Discovering our inner selves during the epoch of COVID-19 self-isolation

Kanniks Kannikeswaran, PhD

About a year ago, I opened a blog with the sentence ‘The word contagion is a relic of the past’. Alas, I am forced to eat my words. ‘Advances in travel, enable us to travel from New York to New Delhi non-stop in under 14 hours’, I boasted. Once again, I realize how fickle this statement was, in the face of where we are today.
Here we are hunkering down in our homes literally running away from the vile virus that has rendered millions sick, even as rational projections and irrational fears predict dire happenings. Our jets idle away in hangars and runways as the 2019 scale of travel seems impossible at least for now. Space-suited beauticians and surgically protected hair dressers, physician office pre-visits with Medical Associates in parking lots, masked customers in banks, physically distanced singers in a choir in an era where choral singing is regarded as a health hazard, audiences separated at least by 6 feet in symphony halls. Wait. This list is endless. Where are we headed to?
The long and short of it is that we are in a temporary space of social isolation waiting for a vaccine to provide us immediate relief (much like the magical discoveries of Louis Pasteur, Edward Jenner and Alexander Fleming that we had studied about in middle school science) or for the natural defense mechanisms in the human species to develop a protective armor of herd immunity.
The COVID-19 pandemic has permanently altered the way we humans live and interact and has placed huge question marks on the way humanity imagines its future. Not that the world was without its share of problems prior to this crisis; however, never has our generation in the western hemisphere or the growth-centric eastern hemisphere been so unsure of its future. We neither witnessed wars nor the plague in our living memory. Those of us who live in the West have not even likely heard of the mosquito-borne chikungunya virus. Social-distancing is devoid of any self-guiding manual or clinical handbooks.
So how do we weather this crisis of unknown dimensions? How long will it last? How will it affect us? Will we become infected and develop immunity? Will I survive if I catch it? Will my family be safe? Will my family in India be safe? What will the economic impact be? Will this create social unrest? When will it end? What will the end be like? What will the recovery be like?
There is no end to these questions.
Think of it for a minute. Is there a single human around that has not asked these questions? Probably not.
Bill Gates? Donald Trump? Narendra Modi? Me? My family members? The kid next door? Everyone shares these questions.
This feeling of insecurity is something that afflicts all of us.
When I go back three years in time, to the period when I was recovering from a quadruple bypass heart surgery (thanks to a serendipitous discovery by a cardiologist-chorister – in the face of no obvious symptoms), the situation was much different. I had faced an agonizing wait (albeit a short one) until the surgery and some anxious moments during the recovery period, fully cognizant that the recovery period was a matter of weeks, that I was in good hands, and that the path for recovery was charted out and life after surgery would be such and such.
Looking back, it was pretty easy. I just had to put my fears away and just chill out, listen to lectures and music for a six week period, take care of my nutrition, my physical movement, my peace of mind, (step away from social media), my breathing and I would be fine in 6 weeks – and here is the important part – the outside world literally remained constant over a 6 week period (except for the Obamacare fights in the Congress and perhaps a bunch of skirmishes on Facebook between right and left wingers).
Not so now.
No one knows what the state of the world is going to be in the next few weeks. No one knows how long it will be until the world is declared Coronavirus-free. No one knows anything for sure- despite the know-all predictions and limited projections. Even the soothsayers on commercial television have quietened down.
So, how do we take care of ourselves during this pandemic? In particular, how do I take care of myself as a fully recovered ‘heart patient’?
All my lessons from my 6 week recovery period come to the fore right away to help me.
It does not matter that the length of the recovery period is indeterminate. It does not matter what anyone’s state of health is now. It does not matter that the world around me is changing. It does not matter that our Rip Van Winkle return to a new world may operate in a new reality. The rules for each one of us during this quarantine period are the same.
What is of paramount importance here is mindful living- a way of life that will simultaneously take care of our physical and spiritual wellbeing.
Our physical wellbeing is our responsibility alone. The great Tamil Saint Poet Tirumular from the 1st millennium declares ‘udambai valarthene, uyirai valarthene’- I nurtured my body and I (therefore) nurtured my spirit- and celebrates the human body as the sacred space that should be nurtured. Our hunkered down state gives us the opportunity to take good care of our physical health – through mindful eating, liberal doses of fresh air, water, and exercise. Needless to say, ancient Indic practices such as yoga and pranayama (which Scientific American began to reference as ‘Cardiac Coherence Breathing’ in 2019) go a long way in contributing to health and wellbeing.
It is also extremely important to be aware of our mental state of being at any point in time. All it takes is a few minutes of reflection to figure out if we are anxious, worried, happy and upbeat or feeling down!
We have no choice but to visualize ourselves declaring victory over this pandemic. Just imagine the day when the world is declared COVID-19 free. Imagine a global conference of leaders issuing this declaration and then working to cross off a check list of other global issues that remain! Visualization works wonders. Yes, there are horrendous scenes in hospitals around the world even as we speak. The world is in turmoil. Yet, it is the collective power of positive thinking of all of humanity that will help us get out of it. We have no other choice, period.
We have access to technology that enables distant satellites to convey the information that we type into our smart phones to our neighbors living just a few blocks away, and to our relatives living halfway around the world-all with the same level of ease. Something that would have been unimaginable during the 1918 contagion. Yes, let us be grateful to technology. Not only do we text our aged mothers living continents apart; we videoconference them. And drag another aged aunt into the conference seamlessly to discuss the state of the corona virus in Chennai and the availability of fresh vegetables there.
Let us pause for a moment and just appreciate the sheer power of what we have and take for granted.
Vast amounts of knowledge and music are available for free on the internet. We have more ‘disposable’ time than ever before. Let’s get it clear folks. We are not going anywhere for a while. Simply translated, there is no hurry to get anywhere. Wow, that is a realization. This is what our Spiritual Gurus and Coaches have been telling us all along. Slow down. Slow down your thoughts. Figure out a new skill to learn. Learn a new song. Listen to Classical Music, Indian or Western. Listen to lecturers on language and culture. Enrich your word power. Figure out connections between languages. Memorize a few poems. Pick up a skill that you think you don’t possess. Stray into an area that has not been of interest to you.
Walk around your home even as you listen to lectures or music. Walk around the block. Just earmark an hour each day for ‘Chilling Out’ when you bring your thoughts to a complete halt. It is this slowing down and your focus on something above our mundane existence that constitutes a form of yoga as we slowly discover ourselves. The ‘real self’ that is beyond the veneer of our names, our professions, our senses, our worries, our fears, our thoughts, our memories, our intelligence, our egos – that ‘self’.
Let us use this era of COVID-19 to better care for one another; to offer gratitude and support to the folks that are serving on the front lines; to offer support to the folks that are affected by the pandemic. Thoughts and prayers work when translated into collective visualization and action. Technology enables connectedness and collective action. Let us use technology to connect with our friends through group video sessions; take the time to think of senior citizens and reach out to them. Let us join ‘zoom enabled sessions’ to support community activities.
At a personal level let each one of us strive to emerge stronger physically and spiritually as this era unwinds.
The discovery of our ‘self’ – that ‘yogic state’ – is our ultimate personal victory; the collective emergence of a mindful society will sound the death knell not only for this or any future pandemic but also for any other problem the world may face. We will get there!

Kanniks Kannikeswaran, Ph.D., is a musician, composer, music educator and scholar based in Cincinnati OH. He is widely regarded as a pioneer of Indian American choral music.