I started searching for silver linings in the coronavirus cloud as soon as it blotted out the sun for me in mid-March. More time to exercise, cook good food and meditate, I thought. Like millions around the world, I vowed to emerge from lockdown a better version of myself.
Now many of the pandemic-weary seem to have declared unilateral victory over the virus, and resumed their old-normal ways. Have they given up on self-improvement along with social distancing?
The stats from my mobile phone provide a measure of my own pandemic fatigue: my McDonald’s app shows that I used no-contact kerbside delivery 15 times in the past week. Most of those were coffee runs, and some were milkshake pick-ups for the three young adults living in my “bubble” at home — but not all. Clearly my health food aspirations are flagging. My virtual Zumba class is holding up strong, at roughly twice as many salsa workouts per week as before the virus. But I’m letting the side down seriously on mindfulness: my Headspace app shows that I meditated 19 times in April, seven times in May, once in June and not at all in July.
That is not the full picture: coronavirus sent the guru business into overdrive early on, and I gobbled up every free pandemic meditation I could find online. But I seem to have ignored all of them for most of July.
“We are every bit as much or more in the grip of loss of life, but the shock and novelty of it, we’ve adapted to it, we’ve got desensitised”, says Tara Brach, whose coronavirus-themed talks and meditations sustained me through the gut-wrenching early days of the crisis.
Like other meditation teachers, she reports that some of that first wave of new meditators may now have lost interest — but others are sticking around for the “second wave”, of both the virus and the mental health challenges it can bring. “Almost 30 per cent of Americans live alone . . . you don’t get anyone to hug you, people are lonely, people are anxious and there’s a lot of grieving. When there is such dramatic change everybody is looking for ways to calm themselves, to feel a sense of being at home in themselves.” Many of us reach for meditation to “calm down and feel connected to others”, she says.
Ms Brach says there has been a sharp uptick in people interested in becoming meditation teachers themselves, a new career path as companies invest more in employee mental health.
Headspace, one of the world’s largest meditation apps, with 65m users in 190 countries, says interest in meditation exploded early on in the crisis, with targeted meditations for stress, anxiety and sleep “far and away” the most popular. Daily downloads of the app doubled between mid-March, when the pandemic spread in the west, and the end of May, says Megan Jones Bell, Headspace chief science and strategy officer. But by the end of July, downloads were up only 20 per cent from pre-pandemic levels.
Companies have not lost interest though: Headspace reports a 500 per cent increase in corporate requests for meditation tools to support employee mental health. (The Financial Times offers employees a half-price subscription to Headspace).
What surprises Tami Simon — founder of Sounds True, another of my favourite mindfulness resources that specialises in disseminating spiritual wisdom — is that people have found money to spend on mindfulness during the pandemic.
People “can’t go out so they have to go in”, she says. And despite financial hardships, they have chosen to spend money on books and tools to help them do so. Demand is also up sharply for Sounds True’s “Inner MBA”: mindfulness training for the business executive in the post-pandemic age.
Will the popularity of meditation survive the pandemic? “We all have to face our own mortality,” says Ms Simon, and meditation helps us make sense of that. “The hunger for meaning isn’t going away.”
As the US Midwest, where I live, heads into a new surge of cases, I’ll be contemplating mortality on a daily basis again soon enough. I’d better fire up that Headspace app — and pray that the guru business that sustained me through the first proves strong enough for another bout.
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