Adjusting to the New Normal

The COVID-19 pandemic has paved the way to a period of uncertainty now dubbed the “New Normal.” For most of us, these abrupt changes have been stressful to say the least. Even as we launch into a phased reopening, we face the ongoing  danger of reigniting the pandemic if we are not careful. Clearly our future is clouded with ambiguity. Yet just as breathtaking rays of sunlight can shine through on a cloudy day and lift our spirits, the pandemic provides us with an opportunity to grow in ways that we otherwise might not.  

The past few months have been very difficult for me as they have been for most people.  In this post, I’ll be sharing my pandemic story. Though it is fraught with stress and struggle, the experience taught me a vital life lesson that I’d like to share with you. 

At the start of the new year, I finished relocating to my partner’s home just weeks after retiring and closing my business. It was the beginning of a new life. Each day my partner would head off to work and her two sons to school. I had the house to myself and generally used the time for settling into my new surroundings while taking plenty of time for reading, writing, and reflection. Life was good.

Then suddenly the pandemic struck. School and workplace closings put an end to my daytime privacy. Worse yet, by mid-March my partner became infected with COVID-19. Because it is highly contagious, we agreed that I would temporarily move out of the bedroom while she remained there in quarantine. The only place that would temporarily accommodate me was the living room floor. There I would make my bed for what seemed to be an eternity. The stress of being separated from my partner was compounded by  having primary responsibility for caring for her and managing the household. Her 14 year old son was of great assistance, providing room service for his mom, doing the laundry, and otherwise taking care of his own needs.

About a week after my partner got sick, her older son also became infected. So now he was in quarantine in his room, and we had two people depending on room service. Both he and my partner took 13 days to recover enough that they could come out of quarantine. 

But there remained a vexing problem. Because I had undoubtedly been exposed to the virus, I remained under quarantine for nearly a month even though I experienced no symptoms. In fact, the people who were actually afflicted with the illness were free from quarantine before I was! As a result, I had ample opportunity to reflect on the plight of those who are falsely imprisoned. 

Needless to say, these sudden changes were extremely stressful. My blood pressure rose, and my state of mind plunged. Yet through all of the disruption, I learned a vital lesson that I might not have learned otherwise. 

It became apparent to me that I was allowing my environment to control my state of mind. When my physical surroundings were peaceful and quiet, my state of mind followed suit. However, when my environment worsened, my state of mind worsened along with it. 

Was that really necessary? If I possess free will, does my environment really have the power to dictate my state of mind? Of course not!  I have the capacity to choose how to think no matter what the circumstances may be. The question then became, why didn’t I?

The reason is that, like all humans, I am a creature of habit and habit is the domain of the subconscious mind. Modern science tells us that 95% of our thoughts and actions are directed by the subconscious mind. So it follows that 95% of the time, we have no conscious awareness of what we’re doing. It’s as if we’re sleepwalking through most of life.  Previous experiences have pre-programmed us to respond in certain ways to certain stimuli under a given set of environmental conditions. When we are controlled by our subconscious mind, we are bringing our past into the present. Since life can only be lived in the present, we are literally living in the past when we follow the direction of the subconscious.

Most of us have been pre-programmed to allow our level of physical comfort to dictate our state of mind. Needless to say, this is unhealthy and especially so in a pandemic. Considerable research has been done on the long term effects of pandemics on mental health, and the findings are not encouraging.  America’s mental health was already a growing concern prior to the pandemic. Consequently, we will need to be all the more vigilant in guarding our mental health as the pandemic progresses.

What can we do? We can endeavor to reprogram our subconscious minds. How do we do that? By becoming more aware of our subconscious programs and intentionally rewriting the ones we no longer want. In short, we must replace old habits with new ones.

Where do we begin? The first step is striving to live in the present moment, for that is where life is lived. A Course in Miracles explains why living in the present is so important. Our subconscious minds reflect past thoughts. If we want to change our past thoughts, we have to focus on new thoughts in the present. 

Of course, living in the present moment requires that we recognize and accept that we are living in a time of transition. The present is not like the past. Life has changed, and for most of us, change is unsettling. However, we have the power to decide how this change will ultimately affect us.

How do we exercise that power?  We establish a firm intention. Old habits die hard. Learning new habits is like learning any new skill; it initially feels awkward and difficult. So you need to develop a sense of dogged persistence. It helps to adopt the attitude of Olympic Gold Medalist Kristin Armstrong, who said, 

 “Times of transition are strenuous but I love them. They are an opportunity to purge, rethink priorities, and be intentional about new habits. We can make our new normal any way we want.”

Remaining intentional and persistent in developing any new skill leads to a growing sense of confidence. The next step follows naturally: translating that confidence into gratitude. As we struggle to form new habits, the presence of gratitude is essential for maintaining a positive state of mind. As John Quincy Adams said,

“Gratitude, warm, sincere, intense, when it takes possession of the bosom, fills the soul to overflowing and scarce leaves room for any other sentiment or thought.”

The great companion of gratitude is love. And where love is, there is happiness, joy, and peace. 

So the process that begins by focusing on the present moment ultimately leads to happiness, joy, and peace.

As for me, regular meditation is my most important new habit. It increases my overall awareness enabling me to live in the present moment. I’ve noticed that as I meditate, I become calm and my concentration improves. That calmness and concentration strengthens my self discipline and my ability to persist in the process of change going forward.

My experience in 2020 thus far has taught me that I can free my internal reality from my external circumstances.  I have learned that I can train myself to overcome the limitations imposed by my environment.  I am not defined by my circumstances, but rather by how I respond to them. My mind, and yours, are capable of forming new habits of thinking. And by reprogramming our subconscious minds, we can transform ourselves, our relationships, and our world.  

So let’s go forward into our “New Normal” with a spirit of hope and gratitude. As we form new habits of thinking, the beauty of those rays of sunlight will be magnified against the unsettling gray clouds of the pandemic. Our reward will be finding a blessing through an experience we first saw as a curse.