Responding with intelligence to the Corona virus challenge
By Manoj Krishna, Founder, Human Enquiry Project
Hi! My name is Manoj Krishna and in this blog from the Human Enquiry Project we are going to explore how the enquiring mind can respond with intelligence to the challenge posed by Coronavirus and the anxiety it causes. At the end I’m going to leave you with 6 tips to consider.
We live in extra-ordinary times. The Covid-19 pandemic is sweeping the world. The actual number of people infected, and the death rate, remains unclear. Beyond social distancing, washing hands and taking simple precautions there is little we can do. Panic buying has hit supermarkets, the financial markets are in a tailspin, and many people’s livelihoods are threatened, particularly in travel, entertainment and hospitality. No one knows how the pandemic will end. There are scary projections by experts in terms of the number of people who will be infected and die as a result.
How can an enquiring mind respond to this challenge with intelligence? Every challenge we face also presents us with an opportunity to understand ourselves and how our mind works. We can do this by observing our reactions and then exploring what lies behind them. This awakens in us an inner intelligence and this allows us to deal with the challenge we face much more effectively.
Let us begin with the facts.
In a world with 7.5 billion people, there are at the time of writing (16th of March, 2020), about 160,000 cases and 6400 deaths. 80% of people infected will have minor symptoms. Another 15% will feel really ill, and 5% will need hospitalisation. About 1% will die from the disease. There is no vaccine and no treatment at present. We don’t know how seriously we need to take this.
People are frightened. The more we read, the more frightened we become. We start having dark thoughts about the future, about our livelihood, our own health and our loved ones. We worry about falling ill or even dying from the disease. We can become anxious. Perhaps it is worth exploring the nature of fear, and how we can respond to it with intelligence. Today it’s the corona virus, tomorrow it may be something else and what we learn can be useful in dealing with other fears.
When we look at ourselves and how our mind deals with this problem, we realise that we struggle to live with uncertainty, with not knowing what will happen. That uncertainty creates a space for our imagination to fill, and we know the human mind usually looks at a situation and thinks of the worst possible outcome. How can we deal with this uncertainty? Perhaps acceptance is the key, hard as it may be. Can we live with not knowing what may happen and make our peace with that? There are so many questions that have no answers, like not knowing if we will get infected with the corona virus, if there is life on other planets, and so on.
If we can accept uncertainty, and be comfortable with not knowing, we can avoid the anxieties caused by the many wild imaginings of our thinking. If I am worried about something, I keep churning it over in my thinking, like a dog with a bone. Each time I swirl it around, I think of a new angle to worry about. Forget coronavirus, what if I have a heart attack or stroke, will there be enough intensive care beds, for example? It can keep me up at night and the less sleep I get, the less able I am to deal with the challenges of the day.
All my worries are in the future. If I actually look at my life right now, it may be okay. I can step outside. It's spring and the daffodils are out. Life is beautiful in the spring sunshine. Reminding myself of that seems to bring me back to the moment and the life that is for living, right now.
There may of course be real challenges to deal with – I may have lost my job, or be caring for a loved one who is ill, or fallen ill myself. To face these challenges, I will need all my energy and intelligence. If I can be in the present, I can do that much more effectively.
Problems generated by my fears on the other hand have no solution because they have not yet occurred, so my worries never go away and they wear me down.
I see that fear makes me think and behave irrationally. I am not aware that I am doing so. If I am challenged, I will find many arguments to justify my behaviour. Before I know it, I am in a panic and stockpiling items from the supermarket, even though everyone is saying it is not necessary, and that leaves little for others in real need. When I look honestly at myself, I learn that fear makes me even more self-centred than normal, and I seem to lose all consideration and compassion for people outside my immediate circle. I would never admit that however, even to myself.
Having understood all this about fear how can I respond to the current challenge with intelligence?
The first step is to realise that I am worried and anxious. That may not always be obvious and it may just be expressed in my behaviour. I may want to talk about this all the time with others, or buy things I know I do not need, or keep surfing the internet churning over the news. I may notice that my body is tense, that I am on edge or my heartbeat is faster. The second step is to accept it and not label this fear as good or bad, or justify it as necessary. The crucial third step, which awakens an inner intelligence, is to ask what lies behind that feeling of anxiety, and what I can learn about myself from exploring it.
Here are 6 ideas to consider from my own enquiry:
#1 I write down all my fears and ask myself how likely they are to happen. I then divide them into 3 groups.
The first group lists all my fears which are just a product of my imagination - that the world as I know it is going to end, we are going to run out of medicines and food, for example.
In the second group are fears that are real but which I can do nothing about and just have to accept. I have to accept for example, that despite my best efforts I may get infected, and it is more than likely I will be fine if that happens.
The third group are my fears that I can do something about, for example I may get stuck if I travel somewhere, so I don’t travel. Or that I may pick up a bug from the schools I am visiting, next week, so it seems sensible to cancel those engagements.
#2 I realise that all my fears are in the future, and actually in the present moment I am fine, so I go for a walk in the spring sunshine. I write down all the things I have to be grateful for. It's a long list. It’s beautiful and a joy to be alive right now.
#3 When I look back at my life I see that very few of my fears actually came to pass, and I think this one will also pass. Everything passes in the end. So much energy is wasted in worrying about things that never happen.
#4 I realise that the constant thinking and reading and talking about the problem is just filling my mind with more fear and anxiety, so I stop. I get on with my life based on the best advice available and keep up with the news once a day.
#5 I notice how my fear is making me behave irrationally. I am not critical of myself for that, but just observe that and ask myself, is that intelligent? That question usually leads me to changing course and doing the intelligent thing, whatever it may be. In this case I resist the temptation to stockpile items from the supermarket and have much more consideration for others.
#6 This one may seem like a very strange idea initially but walk with me as we explore it, please: Can we meet stress and anxiety without thinking? I see that all my fears are based on thinking, and while that is essential, I realise that the constant thinking about things is generating anxiety and worry and leaving me worn out. On my walk when I look at the daffodils with complete attention, my fears temporarily dissolve, and I realise when I was paying complete attention to the daffodils, I wasn’t thinking. I discover that If I can meet my fears in the same way, with complete attention and without thinking, they dissolve too. When a fear arises in me, I pay attention to it, and don't start thinking about it. I then tune into my breathing, and let the fear continue to rise in me. I accept it completely, but don’t react to it at all. I just observe it. I don’t even name it as a fear. I just stay with it. I notice my mind goes quiet when I pay complete attention to anything, and if I can do that to my fear as it rises in me, it dissolves. Try it and see.
Please don’t accept anything I say without checking for yourself if it is true. After all, we share the same mind, you and I, and the nature of fear is the same in all human beings, whether we are afraid of losing our jobs, falling ill with the corona virus, or life after death. Stay well, and look after yourself. This too will pass.
You can find out more about the Human Enquiry Project at humanenquiry.org