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"Beginner's Mind" Just Might Save Lives

Practice looking with fresh eyes to see reality for what it is.

kerkezz/Adobe Stock
Source: kerkezz/Adobe Stock

Our brains are great at using past experience to understand the future. We can make weather predictions based on the past, for example, or anticipate what someone might do based on their past behavior. At the same time, there are downsides to mapping our past experiences onto our current ones.

In Jack London’s famous short story “To Build a Fire,” the protagonist doesn’t realize how much colder it is than what he’s experienced in the past. As a result, he’s unprepared to protect himself from the Yukon elements and temperatures of 75 degrees below zero. Spoiler alert: The outcome is disastrous.

There are many benefits to adopting a “beginner’s mind,” as though we’re experiencing something for the very first time. This approach is often a part of mindfulness practice, in which we open to our reality just as it is, without imposing our biases and expectations on it. It can turn an ordinary experience like eating a raisin into a profound rediscovery.

When faced with a life-threatening disease like COVID-19, beginner’s mind could also save your life. Part of the fallout from this virus is due to the assumption that it would be just like other things we’ve encountered. I’ve heard multiple people describe living through past viral outbreaks like SARS and H1N1, and assert that this coronavirus would be no different.

I made that mistake myself early on, as the news headlines grew more alarming with the rise in cases worldwide and in the US. Like many people, I was motivated to dismiss the frightening news as sensationalism, because the alternative meant accepting that things could get really bad. I wanted to believe that this virus would be no different than others in the recent past, which didn’t turn into devastating global pandemics.

Of course the mainstream media is making a big deal about this,” I told myself. “It drives readership and ad revenue.” While it’s true that news outlets have a vested interest in getting people to consume their products, there are other reasons why they would report alarming news—including that the situation is, indeed, alarming.

It wasn’t until March 11, 2020, that I understood the danger, thanks to a discussion with Nicholas Christakis on Sam Harris’s Making Sense podcast. I trust Harris’s judgment as a reasonable and unbiased source, and his degree of concern changed my way of thinking. When I removed the blinders I was wearing, I better understood the reality we found ourselves in, and the scary possibilities ahead.

The dominoes began to fall over the next few days, with canceled conferences, suspended sports seasons, school closures, and other social distancing measures. Previously unimagined limits on our contact with one another have slowed the dramatic rise in many places throughout the country, though not before the deaths of tens of thousands of our fellow Americans.

We now find ourselves in a precarious position as states across the US decide when and how to loosen the social distancing restrictions. I don’t know what the right balance is between getting our economy moving again and preventing a resurgence in coronavirus cases and deaths.

But it’s clear what the wrong way to think about COVID-19 is, which is to assume it’s like the flu or other viruses that don’t shut down most of the world. Our minds inevitably will try to make sense of the current situation based on previous ones, but we need to bring a beginner’s mind to our reality, allowing ourselves to see it just as it is.

A crucial part of beginner’s mind with COVID-19 is acknowledging the extraordinary measures we’ve taken to slow its spread. There are already some suggesting they “knew all along it wouldn’t be as bad” as experts were saying it could be, but they seem to ignore the fact that most of us have been shut in our homes for the past several weeks. The reasonable conclusion is that social distancing is very effective in slowing the spread of the virus and that there are risks in returning too quickly to business as usual.

Bringing a beginner’s mind to this pandemic doesn’t mean we can’t learn from the past, of course. The 1918 flu pandemic, for example, offers many important lessons, including the power of proactive social distancing. But we need to understand where the similarities begin and end, and not extrapolate beyond the facts as we try to predict what will happen with COVID-19.

Here are a few ways to practice seeing this pandemic as objectively as possible:

  • Don’t rely on social media posts to inform your understanding of this pandemic, since they’ll tend to amplify your preexisting beliefs.
  • Recognize your assumptions as guesses, rather than facts (e.g., “This is going to be much worse than people think”).
  • Acknowledge the emotional investment you might have in seeing the pandemic in one light or another. For example, an emotional allegiance to a political tribe could cause you to see the threat as more or less severe.
  • Get your news from relatively objective sources (difficult when the choices are left-leaning major news outlets vs. Fox News; see this list for less-biased sources. You might also consider Newsy, which describes itself as “anti-partisan”).

We have crucial choices to make in the coming weeks and months as we strive to save lives, both by preventing a surge in cases of COVID-19 and by alleviating the crushing economic fallout from this crisis. The more clearly we can see the facts in front of us, the better the decisions we’ll be able to make.