Updated: Apr 27, 2020
“A crisis is a terrible thing to waste”
With the world grinding to a halt in unprecedented ways, it’s hard to remember that this current crisis takes place within a much bigger but slower moving existential crisis. As ‘business as usual’ is disrupted everywhere, we might ask ourselves whether Mother Nature has gone corona-viral to put us on the naughty step and think about what we have done.
The global supply chains, financial webs and fragile safety nets that we have built so proudly and credit with ‘supporting’ us - are proving as fragile as sandcastles against oncoming tides. As things come to a standstill and we witness heart-breaking loss wrought by this crisis, we also witness deeply human and beautiful responses emerging. Acts of unity, compassion and collaboration.
Could this crisis be a crucible moment for us? If so, how can we support ourselves and others to be resilient through this deeply unsettling period?
Choosing our perspective
Understandably, some are describing this as a ‘war’. For ‘front line’ medical staff risking their health fighting for lives it must feel that way. In the lexicon of war, being pushed into ‘retreat’ is synonymous with defeat and loss. Social distancing and self-isolation measures can feel like penalties of losing a war on the pandemic.
However, in spiritual life a ‘retreat’ is a deliberate time of withdrawal and contemplation. On retreat, we remove ourselves from our everyday, ‘outer’ lives to give space to our inner lives. On Yoga retreat we hope to reclaim some fitness and emerge feeling somewhat recharged. The beginner can hope to become more aware of the benefits of yoga and to learn a new practice. We don’t expect to become Yogis in two weeks- but a retreat can help us reset and reboot anew.
Similarly when we think of ‘sacrifice’ in the context of war, we focus on unwanted loss. But originally sacrifice meant ‘a sacred offering’. Sacrifice can be a willing surrender to or for something we care deeply about. Indeed, loving sacrifices can fill something deep within us such that we feel more, not less, whole.
If we choose our perspective, we can embrace this time differently. We need to prepare ourselves for the likelihood that this is not going to be over in a few weeks and will likely change our way of life for a while. How do we stay centred in the midst of turmoil?
It is very tempting to either turn away and give ourselves false comfort or get sucked into a spiral of fear and doomsday scenarios. The truth is: we don’t know how this is going to play out. Our fear of ‘not knowing’ is a fear we need to acknowledge. We need to turn towards and tend our fears and vulnerabilities. This takes courage - and also builds our courage. It allows us to be in the ‘now’ in a more grounded way. Encouraging and helping others to do this builds individual and collective resilience.
Lessons from the ‘Little Red Dot’
Here in Singapore, we are very aware of our inherent vulnerability. We make our way in the world like a small trading ship on the open seas of globalisation surrounded by much larger vessels. We have endured many storms in the last two decades: the Asian Financial Crisis, SARS, the Tsunami of 2005, H1N1, the Global Financial Crisis. We have learnt that even the most sea-worthy, well-steered vessels are at the mercy of the wind and waves and depend on a crew who are willing and able to adapt.
Turning towards the truth of our vulnerability rather than denying it has given us more courage and determination to be adaptable. Yes, we are but a ‘Little Red Dot’, but embracing that with pride gives us a sense of identity and purpose: that what we lack in might we must make up for in other ways.
In his latest speech, Prime Minister Lee reminded us “we have confidence in each other, we feel that we are all in this together, and we do not leave anyone behind”. Building that sense of social capital is ongoing work. For decades, incentives and penalties were the levers of managing behaviours - we joked about this being a ‘fine’ city because there were fines for everything from jaywalking to gum-selling.
Success in Singapore was defined by our possessions: Cash, Credit Cards, Car, Condo and Club membership. We called them "the 5Cs".
But for years now, we have worked at cultivating a different culture. Arts, sports, community activities and a changing emphasis in our schools have helped us develop the hearts and minds of the nation. We are on a developmental journey from self-orientation towards seeing and responding to the needs of the whole. Today, when our leaders appeal to us to align our behaviours for the sake of Team Singapore they do so with a narrative that acknowledges our deeper human yearnings to belong, to contribute, to take care of each other and to co-create our futures.
Reimagining our daily lives
For most of us, the next few months will be radically different from what we had planned and the retreat may well turn into a longer ‘sabbatical’. If we can provide emotional and practical support to each other, I believe this could be a time of regeneration individually and collectively in which we are able to re-discover these deeper human needs. It’s not going to be easy: this is a huge collective shift being forced upon us. Things that we usually take for granted - travel, eating out, items from across the world delivered to our doors - are now unsustainable. But from the perspective of the whole, they never have been sustainable. What many of us are facing now for the first time is what most of the world has been facing for a long time: scarcity, insecurity, threats to health and livelihood, fear of the future. Can we in this time face the truth of our human condition - that our resources are not infinite, that borders are artificial constructs, that we need our neighbours to look after our well-being and we need to look after theirs?
We really are all in this together and we always were.
To do this we need to de-prioritise possessions and focus on new perspectives and practices. A cupboard full of toilet paper may give an illusory sense of control but instead of seeking to control and grasp at what we think we 'need' can we surrender to what is unfolding and devote ourselves to meet the fresh challenges and opportunities that are arising? Practices we need to take up or deepen are those that connect us to the deeper human yearning that we have as that is also where we keep our deeper human capacity. We need practices that engage our bodies to build our capabilities, open our hearts to stoke our courage and clear our minds to focus where we need to.
Here are my fresh set of 5C’s - a suggestion of the type of practices that will help us reconnect to ourselves and stay grounded.
Curating: shape your time and select where you put your energy and attention
Especially if you are self-isolating, creating a morning routine will get you off to a good start. Include movement (preferably outdoors) so you get into your body: great if you can get into nature, if not just looking up at the sky will help expand your senses.
Steer your energy and motivation. Use tools, tips and tricks to keep you on track through the day. Programme your day to make the most of ebbs and flows of energy. Notice your moods and be compassionate with yourself as you would a friend. Give yourself simple incentives.
Deliberately include activities that lift your spirits. Engage with beauty and nature. Listen to music. Choose books and movies wisely.
Cultivating: grow something
Find something to tend on a daily basis - a plant, a pet. Looking after something grows your power to observe and respond -and engages your heart.
Cultivate something in yourself: a new language or skill. Learning something brings a freshness of mind we can call ‘beginner’s mind’ and also humility. We are all being humbled by something microscopic right now and rather than being in denial of that we can embrace what it is to be really humble.
Notice the essential beautiful qualities of human nature that are being brought forward. Yes, crises can bring out some terrible fear-driven behaviours: they also bring out the best of us. Notice the qualities that are becoming stronger in you and appreciate them.
Creating: make something
Let necessity be the mother of invention and find a new way of doing something you have to do.
Start a creative project you can keep coming back to every day. It doesn’t have to be original: it can be a compilation of things. It could be something that you used to enjoy but have neglected. Give time to build a habit of creativity.
Make or compile something small each day in a way that feels beautiful to you - a meal, a doodle, a to-list, a playlist, a poem, an outfit, an arrangement of flowers, or stones or coffee mugs. Take a picture or record it in some way: it doesn’t matter what it is, only that you are generating something.
Contributing: give something
Look for stories that uplift your spirit and share them. Spread good cheer and useful (fact-checked) information
Whatever you are already doing, find a way to contribute it. If you are shopping for groceries, find someone else who needs help getting things from the store. Or buy a few extra items and donate them.
Use your skills to do something for a person, small business or non-profit that needs doing: there is no better time to make a difference than when there are so many suffering the effects of this crisis or are about to.
Connecting: reach out, often
Connect to your loved ones on a daily basis if you can.
Connect to communities that you already belong to or form a group or community ‘forum’ - could be on whatsapp or online - around a particular topic or group.Check in and share experiences, info and practical support.
Ask for support and share how you are feeling.
Looking back at our history, we can see that even the most dire, heart-rending crises contain seeds of regeneration for new meaning and ways of being for ourselves. Rooting ourselves in practices that keep us centred, engaged and motivated will help us connect to our better selves and each other so we can rise to this challenge with wise heads, whole hearts …..and (squeaky clean) hands.
This could be the best opportunity of our time to tackle the bigger problems we are facing. My hope is that as we try to resolve this crisis, we also allow this crisis to resolve us to generate better possibilities for our future selves and the generations to come.