COVID19: Offers us a Great Planetary Sabbatical -Will we take advantage of it?

Thanks to the emerging COVID19 pandemic, the world has been forced to slow down dramatically. Whether to slow and arrest the transmission of the virus, or because of disruptions to travel, tourism, supply chains, and the underlying economy, many of us have lost our chance to work for a period. In a number of locations whether by legal mandate or by recommendation, we are being asked to stay at home and minimize our contact with other people, particularly avoiding large meetings and events. Schools and other public places where people meet and gather may be closed to reduce transmission. While some of us still have work, such as the medical professionals who are directly addressing this challenge, it looks like for many of us we will have less work as so much is slowing down.


It may be a crisis and a disaster, but I believe it is also a great opportunity for humanity. Our planet has demanded and forced us to stop, reflect, and take a deep breath. Even traders on the NYSE had to take a breath and note what was going on after a 7% drop in market value released a safety value halting the market for 15 minutes.[1] As we are join together to arrest this pandemic and reduce its harm to human well-being, it is forcing us to change our behavior. We are being given an opportunity for internal quietness and reflection.


In Thailand we have many temples that offer meditation sabbaticals of 10- 14 days where participants spend most of their days practicing different forms of mediation in solitude. The body and mind are purified, eating only one or two meals per day, avoiding intoxicants, entertainment, and even talking with others except for specific questions to a meditation teacher. These sabbaticals can be transformational: forcing one to get to know and find peace with oneself, sometimes offering one a glimpse of a happiness that is not dependent upon what we have or what we are doing, but that comes from our state of being.


If you find yourself in quarantine (and many more of us are likely to experience something similar in the coming months), let us not fear this situation but seize this chance for personal and planetary transformation. The world normally pulls us away from our inner selves with distractions and attractions, not to mention our duties to work, family and society. Whatever our religion or spiritual practice, we rarely have and take time to know ourselves and find inner peace and meaning.
Like our Buddhist friends, we may use the offered quiet solitude to explore on inner being, our spirituality. Feeling inner peace and well-being, we need much less and we operate more by empathy, compassion, and mutual joy than greed, anger, and envy. Imagine the worldwide benefit if millions of people spend the quarantine in pursuit of inner well-being.


But a sabbatical does not need to be spiritual. Like university professors, we can take this “down” time to learn. In two weeks or the full 40 days of a quarantine, with a bit of effort we can learn a lot. I believe most all learning is beneficial; a new language, an aspect of history, a musical instrument, practice in sewing, or whatever it may be, we benefit and grow as persons. If we take this unique pause for breath for our planet, the most interesting opportunities connect learning with our role as planetary stewards.


While we sometimes see ourselves as owners of this planet or at least its resources, we know all of our lives are temporal, and we are fully dependent upon this planet and what it offers us amazingly free of charge (like the air we breathe). We also should by now recognize that all life on this planet has a right to its own health and future. Our species has for some centuries been using and occupying a disproportionate amount of the planet and its resources. The greater loss is that rather than stewarding our collective inheritance for the future, more often we have degraded and destroyed it.


Most of us do not see ourselves as the answer to global stewardship. We expect these global problems to be solved by governments and other institutions. Acting individually, it is simply difficult to find time with all our other debts and obligations. Looking deeper, can we see that all of us have power to transform ourselves, our way of life, and our collective future? We have now been given the time to take a breath.


The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs)[2] offers a simple platform to look at most of the key problems of the world. While all of these different aspects inter-relate and inter-connect, we can work on any one or any combination of aspects, from the micro-local level to a planetary scale. Whether poverty, education, gender equality, non-communicable diseases, ecological health, real sustainable economic systems or other needs, we can learn about what interests us most and make a significant impact, each in our own way. Each person brings a unique experience and point of view, something we can offer to the collective. By learning and considering, we can devise more means and ways to improve our collective well-being, as well as better implement and mainstream all of the good practices that are already out there.


Let’s consider the micro-level of the small spaces we occupy and communities with which we most closely interact. Almost everywhere, we can make small efforts to improve the local ecological health, such as providing habitat and fodder for pollinators, reducing waste, and returning more organic waste to the soil. Almost everywhere we have inequalities and social issues. Drawing from compassion and our own skills, knowledge, connections, and capacity, we can all do something– probably much more than we first imagined.


As we enter our great Planetary sabbatical, we have both the chance to give a few weeks to what we want to pass on to the future generations, and a chance to do it together. Social media and other forms of electronic communication enable us to collaborate without needing to meet in person, as we are being asked to avoid. We have seen how these tools have been used to keep community and communication alive in Wuhan and China, and we can do a lot more if we need to. We can learn and work together effectively even when we are physically apart. (*Although one challenge we may also work to resolve is bringing access to these communication services to currently disenfranchised communities.)


Imagine a worldwide collective learning journey though reading, watching films and documentaries, and or listening to podcasts, we can share thoughts and ideas about both personal and or collective objectives (such as redesigning our local transportation system to be carbon neutral, converting our community into an oasis for birds, or looking at how we might resolve racism on a deep and longterm level). We also may practice or experiment on a small level (such as in our backyards) and share from these practical experiences. Building knowledge together we may work to collectively design new forms and systems. Such collective learning journeys can have a strong impact both on the communities where they are focused and for the people taking part.


With thousands of different collective learning journeys taking place, connecting people and their power and skills for the collective good, this pause for our planet may leave us significantly better off than where we began. When this planetary hiccup passes, rather than a rapid return to business as usual with the slew of known problems this entails, we may find ourselves with a different understanding. We may see the world and its potential in new ways. We may already have played a small role in changing ourselves, our habits, and our communities. We might then bring this new knowledge and experience to our systems and institutions. We may then restart our energies and economies in a direction that is not blind and careless, but that draws upon our deep collective wisdom and looks towards a future that we now have the chance to create.


During this planetary pause, I suggest our governments, educational institutions, NGO’s and even private entertainment media promote public good by allowing free access to educational resources. This access will encourage people to stay more at home–what is most needed to arrest the spread of this virus–and it can also support something uniquely powerful: a great planetary sabbatical.


Michael B. Commons
12 March 2020
Earth Net Foundation, Thailand