When the first case of Covid-19 was identified in Arkansas in early March, no one was prepared for how much their lives would change. Just as Eureka Springs was about the enter the busy tourism season, restaurants, bars, barber shops, schools and gyms were closed, pre-empting many of the activities that not only were the source of exercise and entertainment, but paychecks for numerous people.
As the epidemic enters its ninth month, some restrictions have been lifted. As we move into winter, there are ways to feel less isolated, depressed, anxious or irritable.
“I’m in my late seventies and retired so I feel more vulnerable than many, and don’t need to go out to work to keep things going,” Gary Milczarek, a retired educational psychologist married to a retired nurse said.
“We spend almost all of our time at home to be safe and help keep others safe. I miss being with our grandkids, visiting our jewel of a library, and meeting friends at charming local places. I can feel isolated and sad. It helps to do what we can like going for walks or a drive. But even at home I still feel very intimately inside a shared world full of people and beings, places, stories and mysteries to explore. What does it take to live in a shared reality?”
Milczarek said the trick to avoiding a Covid emotional meltdown is threefold: clearly seeing how things are, paying attention, and voluntary cooperation for mutual benefit.
“I like the saying, ‘You can trust reality,’” he said. “Phillip Dick, a favorite science fiction writer, said we are bombarded with pseudo realities and that reality is what doesn’t go away when you stop believing in it. Whether I believe in the virus or not, infections keep rising and more people are dying.
“I can protect myself better when I learn that aerosol droplets carry the virus like smoke spreading everywhere quickly even through masks, lingering in the air for hours under some conditions like confined rooms. To escape ‘smoke,’ it helps to cover my breathing with a mask, open the windows and use filters to clear the air. Or, I can go outside to fresh air.
“Seeing where we put our intention is helpful because mindfulness is the ability to pay attention to what actually matters. The point is, if I let my attention be and stay where I am, I can get to know and find my way with it. I’m reminded of the poem ‘Lost,’ by David Wagoner. It’s worth looking up and begins:
The trees ahead and bushes beside you
Are not lost. Wherever you are is called Here,
And you must treat it as a powerful stranger,
Must ask permission to know it and be known.
Milczarek recommends meditation practices as most helpful in learning how to be mindful. Early on, like many people learning to meditate, he had trouble stilling his mind.
“The frustrations of my wandering mind seemed hopeless and I gave up feeling, ‘What’s the use?’ Tools like the Waking Up app for discovering your mind are the best I know and have made all the difference in stabilizing and learning to direct my attention,” he said. “Becoming more subtly aware of our experience gives us more options. Don’t we want the freedom to let go of stress when it is no longer useful? Mindfulness enables us to simply be where we are, letting our task, curiosity or heart take us wherever it will.
“My friends Don and Hal call it living in a flow and can name the time they began living there, and when Hal realizes he isn’t there, he stops to meditate until he is back in the flow. For me concepts and ideas are the tools we share and use to see how things are and make our way in the world. I love getting into the minds of great storytellers about ‘life, the universe, and everything,’ and following my own thoughts and ideas to the interesting places they take me.”
Milczarek hosts the weekly Science + Philosophy Zoom book discussion groups for the Eureka Springs library. Currently they are reading How Physics Makes Us Free by Jenann Ismael on Wednesdays and Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst by Robert Sapolsky on Thursdays. Both are at 12:30 p.m. and people can contact the library for more information.
Milczarek usually does a “shared presence” retreat each January in Kansas City. Because of the pandemic they now meet on Zoom, which enables them to meet more often with participants from different cities. While they can’t share the same physical space, they share the same reality.
With social distancing well advised, Milczarek turns to the internet and Zoom as major ways to connect with the larger world. With those tools, he can still connect with others.
“There is intimacy and a caring, a trusting presence we inhabit in this space,” he said. “There is a shared reality from common beliefs. I’ve been able to do that with total strangers. I may not share some of the beliefs, but what I share is the intention to connect and share. That gets me into a shared world, a world in which I feel like I belong and am connected.”
He said meditation is simply being aware of where you put your attention. “Are you putting your attention right now on the pandemic restrictions and fears? Or are you attending to the connections and possibilities you have with other people?
“A shared reality is made from voluntary cooperation in the context of limits and conflicting views about how things are, and preferences for what we want and think should be done,” Milczarek said. “We can compete strategically to get what we want for ourselves and our own, but then we live in a divided world of us and them. In contrast, using conversation to work through differences enables a shared world. The first benefit is that we get to live in and experience the world so created. What world do we want to inhabit? We choose by our thoughts and actions. Here is one: my friend Jerry says abundance isn’t having lots of stuff; abundance is having little needs.”
The current presidential election has been very divisive. Instead of being judgmental, Milczarek suggests assuming other people have good intentions.