Lockdown your thinking instead
It all happened very fast. First came the email announcement in early March that my boys’ school was closing and that they would be “distance learning,” a term I didn’t know. And that would happen on “Zoom”, another term that I had never heard. Then, there came the news that my building, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, was shutting down—no visitors allowed, not even my nanny would be permitted inside the building.
I’m a single dad of two very active boys whose twin passions are soccer and the video game, Fortnite. I am also a lawyer running an I.P. boutique (intellectual property) and commercial transactions firm founded in the late 1990s. With the new lockdown in place, I faced the prospect of working from home, while my two sons tried to attend their classes online via Zoom. What’s more, I lost the help of our nanny and the tutors who came to the house to help my sons with their English and Math (they attend a French school and need help with English).
On the work front, the lockdown hit our clients hard: budgets were frozen, payments delayed, new clients holding off. To make matters worse, one of my associate’s children had flu-like symptoms, but at the time no tests were available to determine if he had COVID 19 or just seasonal influenza!
Like many, I began to feel overwhelmed by the confluence of these events. Then I received a note from one of my son’s teachers that he wasn’t handing in his homework, and I saw online that he was receiving poor grades. He denied it, but I knew he was playing video games instead of paying attention to his online classes. When I went food shopping at Wholefoods, I had to wait in line for an hour to get into the store! Weeks later, I had to wear a facemask in public. I asked myself, “How was I going to manage all this chaos?”
What saved me from becoming frantic and dysfunctional at the time was my long-term mindfulness and meditation practice. For the last seven years, I had developed a daily meditation practice. Back then, as I sat on my meditation cushion, I saw my thoughts like dark clouds in a threatening sky. Thoughts, especially negative ones, are like a whirlpool: they gather force and can suck you down the chute—such as my kids will fail at school; my law practice will collapse; we will all get COVID 19 and die. The accumulative effect of such distress can paralyse you.
Meditation allowed me to see these thoughts as just thoughts, phantoms of my imagination, and I did not get pulled down by them. Once you can observe your thoughts, they lose their grip on you. As Hamlet observed, “There is nothing good or bad but thinking makes it so.” As I sat in meditation, I could see that nothing “bad” or “good” was actually happening for that matter; it was what it was. It was just my thoughts—my perception of these events, an internal voice that kept saying, “Oh, this is really bad; I can’t manage it.” Once I was able to identify that inner voice for what it was—thoughts, which like clouds, just come and go—I was able to deal with the situations.
I asked my nanny if she would come and live with us, which she agreed to do, so she was no longer a visitor but a resident of the building. That solved the shopping and household issues. Every morning, I put each of my boys in a separate room and took away their electronic devices, except their school iPad. They wouldn’t get their devices back until they started handing in their homework and received decent grades. Also, after they finished their schoolwork, I insisted that they each read ten pages of a book and learn two new words a day. I wouldn’t give them their cherished electronics until they followed this guideline.
I don’t pretend for a moment that this routine was easy to accomplish, or that it worked like clockwork—it didn’t—or that I didn’t get frustrated by their resistance. But in the end, my boys finished the school semester with relatively decent grades, and they each had finished reading a book and learned about 50 new words. And neither did my law firm collapse, and my colleague’s son recovered without any other family member falling ill.
At the time, I recalled and often recited Reinhold Niebuhr’s prayer: “God give me the serenity to accept what I cannot change, the courage to change what I can and the wisdom to know the difference.” If you can live by this serenity prayer, you will be at peace and lead a happy life, regardless of your circumstances. But I have found that I need a consistent meditation and mindfulness practice to create and maintain such serenity. Otherwise, I default to the same habitual patterns—worry, regret, fretting, anger, frustration, and depression—causing paralysis and profound suffering.
I am reminded of the second Buddhist precept on the cause of suffering: attachment to desires. Which, I might add, is fueled by our wayward thoughts. Contain them and relieve your suffering.
My hope for these pages is to be a modern-day Academy, much like Plato’s Academy, in order to reduce stress and anxiety in our individual lives and perhaps even help mankind reverse course from its current ego-driven and lethal trajectory.
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