Ways of Thinking in Self-Quarantine: Imagination and Divergence

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Photo by Alice Dietrich on Unsplash

It’s Friday, and I am heading into another weekend. Except that it doesn’t really feel like it. There’s no looking forward to spending time with friends or going out, and even walking around town isn’t what it used to be; there aren’t as many shops and cafes open and wearing a mask is honestly constricting and uncomfortable (it’s hard to take in the fresh air when you’re constantly breathing in your own bad-smelling breath). The fear is more palpable when you go outside. Everyone is rushing with their heads down, as if making eye contact is just as dangerous as making physical contact. And I am indeed afraid of touching anything. For if I touch something then I have to be careful not to touch any other part of myself, and wipe myself down with alcohol or else….

There is no longer any real separation between the workweek and workday, at least mentally and physically–you still occupy same space as your work and so I think naturally mental energies bleed together. I think more about work during my “time off” than I did before, and it can sometimes be harder to bring myself to focus on work because it is so easy to lose myself in the overall situation–the droning buzz of news and numbers and facebook and panic that echoes endlessly like the sound of cicadas in the middle of summer. There’s no way to escape the noise–you have to pay attention at some point. And once you do, it’s very hard to ignore it afterwards. 

There is a lot that I like about working from home, but there is equally as much that I dislike (life is always a tradeoff, it seems). I can get some things done more quickly but not others. I have more room to think but no one to bounce ideas off of (in-person, that is). I don’t have to commute (or even get dressed), but that free time can easily get eaten up by work (there’s nowhere you need to be, so finishing up that last task on your list won’t be so bad) or anxiously scrolling through facebook for hours at a time. 

How can we better manage the separation between the two when we have no physical or mental signals necessarily telling us when to start one and stop the other? And, on a broader level, how we can think about work and creativity during this time? The biggest question of all: How can we concentrate? As I talked about in an earlier post, it’s possible that framing this period of self-isolation in terms of pre-pandemic definitions of “productivity” can be harmful and destructive. At the same time though, if we don’t set some sort of goals or routine, we have the potential of sliding into some very dark holes. The key might be to find the right balance.

Right before the virus became serious in Japan, and we had to temporarily close Nazobako and start working from home, I had been trying to practice “Reading Deprivation”–no books, no news, no web browsing (no TV and Youtube either)–for a week. The goal is to limit the amount of time that you distract yourself in order to “clear your mind”. Observe more, focus more, be able think more clearly. Of course, this became nearly impossible to do once the virus really hit Tokyo. I needed to watch the news to know what was going on, and I turned to social media and books and the internet to distract me when I needed a break when it all got to be too much. Perhaps this was the very dependency I was trying to free myself from, but I didn’t think the pandemic was the right time to experiment with mental health.

But while the method might be a bit extreme for the madness that is coronavirus, the underlying reasoning behind “Reading Deprivation Week” holds potential. The goal is to encourage “divergent thinking”–a thought process that focuses on multiple potential paths, solutions, or answers; flowing creatively outward in all directions rather than vertically integrating information to arrive at a certain point (which would be considered “convergent thinking”). Think of brainstorming on a piece of paper, meditating, and free-flow writing. You may have a specific topic, or question, problem–but there is no one right answer or way forward. The process precludes boundaries, and in that way stimulates making unexpected connections and taking creative leaps.

Divergent thinking is all about spontaneity. It is meant to be unexpected, and connections are made that wouldn’t have been realized otherwise. Connectivity and moving outwards (from question to multiple solutions/ideas)–in other words, a model for dealing with this pandemic?

I am honored to be working on a team and for a company that promotes this way of thinking, although we never described it as such. Even before this crisis, our goal at Nazobako has always been to encourage thinking outside the box, and discovering new solutions outside of the norm, for the groups that came through our doors as well as for each other. And now that we are faced with the very real, very existential threat in terms of our escape rooms having to temporarily close, we are channeling our creativity into new ways of providing our unique experiences.

These are hard times for the mind. Our thoughts swirl with doubts and dark images, and distance keeps up focused on ourselves and our loneliness. Giving ourselves the time and the permission to grieve and feel sad is important for our mental health (and I really, really want to emphasize how important our mental health needs are right now).  But if we have time, we can perhaps still use to it our advantage. Not to force ourselves into feeling guilty or sad about what we can’t achieve or should achieve, but rather to allow our imaginations to carry us to new depths and frontiers of feeling, thinking, and creating. 

I really believe that this pandemic is reshaping the world–in obvious ways, and also in ways that we can’t fully perceive yet. Even when the lockdowns and restrictions lift, it will be hard for many of us. We will need to adjust back into our regular lives and selves, and challenge the norms and routines that we realized weren’t working. So as we make our way through the labyrinth of confusion that these strange times have left us in, thinking divergently might be the path to help us find our way out, and into a brave new world (hopefully) of our making. 

The other night (the night of the big bright full moon, in fact) I read a poem by Frederico Garcia Lorca that for me evokes some of the sadness, strangeness, and longing for hope of our situation:

¡Maravillosa cárcel,                   Marvellous prison,

cuya puerta                               whose door

es la luna!                                 is the moon!

Let’s try to find beauty even in these “prisons” in which we find ourselves, and to try to realize that the path out right now is through the imagination. And as we head into the weekend, perhaps we can find the time to breathe, reflect, and practice some free-flow creation: draw, paint, write, compose, cook, design, etc. No stakes, no censures, no holding back. Let’s just go with the flow and see where it takes us.

Stay safe, stay, stay strong, stay connected.

With love,

Lee and the staff at Nazobako/Invite Japan

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