

These are all things that maybe I should have been doing as an adult, or as a human being, I don’t know. But I think that so much of our attention and focus is caught up in things that are external to us or beyond our control. We generally want to look good and appear healthy for other people. We look at other people’s faces and living rooms and vacations. We hide or suppress our emotions or mental state in order to be social. We drown out our inner voices in “busyness”, overstuffed schedules, and events. 

I am reminded of the long and complex tradition in human religion and spirituality of asceticism and hermeticism–of removing oneself from society and civilization, of physically depriving oneself of physical pleasures and social comforts in order to attain enlightenment, spiritual healing, or closeness to God/the Creator. Buddha, Moses, Jesus and Muhammad all went out into “the wilderness”. Thousands of sects of nuns and monks from all different faith practiced asceticism and seclusion for centuries, and many still do. Major world religions still celebrate holidays based on physical deprivation and fasting: Jewish Yom Kippur, Islamic Ramadan, and Catholic Lent. In certain ways Yoga and the detox/cleansing industries draw on these legacies in secular society.

Of course this is different. This is not an individual choice or even a religious proscription, and there is mass suffering occuring on a scale that many of us have never witnessed before. However, as a Jew who fasts every year on Yom Kippur, I think there are some possible connections to be made.

 When I fast (starting at sundown and ending at night the next day) I am more conscious of my body, of my hunger, of the discomfort I am feeling. I am more aware of what I crave or that I often take for granted. I think there is an assumption today that fasting automatically induces a transcendent state of meditation. It doesn’t. I spend maybe ninety percent of the day thinking about food that I want to eat and how hungry I am. Maybe ten percent of the time is spent successfully meditating. But during that ten percent of the time I enter a weird state of total mental and physical awareness and clarity. And what comes out of that isn’t “transcendence” per se–or what we think of as transcendence–it’s love. 

Again, I am only speaking of my experiences, and others’ religious and spiritual thoughts on the matter are just as legitimate. But I think that paying attention to details– of being aware of the little things about ourselves and our surroundings that we overlook–is something good to be gained from this experience of social distancing, of journeying into “the wilderness” as it were. 

They say the devil is in the details, but I think the opposite is true. I think it is love that is found there instead. When we love something, when our focus is truly on it and nothing else we notice everything. Certainly as puzzle-makers, my colleagues and I know some things about tiny details and paying attention. Even we could use a review.

Think about your loved ones and all the things you notice about them–their mannerisms, what they secret pleasures, what they smell like at different times of the day. Think about any personal or professional project you worked on or created that you were passionate about–love was in the details that no one noticed or cared about but you. 

Many of us around the world are in uncharted territories of self-quarantine and loneliness. Our isolation can easily turn to frustration. Let’s listen to the silence though. Let’s try to open our eyes and notice the sensations that we are feeling. Perhaps we will finally see ourselves clearly. Perhaps this will lead to some real self-Love.

Even if you are self-isolating with someone else, or taking care of children, perhaps there are new things you can learn about them, and about yourself in the process. What beauty can we notice in the interstices of a day filled with anxiety and worry? What habits were/are prohibiting us from truly seeing ourselves and the world clearly.

And as we pay more attention to ourselves and our environments, perhaps we can also pay more attention to our communities and the world. Who have we overlooked in our quests for social status? Which silent voices are we not listening to? What spaces are we disregarding? How can we focus more on self-sacrificing health care workers and their needs? As a I mentioned before in a previous post, this pandemic is forcing us to reckon with many issues that we have put off for some time. Inequality, poverty, health care, workers rights, mental health, incarceration–despite our mental anguish, despite our fears and insomnia, our eyes are more open now than ever before. The question is, will we pay attention?

Let’s all pay more attention to the moments of beauty in our lives and environments, to the true acts of heroism occurring everyday during this crisis, and to each other when this all ends.

Stay safe, stay home (if you can), stay strong, stay connected.

With love,

Lee and the staff of Nazobako/Invite Japan

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