Chaos without, chaos within, I thought when I read that our county health officer had ordered all residents to shelter at home, starting in mid-March, because of the coronavirus.
Within a day, friends throughout the state were on lockdown too. And within the week, so were family and friends around the country and around the world.
Because I’m a structured person (a Myers-Briggs type “J,” for those who follow personality types), I knew I had to create a sense of order or I’d be a mess.
So throughout the next several weeks, I developed a flexible routine and a cluster of rituals that have kept me sane. I don’t follow them quite as vigilantly as I wish, but it’s a start.
As parents of young children know, routines are important for calming the mind and reducing anxiety, especially in times of great stress. The Dalai Lama, who has been exiled from his native Tibet for more than 60 years, knows stress intimately. When asked if he had one word to describe the secret to happiness, he responded, “Routines.”
Routines for Reducing Stress Every Day
Here, then, are some of the routines I have found helpful in dealing with the stress of a situation that affects everyone, as we each stumble hour-by-hour through our days:
1. Physical Health
My physical habits are my first priority because when my body feels “off,” the rest of me does too. Fortunately, where my husband Barry and I live, we are permitted to go outdoors as much as we want (unlike my in-laws in Great Britain, who can only exercise outside once a day).
Every day I walk or bicycle along a nearby paved trail, and once or twice a week, we drive to the beach or to another natural area. I also regularly take my paddleboard and head out into our local bay, a silky, amniotic world so unlike land that I often forget all about the coronavirus while I’m there.
2. Emotional and Brain Health
Barry and I meditate most days. I try to practice gratitude while sitting, appreciating the fact that I have a home and relative freedom of movement at a time when many people in the world do not. Afterward, Barry takes a 45-minute early morning walk, allowing me precious solo time.
For intellectual stimulation, I write articles, and this past month I developed and produced an online essay-writing class.
3. Invest in Personal Relationships
My father, who turns 99 in May, is locked down in his facility on the other side of the country, so I call him every morning. He’s amazingly upbeat, considering what he calls his “solitary confinement,” and our daily chats cheer both of us up. My sisters and I won’t be able to celebrate his birthday with him in person, so we’ll throw him a Zoom party instead.
Every day or two, I write a long email to an old friend. This has been one of the blessings of the coronavirus—to enrich my long-ago friendships, some of which date back to junior high school.
4. Decluttering and Purging
Like many middle-class Americans, I have way more than I need. During the coronavirus quarantine, I’ve happily “released” half of my office files, and Barry and I digitized most of our photo albums.
5. Sharing Daily Accomplishments
I list my daily accomplishments on Facebook twice a week. Sharing what I’ve done helps me feel accountable, although I try to stay away from “productivity porn” (boasting about achievements).
6. Take Time to Watercolor
I turn to art in the late afternoon. I create a collage or a watercolor painting in my sketchbook—a practice I’ve renewed, thanks to the coronavirus. My watercolor may be primitive, but no matter. Color is my candy.
7. Indulge in “Happy Hour”
At 6 p.m. each day, Barry and I get together and talk over a glass of wine. It’s not as though we need to catch up—we’ve seen each other off and on all day—but our conversation is less distracted.
We are more present for each other when we sit down with the intention of being together.
Infusing Meaning Through Rituals
Rituals, like routines, can be repeated—but unlike routines, they harness the power of the elements or the senses to symbolically convey meaning. I’m mostly a wannabe when it comes to rituals, preferring to daydream about them rather than enact them. Nonetheless, here are some I’ve tried and enjoyed:
The Release of Fire
In the Unity churches I’ve attended, a Burning Bowl Ceremony was offered every New Year’s Eve. One by one, we’d place our scribbled “What I want to let go of” notes in the burning bowl at the front of the sanctuary.
I find the unintended “retreat” time during the coronavirus an ideal opportunity to reflect on letting go. I can’t create a real fire to extinguish my “ancient, twisted karma,” as the Buddhist saying goes, but I can imagine it.
Sometimes while visualizing habits and cravings crumbling into ash, I repeat the verse by the 17th-century Japanese poet Mizuta Masahide:
Barn’s burnt down
Now I can see the moon.
Sit and Observe the Earth
As a child in springtime, I used to gaze dreamily at the dogwood blossoms outside my upstairs bedroom window. This was my “sit spot”—a place to observe nature. Like me in my bedroom, you don’t have to actually be in nature as long as you can see it. You might observe an oak tree or a jasmine plant from a window or sit on the porch looking at the wisteria on your neighbor’s trellis.
Aim to return to your sit spot for a few minutes every day, witnessing the same tree, flower, or other piece of nature. Befriend it, notice its subtle changes, and make it “yours.” For years, a friend has had a sit spot without knowing it. Every clear night, she goes outside, looks up into the dark skies, and—like the words from the famous childhood book—repeats, “Good night, moon.”
Experience the Holiness of Water
In his book Blue Mind (Little, Brown and Company, 2015), marine biologist Wallace J. Nichols shares scientific evidence revealing that being near water promotes mental health and happiness.
If you can’t go to a body of water, try imagining it, or look at a picture of water.
You don’t have to see an ocean or a lake to experience the holiness of water. Years ago, during a visit to my family home, a college friend poured herself a glass of water from the kitchen sink.
As I watched the liquid flow into the glass, I was transfixed. I’m not sure why that moment was so transcendent, but I do know that it was then I realized that even the simplest act could be a sacrament—whether washing hands (as Barry and I do whenever we return home after we’ve been out), doing the dishes, or taking a bath.
Let Air Reassure You
Air is the element we’re most intimately familiar with, through our breath. Simply becoming aware of our breathing as we go about our daily activities is restful.
Breath can be a comforting ally in this insecure era, a rhythmic action that never abandons us as long as we’re alive, and one we can return to for reassurance again and again.
Barry and I also find sleeping by an open window refreshing because we can feel the wind and hear the dawn birdsong.
As author Annie Dillard wrote, how we spend our days is how we spend our lives.
If you’re like me, to honor your life, you need some degree of structure.
Routines and rituals can help anchor the day, then, so you can spend the rest of your time floating happily and idly, doing this and that, and enjoying the in-between spaces.
This article originally appeared in Unity Magazine®.