Author: Matigan King
Bio: Matigan King is pursuing a double major in Journalism and French at NYU. She has just finished her sophomore year at Liberal Studies.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, this fear of stillness and, more specifically, loneliness, has become more evident. As people are forced into social isolation, the pain of loneliness and boredom inevitably arise, necessitating a confrontation with stillness and the resulting discomfort. But why are we afraid of being alone with ourselves? Why must we seek constant stimulation and distraction as a form of “escape”?
This fear is indeed related to sitting alone with oneself. But meditation and stillness enable us to potentially look beyond the self. Much unhappiness and emotional distress can be attributed to an obsession with oneself. Humanity—myself included—is terribly egotistic. But by adopting methods to help us escape from a self-centered approach to life, we can learn to live happier, more fulfilling lives. Additionally, in doing so, we can improve the quality of life for other species, both plants and animals. Moving beyond a human-centered approach to life reflects posthuman philosophical beliefs, which discourage the strict, human-defined hierarchical designation of life on Earth, with humans conveniently placed at the top.
Meditation and self-reflection may seem like indulgent practices, but they actually aid in emulating posthumanist values during one’s daily life. Mindfulness meditation allows one to examine their emotions and feelings in the present moment, allowing them to recognize what brings one joy, fear, or anxiety.
On his Making Sense Podcast, Sam Harris recently interviewed Laurie Santos, a cognitive scientist and professor at Yale University. Santos focuses on the science of happiness, and talks about the power of mindfulness as it relates to living a fulfilling life. She admits that most people eventually grow bored of their routines and possessions, promoting the desire to constantly acquire more possessions or partake in novel thrills. But with mindfulness, one is able to find joy and gratitude in the present moment. By fully immersing oneself in the here and now, boredom is rendered inert, and the full experience of living can be completely appreciated—even amidst a pandemic. Stillness cultivates awareness, and awareness brings with it the possibility to live more fully and to understand ourselves more completely. This too reflects posthumanist values because by relishing the present, we more readily recognize the beauty in nature, for instance. With greater appreciation comes the desire to treat all forms of life with respect. Gratitude drives us to look beyond our own species and instead learn to live in a way that benefits all forms of life.
Sam Harris himself also stresses the importance of meditation. In recent episodes, he highlights this importance during such unprecedented times as these. Harris acknowledges that anxiety can indeed be useful, as it prompts us to take certain steps to protect ourselves, our loved ones, and others, but when the majority of our thoughts are consumed by anxiety, it ceases to be a viable tool, only adding unnecessary suffering. But when we are able to be still, Harris explains, and notice the thoughts that arise, we can make rational, healthy decisions in the midst of this anxiety.
Peter Attia, a well-known and well-respected doctor with his own podcast, The Drive, has also articulated meditation’s effect on his mental health. He describes the practice as offering a pause between an initial thought or emotion and his response. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we are most certainly inundated with uncomfortable and anxiety-provoking thoughts. We may also be experiencing more tension and anger if we are quarantined with our families, or if we are searching for someone to blame for the mishandling of the situation. Meditation, as Attia and Harris explain, creates distance between these negative emotions and the responses we have to them. It allows us to choose how to react in a measured, non-impulsive way. With meditation, especially during these difficult times, we can cultivate greater self-awareness and use COVID-19 as a unique exercise in becoming more self-reflective and thus a more empathetic and helpful member of society.