News and Opinion from Sisters, Oregon

Hope in the time of pandemic

Evolution designed our brains for maximum efficiency by automating as many tasks as possible. The brain stem oversees respiration, the contraction of our heart muscle, digestion, and so on. Located within the midbrain, the amygdala is tasked with monitoring our environment and alerting us to danger.

We also come equipped with an autopilot that enables us to automate routine tasks. Thanks to the autopilot, we can simultaneously wash dishes while dreaming about our next vacation or preparing for a new project. The autopilot also serves another critical role — it perceives and interprets information gleaned from the environment, presenting us with a comprehensible world.

The autopilot is so useful that it serves as the brain’s default mode.

Although the autopilot offers efficiency, when we are running on autopilot, we lack a direct connection to our experience: we eat, but we don’t taste our food; we hear words, but we don’t listen in a way that leads to understanding; we look at the snow-capped peaks of Three Sisters, but there is no sense of wonder at their majesty. We pass through the world like a shadow, insubstantial, going through the motions, not fully alive.

The autopilot offers us no relief from the worry, fear, anxiety, depression, or despair brought on by the pandemic. The autopilot can’t even conjure up its familiar, comforting routines. Clearly, we need to look elsewhere to find hope in the time of pandemic.

There was a time before the pandemic struck and there will be a time when the pandemic has passed. The fear and confusion inspired by the pandemic that makes it so difficult to locate happiness in the present moment will not always reside with us.

There are three steps we can take right now to reduce our fear and despair, to find hope. We can learn how to savor the past — before the pandemic struck; savor the future — when the pandemic has departed; and savor the present moment.

Savoring the past. Visualization exercise. Recall your last trip to the Oregon coast. Can you remember the sounds of the ocean — the crashing of surf, the sound seawater makes as it moves up the beach, gliding over smooth stones? Can you feel the warmth of the sun on your back (or the coolness of the fog), the grainy feeling of the sand beneath your feet? Can you smell the salty tang of the ocean air? Do you see little shorebirds running around, trying to grab a meal with their long bills? Are there gulls circling overhead, riding the swells, or huddling together on the sand? Are there interesting formations out in the water?

Do you feel happy? How can you tell? Where inside your body do you feel happy? Is it a warmth, tingling, pulsing sensation, or something else? Take your time and really savor your experience, immerse yourself in your happiness.

Savoring the future (anticipatory savoring).

Now I want you to imagine the trip you will take after the pandemic ends.

Explore with your senses the sounds, sights, smells, tastes, and physical sensations.

For example, if you are walking in a forest, do you see sunlight filtering through the canopy? Do you hear the sounds of birds? Do the trees give off a fragrant scent? What does the bark feel like? What does your clothing feel like against your skin? Who is sharing this adventure with you? Is it a quiet experience, or is there conversation or laughter? How do you feel walking in the forest? Are you happy, playful, curious, or content, or do you feel something else? How does this feeling reveal itself in your body?

Savoring present moments. Walk, bike, or drive somewhere with a good view of the Three Sisters. Pretend that your eyes are a digital camera. Put your eyes in panorama mode and make a sweep across the landscape, taking in as many details as possible. Experience the majesty of these mountains. Imagine that, like the mountains, you too can weather any storm passing over.

Increase savoring by making outings memorable. Imagine you have found a quiet trail where you can hike with friends or family while maintaining social distance from others. When you reach a special viewpoint, turn to your companions and slap high fives. Jump up and down, spin in a circle, shout for joy. Mark this happy moment. (Please don’t do this on the edge of a cliff!)

Savoring the past, future, and present helps us to recall the happy times before the pandemic, to expect happy days ahead, and, regardless of what is going on in our lives, we can savor the happiness always available to us in the present moment.

Savoring enables us to turn on the brain’s direct experience network and idle the autopilot. When we immerse ourselves in our senses, we become fully alive, feel more solid, happier, and hopeful.


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