#globalretreat: the art of staying at home

Today is March 19th, 2020. By now, the corona pandemic is confining hundreds of thousands of people in Europe, in the United States, and in more and more other countries to their homes in order to slow down the spreading of the disease. As of yesterday, the WHO reported almost 210,000 confirmed cases and just short of 9,000 deaths[1].

Under normal circumstances, most of us like being at home – and many busy people even look forward to those rare periods when they have to travel less and can instead enjoy their apartments, houses, balconies and gardens. Now, however, things are different: Firstly, being home now is not a choice, but an – outer or inner – command[2]; secondly, many are at home while simultaneously working from home – and possibly in addition looking after kids who are also working from home: this is a stretch even for seasoned multitaskers; and thirdly, being home these days also mostly means being separated from family, friends, and entertainment. This triple blow cuts right through to the most basic elements of well-being, as it threatens the three fundamental building blocks of self-determination: Autonomy, competency, and relatedness[3]. We feel constrained, badly equipped, and left alone – which dramatically reduces our happiness and ability to self-motivate.

The good news is: There are some things everybody can do to regain a minimum amount of autonomy, competency, and relatedness – if you artfully manage your staying at home. Here’s how.

Autonomy: Set goals – and limit yourself

A basic driver for feeling autonomous is the degree to which we ourselves decide what we go after. There are two things which you can do to increase the share of self-taken decisions within the boundary conditions of you staying at home these days.

  • Set goals: Depending on your personal circumstances, identify a daily goal that you can reach that is not prescribed by anyone else – but purely your own choice[4]. It can be something simple and physical like: “Have a warm meal”, “Take a cold shower”, or: “Make three sun salutations”. It can be something more culturally refined and more time consuming like: “Visit a virtual museum”, “Watch a TED talk”, or: “Read a (chapter in a) book”. Or it can be something practical and useful like: “Sort through a cluttered corner”, “Take down the garbage”, or: “Clean the toilet”. Make sure your goals are not dependent on other people, and ideally don’t define goals that require more than a or two day to reach. Times are too volatile to run after complex long-term goals.
  • Limit yourself: Counterintuitive as it sounds, an effective lever to feeling more autonomous is to set yourself additional boundaries – on top of those already defined for you by the situation. Setting and adhering to our own disciplines is one of the most morale-boosting things we can do, because it feeds our feeling of self-control – and thereby our general feeling of being in control. Good examples of limits to choose are: “Don’t drink any alcohol until daily new corona infections have declined for a week in a row”; “Don’t watch or read any news outside the main news in the morning (or in the evening)”; “Don’t watch more than one hour of Netflix (or any other entertainment channel) per day”. Inspiration can easily be found in the samples of people’s aspiration for fasting across religions and cultures – but dare to be creative beyond the obvious. There’s almost nothing you cannot give up for a while (at least to a certain extent). You’ll feel better once you’ve decided to self-restrict – as opposed to feeling victimized by outer restrictions.

Competency: Create time structures – and practice

Regardless of whether you’re at home alone or with others, this time is an opportunity for upskilling. At first, the unfamiliar combination of staying at home and working from home in parallel with partners and kids might make you feel like a total beginner. But if you plan for it, learning and practicing skills will make you feel more confident – and decrease your feeling of being overwhelmed by the demands of circumstances.

  • Create time structures: In general, an indispensable prerequisite for competency is structure. In order to learn how to ride a bike we need the structures of a bike, some streets to cruise, and some time to spend in the saddle. Unfortunately, staying home reduces the available physical structures we have, both in terms of space and places and in terms of objects to deploy. The main element for structure which is left is time. It is therefore crucial that we structure our time at home well. To begin with, make a clear distinction between work time and play time – with no physical office to go to, the clock will be your only indicator of whether you are “in the office” or not. Then, define a time structure for your day (together with your family or partner, if you’re not living alone): Set sleeping times, meal times, times for work, and times for recreation – even something as simple as deciding to play your favorite song every day at 7pm. Anything that helps you orient yourself in an otherwise unstructured flow of daily life, will increase your sense of competency, because you’ll now know what happens when. Be careful, though, not to overstructure – that will backfire for sure.
  • Practice: Competency is acquired through practice. This is true from learning to walk and talk all the way to learning how to learning how to run a multi-billion euro company or manage a five-headed family[5]. Regardless of how you structure your days at home, consider at least some of your activities as deliberate practice. This might be your chance to (finally) learn how to concentrate in the midst of chaos – or how to to flexibly jump back and forth between finding a lost toy, empathically listening to your colleagues’ biggest worries, preparing a cup of ginger tea, and assessing a third-tier supply chain risk. It might be your chance to practice playing the piano, juggling with more than five balls, sewing a pair of trousers, balancing on a slack line, baking sourdough bread, or standing on one leg for 10 minutes and more. The more of what you do becomes practice for you, the more you’ll feel competent about how you spend your days.

Relatedness: Take care of others – and get to know yourself

Interacting with others, building connections, and extending care are important elements of our well-being. Isolated human beings wither, fall prey to madness, and eventually die of loneliness. At first glance, staying at home doesn’t seem like a good setting to be (or become) more related. At a second glance, however, the contrary might be true.

  • Take care of others: Right now, the simple act of staying at home is one of the biggest contributions to take care of humanity every single one of us can make. By now, we’ve all inhaled the logics of flattening the curve and so-called “social distancing”: The fewer close physical contacts we have with others, the more we protect our communities from a ever-accelerating spreading of the disease. Remember this aspiration and attitude, when you feel lonely or cheated because of your staying at home. Plus: Staying at home with others is an – admittedly, sometimes challenging – opportunity to take care of your loved ones in new ways. If you pay attention, you might learn and understand much more about what your working spouse or your stay-at-home partner do on a day-to-day basis – and this might allow you to support them much better in the future. If you have kids, you’ll now have zillions of opportunities to care for them – material and immaterial, for example by helping them understand, frame, and process what is happening in the world. Rejoice in those opportunities – even if sometimes they feel more like a burden than like a blessing.
  • Get to know yourself: Finally, staying at home is a tried-and-tested vehicle to get to know oneself. Religions of all kinds recommend retreats which sometimes extend over months and years – and the boundary conditions of which are much stricter than any of the stay-at-home-routines we all are following these days, given our interconnectedness through all things technical. If you manage to make use of at least some of your time at home to watch how you’re dealing with what is happening, you’ll become stronger and more skillful in recognizing your own thoughts and emotions – from sudden anger flaring up at your partner’s empty coffee cup on the kitchen counter all the way to all-encompassing compassion for all living beings affected by the disease around the world. You might not have consicously chosen to take this retreat – but now that it’s happening, you might as well do it properly[6].

In the Buddhist tradition, being allowed to go on retreat was – and still is – a sought-after privilege, and people stand in deep awe of those who have completed a retreat. Under different circumstances, a time when whole nations all over the world go on a kind of global retreat, would sound like a Buddhist paradise. So: Even if we don’t all share this excitement in all its dimensions, maybe we can occasionally feel a tiny spark of its wonder by paying attention to our autonomy, competency, and relatedness while staying at home.

#stayathome #globalretreat

[1] The best source for all facts around the global development of the disease is still the World Health Organisation’s page here [retrieved Mar 19, 2020]. For updates on the situations in various countries, consult the respective newspapers. BACK TO TEXT

[2] In some places, official curfews have been issued, so staying at home is an outer command from the respective state authorities. In others, staying at home has been strongly recommended as an inner command of reason, compassion, and solidarity. BACK TO TEXT

[3] This triade goes back to the theory of self-determination developed by Edward L. Deci and Richard Ryan of the University of Rochester in the 1970s. Read more in the reasonably well researched article on Wikipedia here [retrieved Mar 19, 2020].BACK TO TEXT

[4] Remember that good goals are SMART, i.e. specific, measurable, actionale, realistic, and time-bound. BACK TO TEXT

[5] As an aside: On the value of practice, read (or re-read) Geoffrey Colvin’s “Talent is Overrated” (2008). BACK TO TEXT

[6] To quote someone who really knows what they are talking about: “If you go to a mountain retreat with thoughts of love, all discord [in your life] will be pacified […]. If you go to a mountain retreat with thoughts of compassion, others will benefit. If you go to a mountain retreat with thoughts of sympathetic joy [in others’ happiness], gods, spirits and humans will all think kindly of you […]” – Jikten Sumgon as quoted by the 19th century Tibetan Lama Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Tayé (1813-1899) in his Retreat Manual, translated by Ngawang Zangpo (1994). BACK TO TEXT

4 responses to #globalretreat: the art of staying at home

  1. […] over 900,000 confirmed cases globally and just short of 50,000 deaths[1]. Compared to when I wrote my last post two weeks ago, this is more than four times the number of confirmed cases and more than five times […]

  2. I love the idea of a global retreat. So much to learn and consider in this thoughtful article. Thank you!

  3. middlewayschool

    Thank you Anja! Sometimes stating the simple facts is all it takes to get back on track.

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