By William J. Furney
Suddenly, “super-busy” people (or people who like to tell us they are) everywhere have little or nothing to do, and they can’t cope, with the lack of things to keep their racing minds occupied, or the existential stillness that is driving them up the walls.
Even the wealth of the internet and all the mind-embalming relief it brings the restless turns out to be quixotic as they look for real-life thrills that are no longer available.
In the battle against the newly slaying virus that is decimating countries all over the world and has so far claimed over 103,000 lives, of more than 1.7 million cases of infection, those many ordered to hole-up at home find themselves increasingly unable to sit still and deal with the uncomfortable situation.
Today, I’ve been in total lockdown (not the allowed-out-for-exercise kind, like in the UK) for a month, in the Canary Islands, with weeks more to go; and it’s not my first: that happened decades ago in Indonesia, when the dictator Suharto was deposed and we were ordered to stay in our homes as riots and the army overtook the streets and the entire nation shut down (I ventured out, to take photos of tanks but was told by a military officer to hand over my film).
Now, as then, is a time to get zen, to calm, to realise that the world will not stop turning just because you’re not out there doing exactly as you please. For some, this is the most difficult task of all — having to stop and do absolutely nothing while their mind is raging at them to get roaring. It explains why newcomers to yoga find savasana, or corpse pose, so initially difficult — just lying there, on the floor, without moving or thinking much — just existing without any expectations or desires or requirement to do anything to prove your worth.
Since my lockdown and battle with the bat-vectored pathogen, I have been doing savasana (and many other yoga poses) a lot, getting stronger and more flexible by the day and realising that the silent stillness of doing nada opens up a whole new world of experience, appreciation and joy.
We all want this pinnacle of zen, but few among us have the time — until now. Why mope about the house, complaining about your confinement, when you can really develop yourself on a whole new level?
My friend Alan McMahon set off on a solo sailing trip across the Atlantic Ocean last year, spending almost a month confined to a small boat and his own thoughts, in what he told me this week “was truly such an amazing experience”. (He had previously flown around the world, sharing his cramped plane with a fellow pilot.)
“It is an odd feeling that now I am away from the Canaries, there is nothing out here to be seen at all. No birds, no fish, no dolphins, no whales, no ships around and no jet trails in the sky from airliners,” he wrote in his diary that he’s turning into a book about the solitary experience. “Columbus said it feels like you are sailing to the end of the world and I can relate to that. I don’t feel lonely in this isolation, just in awe of the desolation.”
A log on his 21st day at sea alone reads: “Three weeks at sea today and the cornflakes have run out. For once I had a good sleep. The days are rolling by fast. It feels a little like being in prison but at least I have my release date when I reach the Caribbean.
“Similar to prison, when you are in isolation to pass the time, it is important to develop daily routines to give structure and meaning to the days. It has certainly helped to have the sat phone, which has kept me in touch with family and allowed me to feel connected to the world through Twitter and email.
“Building a routine is crucial at sea, as then no matter what happens, the boat jobs get done, even if I am feeling down or lazy that day. 250 miles to go. I slowed down last night to sleep but I will let out more sail this morning. Two tanker ships passed me last night, so shipping is around and I need to be watching out.”
One man who has a positive attitude towards current lockdown is Gaurav Setia, a property agent in Goa, India, who I met there last year and who is relishing the time he’s getting to spend with his family, when otherwise he would be out earning a living. “We are enjoying ourselves with family and spending quality time after many years,” he told me this Easter weekend where church services, including at the Vatican, are being livestreamed to remote congregations.
He said many Indians — like people the world over — spend their days rushing around trying to earn money but now were being forced to temporarily give it up and spend time with their families. “Because everyone was so busy in their process of earning their bread and butter, although it might have some negative impacts as well, however good for family reunion.”
Prime Minister Narendra Modi was criticised for the sudden lockdown order on March 24 that would keep the enormous nation of 1.3 billion people confined to their homes for three weeks, sending many scrambling to get enough food from shops and creating mayhem and confusion, but Gaurav told me that people had come to accept it was the right decision to try and keep the virus at bay. So far there have been just 249 recorded deaths of a total of 7,600 cases of coronavirus infection in India, and the government has today announced an indefinite extension of the quarantine.
“In fact, people are very happy with the decisions made by our prime minister and we (now) feel secured and assured,” Gaurav said. But, he said, “the daily wage workers, who are the real working strength of India, are the worst hit. They lost their livelihoods and were forced to return to their villages on foot — 400-1,000 km — without much support from the government. It could have been a little more organised.”
In Italy, which has borne the brunt of the coronavirus outbreak, Italians are reported to be growing increasingly restless at their total lockdown that was imposed on March 9 — the first such measure in Europe, and swiftly followed by neighboring nations France and Spain — and has now been extended until at least May 3. The country has recorded over 147,500 cases of coronavirus infection and 18,849 deaths, in what was the highest in the world, until the United States, ravaged by the bug, surpassed it earlier today and now has 18,860 fatalities and in New York is burying bodies in mass graves.
In Rome, Fabio Valeri, who provides commercial clients with artificial intelligence and augmented reality solutions for wearables including smartwatch apps — and is a friend and client — told me that Italians are indeed getting desperate at their lengthy confinement.
“People are stressed,” he said, “Outside the weather looks great and we can’t go out. It’s the Easter holiday and we can’t meet people. Some are just ignoring the rules — also because it looks like the situation is improving.”
Tuned Out: Fabio Valeri (top right) and pals beating the lockdown blues.
How does he find his calm amid the crisis that has touched almost every place on Earth? “I play guitar,” he says, “spend time with the kids, and I think about the future when this is over. I find that music — but probably any form of art — helps (me to) cope.”
And as Alan said, we may feel trapped in our prison-homes right now, but we also know there is an end in sight and that we can finally, soon, step out onto the land.