When COVID-19 forced me into isolation five days ago, I wondered what effect it would have on my well-being. Would I enjoy this time alone? I was definitely looking forward to it, and initially I was a bit perplexed when people were commenting on social media that their mental health was suffering due to the enforced aloneness. Sleeping late felt luxurious. Doing my work on my own time felt amazing. The silence felt amazing.

And then it didn’t. I live alone, and boy, is this head noisy when it isn’t balanced by other people’s voices. Also, it turns out I’m not very disciplined when nobody’s forcing me to get up. Yesterday I sat around in my dressing gown until 11 a.m., and my dirty dishes have become rather…abundant. I haven’t done any batch cooking like I planned to and instead have been intermittently eating cashews, lots of tomatoes, and ice cream every two hours.

But the worst is the weird angsty feeling creeping up on me.

I have struggled with some anxiety in the past, and that feeling has been gone for long enough that it feels deeply unpleasant to encounter it again. I have this sense of vague foreboding – I don’t want to get in my car because it feels as if something bad is about to happen. I’m a little emotionally off-balance, my movements are sharp and quick, as if I’ve had too much coffee. I imagine that my neighbour is angry at me. (She really might be, she caught me shouting at her dogs who were barking incessantly. There was this deeply awkward moment where I yelled at them furiously to shut up and then realised she had come home early and was standing right there. To explain the awkwardness of this, you need to understand that my neighbour madly deeply loves her dogs. And she thought I loved them too. Also, we live on the same smallholding, we share the same lawn, we even share a wall as our houses are semi-detached. We need to get along. And as it is, that has been challenging because our lifestyles are vastly different. I imagine that she now intensely dislikes me, and it bothers me that this bothers me so much. So I am profoundly overthinking this and wondering how to apologise to an extremely conflict-averse person without making it worse…)

See? I’m anxious.

There have been many good things about the past few days too. I’ve sloooooowly cultivated good habits over the last couple of years and they are standing me in good stead. To some I am now returning with more fervour, others have been there all along. When I emerged from the clinic in 2018 I decided to approach my own well-being differently: I would build manageable small rituals into my life. These rituals would either be things that came naturally, or things I could easily adopt into my life – they would not be turned into chores, I decided, because then I’d quickly abandon them and have one more thing to feel bad about.

Now many of these rituals have become an important part of my life, significant anchors when my heart was buffeted by storms last year. Returning to them has always felt like returning to joy. And even at my lowest points these habits were doable enough that I managed to roughly maintain them. So here’s a list of tiny rituals that I have found useful. I hope that you might too.

  • I make playlists. Two years ago I started amassing songs from wildly different genres into one Spotify playlist, and because the songs had nothing in common except that they made me feel better, I named the playlist “soul food”. It’s now a rambly, rambunctious list with Leonard Cohen, Natasha Bedingfield and Nahko And Medicine For The People sitting uncomfortably next to each other. I have other playlists too, but I listen to this one almost every time I drive to work in the morning., and arrive replenished. Since I’m not driving to work anymore, now I just listen to them when I’m driving aimlessly.
  • Which brings me to the next thing. When I’m feeling jittery, I drive. I try to limit my drives for fuel consumption purposes, but this habit actually started long before self-quarantine did. We have some beautiful winding roads in the area. I put on my playlist du jour and I drive slowly up the winding road. And then I turn around and drive back. Having to focus on the road while singing along very loudly to “So long Marianne” really brings life back into my bones.
  • I walk. I started doing this during one of the million times I quit smoking: I’d feel an itch to smoke and I’d walk instead, to nowhere in particular. Again, I know that I’m fortunate to live in a space that is both open and relatively safe – it’s harder in a city, but it’s worth the effort to find a nature reserve or a beach or a park that allows for walks, especially walks that aren’t headed for somewhere specific.
  • I listen to something nourishing before I go to bed/as I fall asleep. I have had rather severe issues with sleep for most of my life, and none of the recommended relaxation techniques have ever worked. Lights off? Mind on. Then I realised that I quite easily fall asleep if I’m watching a movie or series while allowing my eyes to close – trying to focus on the story prevents my mind from running off. But I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life sleeping next to a blaring laptop and awake to a screen staring at me, so I switched to podcasts. Spotify has this neat option where you can set its sleep timer to turn the app off once the episode is over, instead of running to the next episode and playing through the night. I listen to Tara Brach’s podcast because her voice is soothing and the contents feel healthy for my soul – usually I fall asleep about 15 minutes in, so the next evening I fast-forward to the spot where I fell asleep and listen to the rest. In this way I gradually ingest a whole lot of wisdom, and I fall asleep more easily than I have ever done before. (I don’t listen to her meditations though, only to the full talks, because I don’t want to train myself to fall asleep during meditation.)
  • I listen to podcasts while I cook. (I’ve heard this also works well with audiobooks, but personally I prefer reading over listening to books). I have a list of favourites: “On being with Krista Tippett”, “Poetry unbound”, “The future is beautiful”, “Getting naked with Nate” and “Under the skin with Russel Brand” – and when I’m a little tired of overtly uplifting or deep stuff, I spend an hour laughing to “Wine and crime”. (And I’d love some more recommendations – leave a comment!)
  • I do short sessions of yoga. I’ve always been drawn to yoga, yet every time I’d attend a class I’d leave feeling ugh – I couldn’t do the strength poses, the teacher would keep telling us to push ourselves, my tights made me look like a gangly grasshopper… Then Yoga with Adriene took Youtube by storm and changed my life as well. I started by choosing her shorter videos – nothing longer than 15 minutes. Gradually I worked myself up to longer videos, and now simply moving has come to feel so delicious that I do this every day. I’m often not much aware of my own bodily sensations, and the value of arriving more fully to my body has been tremendous. There are other great embodiment practices as well, or perhaps a simple stretch will do – sometimes I just do a forward fold and hang there, limp, for five minutes while breathing consciously.
  • I meditate, but I do it MY way. For instance, I don’t push myself to meditate every day because then it becomes a duty, a Thing That I Must Do To Be Spiritual, which I think misses the point entirely. This might change in future, but for now, meditation for me looks like this: I sit down and start breathing more deeply. I check in with my body, sometimes for the first time that day. I become aware of some stuff happening – anxiety, perhaps, or sadness, or excitement. Sometimes I lean into that and explore the feeling, sometimes I focus on my breathing instead, depending on what feels right. Often I change my position – I might end up lying on my back with my legs up against the wall, or in child’s pose, or I just put my hand on my heart, acknowledging myself. I try to stay in the position I chose for about ten minutes, but if I feel the need to move again, I do so. And sometimes, instead of focusing on my breathing, I listen to the sounds around me. I imagine being really IN the sounds, expanding my ears and my consciousness to envelop everything I can hear, the birds, the far-off cars. Sometimes I talk to the Earth, or to my vague concept of God/Source, or to the part of me that feels like a scared child. The thing is just to sit, and see what comes up, and stick with it for a little bit, without chastising or ignoring any of the information our body is so willing to give us when we listen.
  • When I have a burning or repetitive thought that won’t leave me alone, I record it. It’s faster than writing it down, and it always breaks the obsessional hold that it was gaining over me. Often I talk to somebody specific in these recordings (but I never send them). If I’m struggling to let go of resentment over something somebody did, I tell them about it in detail. I try to get to the heart of what’s really bothering me, as if I’m journaling. And then I let the recording chill on my phone for a few days. When I listen to it again, I realise that I’ve moved on from the issue. I might delete the recording then, or keep it for longer to listen to again. This really helps me figure out what’s mine to deal with, and what should actually be discussed between us.
  • This one’s new; I was introduced to it at a discussion session I attended a while back and it really spoke to me: I greet the Earth and the four directions. For this, it’s nice to be barefoot and to be standing outside, somewhere relatively private. I figure out roughly where north is. I pick a plant, or a rock, or a piece of soil, and I greet it silently. Then I turn east (where the sun rises). I acknowledge all the beginnings in my life, the new things that are coming up for me. I turn south. I acknowledge where I came from – my family, my ancestors, my own story. I turn west; I acknowledge the things that are ending for me. I turn north; I acknowledge my own spiritual journey, my intuition and the guidance I am receiving from within and above. I breathe silently for a moment and remember that all things ebb and flow.

The beauty of these tiny rituals is that they bring a small sense of accomplishment, but without much effort. On really tough days, I can list the healthy things I did for myself today: “today I went for a walk, AND I did yoga, AND I sat and breathed quietly for ten minutes – yay me!!” They also become refuges, ways in which to punctuate my days with minutes of peace.

But the important thing is to create one’s own practices. The internet is full of advice on how to live better, more wisely, more efficiently. Taking up too many habits at once, or setting an unattainable goal (‘I’m going to meditate for two hours a day’) only contributes to exhaustion. Starting with one small thing, one thing that resonates, that suits your own style, makes a huge, but gentle, difference.

2 thoughts on “Tiny rituals: Building peace into self-isolation

  1. Long time supporter, and thought I’d drop a comment.

    Your wordpress site is very sleek – hope you don’t mind me asking what theme you’re using?
    (and don’t mind if I steal it? :P)

    I just launched my site –also built in wordpress like yours– but
    the theme slows (!) the site down quite a bit.

    In case you have a minute, you can find it by searching for “royal cbd” on Google (would
    appreciate any feedback) – it’s still in the works.

    Keep up the good work– and hope you all take care of yourself during the coronavirus scare!

    • Hi Justin!

      Thanks for the kind words about my website. I’ll pass them on to my my friend who has been kind enough to help me with the design and basically did all the behind-the-scenes work. The theme is Wedge.
      I checked out your site (I think?) and it looks pretty impressive to me.

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