Photo by Todd Quackenbush

Disruption, though uncomfortable and even painful, often leads to new insights. The disruption to life as usual sparked by the novel coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19) has knocked many of us out of autopilot and forced us to pause, taking a step back from our experience. This stepping back, for many of us, has included a physical distancing from our relationships.

In heeding the call for greater isolation, some are struggling mightily with additional alone time or a lack of physical contact. A profound, heavy and even frightening feeling of loneliness has been the result. Fortunately humans are resilient, turning disruption into innovation by coming up with all kinds of new and inspiring ways to stay socially connected and reduce loneliness. Developing a mindfulness practice may be one useful way to do so.

Research is indicating mindfulness may be of benefit in times of isolation. A 2020 study of college students (Yuchang et. al.) revealed a negative correlation between trait mindfulness and self-reported loneliness. A 2019 study of smartphone based  interventions (Lindsay et. al.) found that mindfulness practice was correlated with decreased feelings of loneliness. People were randomly assigned to one of three 14-lesson smartphone-based interventions: 1) training in both attention monitoring and cultivation of acceptance (Monitor+Accept), 2) training in monitoring only, or 3) an active coping training control condition. Results indicated that people who received the Monitor+Accept training intervention reported reduced daily-life loneliness by 22% over the control group.

Mindfulness can help us cultivate a new relationship with loneliness by providing us a clearer and more compassionate lens through which we observe experience. An individual meditation practice can help us become more comfortable with silence and alone time, develop a familiarity and friendliness with ourselves, and allow us to see value in solitude and introspection. We begin to see through the scary stories we tell ourselves about being alone and we experience it as just another passing state; an impermanent part of life. We also begin to include ourselves in the circle of common humanity, recognizing we are a member of a species hard-wired for connection and that we needn’t shame ourselves for having this basic need. This reduction in shame and self-blame can lift us out of despair, re-awaken creativity, and motivate us to take self-caring action when appropriate.

In response to the crisis, an explosion of opportunities for group practice and connecting with experienced mindfulness teachers is occurring. People seem more open to the idea of practicing mindfulness – perhaps because our usual “go to” options for coping are not as available. We’ve found ourselves at a crossroads as a species and it’s heartening that so many of us are meeting the insights and challenges of the pandemic with openness, ingenuity and generosity. May the survivors of this experience open to the possibility of post-traumatic growth transforming our collective pain into a newfound appreciation for one another and the planet we depend upon.

Tell me the one about the virus again, then I’ll go to bed
But, my boy, you’re growing weary, sleepy thoughts about your head.
Please! That one’s my favourite. I promise, just once more…

Okay, snuggle down my boy, though I know you know full well,
The story starts before then, in a world I once would dwell.

It was a world of waste and wonder. Of poverty and plenty.
Back before we understood why hindsight’s 2020.

You see, the people came up with companies to trade across all lands.
But they swelled and got much bigger than we ever could have planned.

We’d always had our wants, but now it got so quick.
You could have anything you dreamed of in a day and with a click.

We noticed families had stopped talking. That’s not to say they never spoke.
But the meaning must have melted and the work life balance broke.

And the children’s eyes grew squarer and every toddler had a phone.
They filtered out the imperfections but amidst the noise, they felt alone.

And every day, the skies grew thicker, til you couldn’t see the stars.
So we flew in planes to find them while down below, we filled our cars.

We’d drive around all day in circles. We’d forgotten how to run.
We swapped the grass for tarmac, shrunk the parks, til there were none.

We filled the sea with plastic because our waste was never capped.
Until each day when you went fishing, you’d pull them out already wrapped.

And while we drank and smoked and gambled, our leaders taught us why,
It’s best to not upset the lobbies, more convenient to die.

But then, in 2020, a new virus came our way.
The governments reacted and told us all to hide away.

But while we all were hidden, amidst the fear and all the while,
The people dusted off their instincts. They remembered how to smile.

They started clapping to say thank you. And calling up their mums.
And while the car keys gathered dust they would look forward to their runs.

And with the skies less full of voyagers, the earth began to breathe.
And the beaches bore new wildlife, which scuttled off into the seas.

Some people started dancing, some were singing, some were baking.
We’d grown so used to bad news but some good news was in the making.

And so when we found the cure, and were allowed to go outside,
We all preferred the world we found to the one we’d left behind.

Old habits became extinct and they made way for the new.
And every simple act of kindness was now given its due.

But why did it take a virus to bring the people back together?
Well, sometimes you’ve got to get sick, my boy, before you start feeling better.

Now, lie down and dream of tomorrow, and all the things that we can do.
And, who knows, if you dream hard enough, maybe some of them will come true.

We now call it The Great Realisation. And yes, since then, there have been many.
But that’s the story of how it started, and why hindsight’s 2020.

Tom Roberts, The Great Realisation

Resources

Lindsay, E et. Al. (2019). Mindfulness training reduces loneliness and increases social contact in a randomized controlled trial. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 116 (9) 3488-3493.

Yuchang, J et al. (2020). The relationship between trait mindfulness, loneliness, regulatory emotional self-efficacy, and subjective well-being. Personality and Individual Differences Volume 154.

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