Corona Class, Lesson #6

Whole Time You

I have travelled and lived in three continents and I am very proud of having the guts to go and look back on my times away from the UK with fondness. But, it was hard work: hot, stressful and at times, traumatic, travel is not always the fairy tale dream it’s perceived to be. Still, like any experience it has its high and lows, darkness and light.

I lived in Vietnam, teaching English, I loved living there but didn’t like teaching (my sole source of income) and after a year, I started to miss the UK and Europe in general. The majority of the friends I made were moving on too. But, I couldn’t hack the idea of going ‘home’ because I knew I’d have to pick up where I left off and there wasn’t much to pick up. I had few friends, no job and nowhere to live so I took the only sensible option: apply for another teaching job, in Spain.

Once I arrived in Spain it became obvious, after a month, that I wasn’t entirely committed to the idea of working in Spain and wasn’t enjoying teaching but stuck it out doggedly and comforted myself with sunshine and vermouth, a worthy distraction from my emotions but one which has no longevity and lacks self- awareness.

Fast forward to now and I am back in the UK self- isolating in a terraced house in Old Trafford, Manchester. But I am still me, whether I’m stuck at home during a pandemic or bombing about on a scooter in Vietnam. Despite some of the challenges I faced in Vietnam I felt refreshed and more appreciative of life when I got home and that’s the hoped for outcome with most travel experiences but, it took the situation to end, before I felt those feelings. Equally, now, people are hoping for a change in perspective and shift in values after Coronavirus even though the day to day existence in lockdown is, at best, tough.

House arrest has hit people hard, but no matter where you are geographically you are still you, emotionally and spiritually. It reminds me of a poem called ‘You’ by Dennis O’ Driscoll, ‘The earth has squeezed you in, found you space; any loss of face you feel is solely yours- you with the same all old daily moods, debts, intuitions, food fads, pet hates, Achilles heels.’ You cannot run away from yourself but you can learn how to manage yourself.

Equally being holed up at home, going on Netflix odysseys and drinking your weight in wine will distract you from reality but once the TV is off, at some point, you have to face how you feel there is literally no running away from it. Before this lockdown, I approached my problems by making innocuous to- do lists and doing something, anything, as a strategy to avoid how I felt, which can be just as unhealthy as wallowing in self- pity and watching TV to cope.

Before I even stepped foot on a plane I became obsessed with the book The Art of Travel by Alain De Botton which, says, ‘We are inundated with advice on where to travel to; we hear little of why we should go and how we could be more fulfilled doing so.’ The urge to escape is strong with anyone wishing to travel but if that’s your sole reason for going, you’re in for a rude awakening.

For most people your way of seeing while away from home, in new surroundings, is wide eyed and receptive, you’re ready to be educated and surprised from one moment to the next. But why can’t we apply this attitude to our ‘ordinary’ life? This idea is touched upon by the French philosopher Xavier de Maistre who applies the principles of wonder to his home life by not leaving his bedroom for a year and treating the experience like he was travelling in the big, wide world.  He published a book about this experience originally titled, Journey round my Bedroom.

He resolved to treat his surroundings as though he’d never seen them before and to consider everything as of potential interest. He followed his philosophy with a second book Nocturnal Expedition round my bedroom where he looks outside his window, collecting a few insights and wondering ‘What would it cost those who are out for a walk or crowding out of the theatre to look up for a moment and admire the gleaming constellations above their head?’ Maybe they were too busy talking about the play or on the 18th Century version of a parking meter?

Obviously time is an important component in this, as most people don’t have the time to soak in each and every moment and while I believe practicing mindfulness can help you appreciate life and improve mental health most people have pressing responsibilities which stare them in the face and prevent them from looking around. I have more time than most and whenever I am in a mindful, disposition the tendency to see the world the world as a fascinating place is strong.

I am by no means a Zen master but sitting with my emotions through meditation has helped calm my monkey mind. However I still carry around the same beliefs, memories and insecurities the only variable is how I manage them. Yes, distraction from reality can be a welcome respite from reality but it’s worth enjoying the things that you are ‘used’ to in order to not rely on distractions so much.

Obviously the situation we’re in requires a certain amount of stoicism and joyful feelings are in short supply and I am not saying that the bedroom is the place to be. I love being out and about; even stepping out into town can feel like an adventure if you approach it in the right way. But I am used to living a certain way and have learnt that I am reticent to take on new experiences for fear of them being crap. I lazily think that I know it won’t be fun so saying yes to things I’ve never done before is, in itself, exciting and enhances reality.

If joyful feelings have existed once, they can again and in order to deal with mundanity we can focus, slow down and access our sense of wonder to enjoy the things we once overlooked. Paying attention to detail is a wise use of time and time is a commodity most people have more of right now.  We can save up moments of joy or insight, cherish them and cash in those joy chips for when we need them most.

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