Explore the inner world
The Buddha sat under the bodhi tree for 49 days until his spiritual awakening that spawned one of the world's great religions, Buddhism. So as we patiently for our lives to return to normal, now is the perfect opportunity to explore existence through one of the central practices of Buddhism -- meditation. Essentially, meditation is the art of paying attention to a sense of awareness. This is done by focusing on a particular object, thought, or activity, such as breathing. With regular practice, some people report an intense spiritual experience, namely a sense of overwhelming peace along with a feeling of connectedness to a higher, eternal sense of being beyond our usual conception of the self. In fact, this idea is central to Buddhist philosophy.
But this kind of thinking isn't for everyone. And when it comes to meditation, it doesn't need to be. It's just as beneficial as a secular practice as it is as a spiritual one. Studies have shown that regular meditation can reduce stress and anxiety, boost IQ, and develop a whole range of positive emotions, including empathy and compassion. Moreover, regular meditators show extra activity in the pre-frontal cortex, the part of the brain that does our 'rational' thinking. As such, meditation can improve impulse control, emotional stability, and your sense of self-awareness.
But the most exciting research focuses on neuroplasticity. Work by a group of scientists from Harvard found that meditation rewires parts of the brain for improved function. This helps people think more creatively, maintains cognitive function into old age, and can even rewire negative neural pathways formed by years of abuse or early traumatic experiences.
Get round the reading the greats
Now's your chance to get through all those great books you said you're were going to read. If you are looking for something to get through the long evenings, start with classics such as Moby Dick or The Brothers Karamazov. A regular contender for the title of the great American novel, Moby Dick is the story of Captain Ahab's tragic pursuit of a mythical white whale. It's an adventure story, comic masterpiece, and philosophical inquiry into the nature of existence, all rolled into one. It is also the book where Herman Melville perfected his unique literary style, reminiscent of great poets such as Shakespeare and Milton. And at over 550 pages long, it should keep you going for quite a while...
The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoevsky is an 824-page tome that centers around a case of patricide. It soon develops into an examination of religion in the scientific age and the nature of morality in a world without grand, spiritual narratives. The novel inspired some of the greatest writers and thinkers of the 20th century, including Ludwig Wittgenstein, Albert Camus, and Franz Kafka.
But if you are more interested in the contemporary classics, start with Don DeLillo's Underworld, an 851-page magnum opus by one of our greatest living prose stylists. Described by literary critic Harold Bloom as "one of the few contemporary novels that touched what I would call the sublime," Underworld was also voted as the second-best novel of the last 25 years by The New York Times (Toni Morrison's Beloved took the top spot). Underworld opens at a baseball game in 1951, then unpacks the next 50 years of US history, including the psychological impact of late-stage capitalism dominated by advertising and spectacle.
Isolation can lead to greatness
Social distancing worked out pretty well for Sir Isacc Newton. He went through a period of self-imposed isolation while studying at the University of Cambridge. This was in 1665, the year of the Great Plague in London. Newton left his college dormitory and returned to his family home in the countryside, where he stayed until 1667. According to historian and journalist Gillian Brockell, this is when Newton laid the foundations for his later thinking on calculus, optics, and mechanics. And just two years after returning to Cambridge, Newton's new ideas earned him a full professorship!
Historians believe Shakespeare wrote his greatest plays during an earlier outbreak in London, despite most of the theatres being on lockdown. Other famous works inspired by pestilence include A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe and Albert Camus' The Plague, which has seen a huge surge in interest since the outbreak of the coronavirus, Written three years after an epidemic in his native Algeria, the Plague follows the story Dr. Rieux and is considered one of the best testaments to the human spirit during the darkest of times.
The things you have always wanted to do
As humans, we are hard-wired to learn. We are inquisitive, curious creatures who evolved to solve problems, overcome challenges, and consistently look for ways to grow as individuals. But in today's consumer societies, the majority of our needs can be satisfied with a click of a button or swipe of a screen. Cheap streaming services and delivery apps encourage us to be passive consumers instead of active learners. In a sense, we have become victims of our own success.
So what's the one thing you wished you could do but never got round to starting? Have you always wanted to learn a musical instrument? Or would you like to speak Spanish? Is there a notebook stashed away at the bottom of a desk drawer packed with ideas for a novel or screenplay? Isolation can help put some focus on the things we usually overlook or simply never have the time for.
There are several benefits to learning a new skill. Learning stimulates neurons in the brain. It creates more neural pathways, and the electrical pulses that carry information travel faster as we attempt to process novel information. Even when we get something wrong, we're still laying the foundations for successful pathways to form. And the more channels we build, the quicker information can travel around our brains. In other words, the more we learn, the better we get at learning. Getting good at anything builds confidence, self-esteem, and motivates us to pursue more of our ambitions in the future.
Psychologists call it mastery, the psychological force that encourages us to act independently in a focused and consistent manner. The pinnacle of mastery is what Abraham Harold Maslow termed self-actualization, which is at the top of his well known 'hierarchy of needs'. Maslow said "self-actualization the desire for self-fulfillment. A desire to become more and more of what one is, to become everything that one is capable of becoming."
The power of silence
Italian writer Tiziano Terzani once spent an entire month holed up in a log cabin in the middle of a Japanese forest with only two people to talk to - himself and his dog Baoli. Terzani spent the time observing nature, which included "listening to the winds in the trees, watching butterflies, and enjoying the silence." After just a few days, Terzani felt an immense sense of relief. Free from the anxieties of modern-day life, he realized he had 'time to have time.'
Thomas Merton also knows all about solitude. The Trappist monk lived in isolation for years. When writing about his experiences later in life, he wrote, "We cannot see things in perspective until we cease to hug them to our bosom."
More recently, singer-songwriter Justin Vernon, aka Bon Iver, ill and frustrated with his life in Raleigh, North Carolina, drove to his father's small hunting cabin in a very remote area of Wisconsin, to be alone after the end of a relationship. There, he lived a solitary, isolated life, hunting and completing tasks such as stripping wood -- and one on occasion even faced a bear, enticed by a stew! Vernon told Weekend America, "I was about 25 miles from anything -- even a gas station -- and even miles from another home. The only thing you'd really hear is a slight howl from the highway 20 miles away and then maybe birds, but really it was so quiet. I had nothing but the sound of my own thoughts, and they were really loud when that's all that was going on."
And it shows in the raw, visceral emotion of the songs on the record he wrote there, For Emma, Forever Ago, which earned rave reviews from critics and propelled Vernon to stardom. Tim Sendra of AllMusic wrote, "For Emma captures the sound of broken and quiet isolation, wraps it in a beautiful package, and delivers it to your door with a beating, bruised heart."
Jack Fong, a sociologist at California State Polytechnic University, had similar experiences to these men during his studies on solitude. He said, "When people take these moments to explore their solitude, not only will they be forced to confront who they are, they just might learn a little bit about how to out-maneuver some of the toxicity that surrounds them."
The next few months will be tough on all of us, so remember to stay safe and take care of yourself. Turn off the TV, give Netflix a break, and spend some time focusing on boosting your own wellbeing. And who knows, in a few month’s time, you could be on your very own road to greatness!