As efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus shut down normal social gatherings, billions of people will likely struggle with the emotional challenges of self-isolation. The next few months are likely to be tough—not just for the sick, but the healthy as well.
After all, humans are social beings. Most of us are used to going where we want, when we want. It’s normal to feel stir-crazy, depressed, or maybe even fearful when cooped up at home.
I have some understanding of the challenges of self-isolation because I experienced a form of it in the extreme. From 2011-2014, I completed over1,000 days of isolated meditation retreat in a cabin in the high desert ofArizona. I had no phone, no internet, no news from the outside world for three years.
Admittedly, choosing to do a long meditation retreat is a different animal than being forced to shelter in place. For me, a three-year retreat was the adventure of a lifetime—but it wasn’t all hearts and flowers. I know how difficult self-isolating can be. At times, I had to fight off urges to break quarantine—my retreat boundary—and stay on mission.
With coronavirus forcing so many into social distancing, it’s easy for me to imagine people—unable to handle weeks or months of isolation—foolishly throwing themselves into the fatalistic path of this dangerous bug.
So, here’s five tips that I used daily to succeed in isolation. I’m relying on them once again as my city and state wisely have issued stay at home orders. May these tips improve your social distancing experience while protecting everyone’s health.
The best advice I received in preparing for a three-year meditation retreat is that you can’t do it for just yourself. You need to raise your motivation. You have to do it for others. This meant having a clear goal in my mind, that I could call on daily, for how my meditation retreat would serve others.
When social distancing, keep a clear image in your mind for how distancing protects others. Thinking of protecting others will give you the power to prevail in whatever manner of social distancing you choose.
Right now, there’s no vaccine or cure for coronavirus. Our best defense is depriving the virus of new hosts to spread to: flattening the curve. This mission—to slow the spread of new cases—will keep our health care systems from being overwhelmed and save thousands of lives.
Bottom line: Every person who doesn’t become infected with coronavirus gives an infected person who is having complications a better chance to live.
If you need more convincing, consider these numbers. To raise your motivation, realize now that there aren’t enough hospital beds to meet the likely need. Of the 790,000 hospital beds in America, two-thirds are not available at any given time. Should the outbreak curve in America resemble that of China or Italy, estimates range from 6 to 17 seriously ill people competing for one available hospital bed. Doctors will also face battlefield decisions as to who gets a life-saving ventilator from the approximately 62,000 ventilators in America.
If your motivation is solely to protect yourself, when you get bored, you’ll be more likely to chuck your isolation plan. It’s amazing what behaviors the mind can rationalize when only your needs are involved. Better to raise your motivation for self-isolating—by thinking daily about how you are helping to save the lives of others. Then, you’ll be better able to endure boredom, physical and emotional hardships, and help the world defeat coronavirus.
Unstructured time is kryptonite to a self-isolation plan. Make a schedule and surrender to it.
In meditation retreat, I was advised to keep a rigorous schedule. Four meditation sessions were spaced evenly throughout the day, starting with a before sunrise session. There was time for meals, time for mantra prayers, time for studying ancient meditation texts, and time scheduled for physical activity like yoga or a short hike in the mountains surrounding my cabin. By 10 PM, I was back in bed with the strong intention to successfully complete my program the next day.
Were there times that I didn’t want to meditate or study?Sure. Meditation doesn’t get fun until you get good at it. But I surrendered to the schedule and let the schedule transform me.
I also planned a break day—on Sundays—to let my mind run free. Just an afternoon of writing fiction was enough for me to buckle down again when the Monday morning alarm chimed. Out of retreat, I tend to plan more hours of fun each day.
With your self-distancing and self-isolation time, you should also plan a schedule that works for you (and your family) and stick to it.
If you’re fortunate to be able to work from home—and not everyone is—clearly define the hours that you are going to work. Schedule additional time to pursue activities that are meaningful for you. If there’s something you want to learn, a project that you’ve wanted do, or a new habit that you want to get into—now is the time. And be sure to plan time for some fun!
If you have children at home, you already know that kids thrive when they have a schedule for when they study, when they do homework, when they play, and when they have to be in bed.
The same is true of your mind in isolation. Stay busy and work a plan, or your idle hands might drive you into activities that will touch coronavirus.
As you can imagine, a long meditation retreat is primarily a mental exercise. But I was advised to keep my body healthy to survive the journey. Even sitting in meditation for many hours every day would have been unsustainable without exercise.
I’m not a particularly physical person. I don’t like to sweat or be jostled, but I’ve heard that sitting is the new smoking. So, I scheduled time for yoga, push-ups, and sit-ups. I even filled jugs with water for weights. For cardio, I went for short hikes every other day, primarily walking up and down hills.
Being sedentary, locked indoors, often contributes to mild forms of depression. Fortunately, exercise is an all-natural way to fight depression. Numerous studies show that exercising is as effective as antidepressant medications for some people with mild and moderate depression. Why? Exercising starts a biological cascade of events in the human body that cause nerve cells to grow and make new connections. When nerve cell growth occurs—particularly in the hippocampus, deep in the temporal lobe—depression is relived.
The point is, don’t let self-isolation stop you from exercising. You may not be able to go to the gym or participate in your favorite group sport, but you can be creative physically. Improvise. Do something physical—anything—every day.
Perhaps you’ve heard of stories about meditators of old staying in a cave for years. What you may not know is that meditators have to be vigilant to fight off an internal wind condition that comes when you push your mind too hard. In Tibetan, they call it lung. A traditional, yogic remedy for lung is to go outside and look at the broad, beautiful sky.
So, my hikes outside had a dual purpose: Cardio exercise and soothing any feeling of imbalance in the chest, so I could continue pushing further in meditation.
During self-isolation, if you’re experiencing tightness in the chest—like what you feel when you have anxiety—go outside and look at the sky. Feel the expansiveness around you. To be clear, this tension that you’re mending isn’t for heart attack-like pains. Looking at the sky tends to soothe the uncomfortable, subtle gripping at your heart center.
Being cooped up inside too long, looking at bad news on your computer isn’t healthy. Better to spend some time outside each day—even if it’s just a few feet from your front door. Watering plants on a balcony, tending to a garden, walking around your block (as long as it’s legally appropriate in your locale), or going for a hike are safe social distancing activities.
Getting outside daily will also prevent new phobias from taking root. We don’t want a generation of people afraid of going outside because of germs. Coronavirus isn’t nuclear radiation. If you stay 6-10 feet away from others, avoid touching surfaces that others might have touched, or at least wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water before making contact with your face—then, you’re highly unlikely to have coronavirus enter your lungs.
Many people will not be sheltering alone in their homes. You will have family, friends, relationships, or roommates that you are—for better or worse—stuck with for months. I was fortunate to not do my three-year retreat alone. I had a spectacular partner who also is a spectacular meditator.
But staying in a cabin for three-years with someone else isa bit of a social experiment. For three years, it was just us. Every day. Us.So how did we emerge from this experience more in love and in greater harmony? The key was we stopped thinking about each other as having separate needs. Instead, we became one unit that would rise and fall together.
This required deeper listening and prioritizing the needs of the larger team over the smaller self. To stay connected, I would try to tune into her needs and be ready to modify my plan. Her well-being became more important than my scheduled plan. I didn’t always get it right, but I realized early on that I couldn’t make much progress wishing happiness for every living being in meditation if I failed to make efforts to protect the happiness of the team inside our cabin.
There were days that I would see that she was in the zone and needed to be left alone so she could dive deeper. There were also days whenI could see that she was going to pop if we didn’t go for a longer hike or lay on our cabin’s roof to watch the stars. Some afternoons, it was time to talk.Other evenings, time to listen. And other times, time to be silent. The key was thinking more about the larger we, and less about the smaller me.
You can think about it this way. If your foot steps on a nail, your hand will pull out the nail without any protest. The hand is not the foot, but it still helps because you think of all these separate parts as being a part of you.
To succeed in isolation with others, function as a team. Otherwise, you will have friction and conflict. Surrender to the larger you in the room to gain peace.
The stakes are high with coronavirus. Don’t let discord at home drive someone into danger, just so they can get away from the house. Be fast to put the teams’ needs above yours. It’s a tough habit to think of yourself as part of a bigger team, but it’s a habit that creates happiness.
I hope these five tips improve your social distancing experience. The best thing about this coronavirus pandemic is that it will eventually end. We can be confident that at some point, skilled scientists around the world will develop a vaccine. Scientists know how to develop vaccines. It just takes time.
Perhaps a silver lining is that this pandemic proves that we are each profoundly interconnected. What happens to our neighbors—whether next door or a country away—can affect us all.
Perhaps, after some social distancing, we’ll come to appreciate the profound beauty of our interconnection. With practice, maybe we’ll even make greater efforts to recognize that the needs of others are just as important as our own. Stay safe. We’ll get through this together.
 US Hospitals Will Run Out Of Beds If Coronavirus Cases Spike. https://www.usatoday.com/in-depth/news/investigations/2020/03/13/us-hospitals-overwhlemed-coronavirus-cases-result-in-too-few-beds/5002942002/