Anthropause: The Quieting of the World from COVID-19 Can Lead to a Deeper Interconnection

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Anthropause: The Quieting of the World from COVID-19 Can Lead to a Deeper Interconnection

Author(s)
Sharon Salzberg
Sharon Salzberg
(Meditation Teacher, Co-Founder, Insight Meditation Society)

The world has become much quieter since coronavirus arrived. Many people are not rushing around as much, there are fewer vehicles on the road, and many workplaces are silent, eliminating a lot of human-generated noise. For the most part, we’re not having parties, or ball games, or worship services. The way our lives have receded is such a profound change that scientists can measure it. 

Sensors distributed around the world to listen for earthquakes charted up to a 50 percent drop in noise in the last three months. This decrease varies from location to location; for example, Central Park in New York City measured at just 10 percent quieter, Brussels measured as 33 percent quieter, and it is 50 percent quieter in Sri Lanka. Even rural areas are hushed. Data from a sensor by the Okavango River near a town in Southwestern Africa recorded a 25 percent reduction there, a place that already was very quiet, according to a study published by EOS, an earth sciences magazine. This decrease is so dramatic that scientists have named it the “anthropause,” or human pause.

Reading about this, I considered how this reflected mindfulness meditation, the cultivation of awareness that perceives a clearer picture of our experience. During the anthropause, sensors can hear murmurs from way down deep below the surface, signals from subtle fluctuations that are the first stirrings of bigger movements to come. After all, what is mindfulness but an exercise in trying to distinguish the signal from the noise?

We are in an invisible network, with each action rippling outward, connecting the happiness and well-being of all communities. Everything we do affects more than just us.

To meditate, we settle the body, calm the mind, and allow our senses to open so they can perceive more than just the noise given off by being caught in distractions. In a state of stillness, we may sense what is going on below our surface. In moments of meditation, when I achieve my anthropause, what I sense now, more than ever, is the depth of my connection to the world.

It may seem paradoxical to think that now, when proximity to others is something we must protect ourselves from. Before the virus hit, there were so many people we might have taken for granted as we go about our lives: taxi drivers, cleaning crews, the woman we see at the dry cleaners. We commonly barely notice others even as we interact.

The virus is showing us how the slightest touch, passing by each other as we go about our lives, is a spark of connection that is both a strength and a vulnerability. We are in an invisible network, with each action rippling outward, connecting the happiness and well-being of all communities. Everything we do affects more than just us.

A tool for feeling this connection is “lovingkindness,” the meditation practice of extending a wish for safety, health, and peace to all beings in the world. Offering lovingkindness is a simple yet profound way of acknowledging how connected all of our lives are. When I teach that practice, I guide students to make sure to include a neutral person, someone they see regularly but do not know much about, someone we tend to discount, not even because of bias or prejudice, but through sheer indifference. It is someone we usually “look through” rather than look directly at.

In the meditation, we bring up a sense of that person and wish them well. In this time of anthropause, I have come to understand even more clearly how these relative strangers hold my world together. Many of those people we call essential workers, vital to keeping us alive. This has given me a deeper appreciation for all the people I rely on to do their jobs well so I myself can be well.

We have more time now to know ourselves and see and listen to ourselves and each other. Normally when we feel threatened or afraid, as many now do, we contract. Yet if we take a moment, an anthropause, to consider our world differently, we can use this crisis to expand our vision and pull out of our habitual characterizations. Then we can notice the things we barely saw before, especially, I hope, our deep and enduring connection to everyone around us, with the sincerely held aspiration that all beings be well.

Published August 19, 2020