The Real Time Context of COVID-19

COVID-19 exists in the context of Real Time.
Animals and plants grow and develop in Real Time.

We have heard many leaders say they “are deciding” when their people will come out of quarantine or self-isolation, when businesses will reopen, or when children will return to school. Social media is filled with people lamenting their restlessness, insisting they cannot possibly bear another day cooped up with family or isolated from friends, describing the ways they are anxiously pacing up and down the cage bars they see as having unbearably closed on their lives right now. These people are caught in the painful grinding of gears that takes place when Real Time and human time come into conflict. There is only one way to escape this sort of pain, and that is to stop fighting Real Time and float on its currents. Because Real Time is, well, REAL. There is no arguing with it. There is no negotiating with it. It is what it is.

When you were a child, did you ever try to pry open the petals of a flower to see its beauty when it seemed it was taking too long to bloom? If so, you know the surprise and disappointment of discovering that flowers cannot be rushed. Both dogs and cats carry their babies for about 2 months before they give birth. If you were breeding a dog or a cat, what do you think your vet would say if you brought it in after just one month and said, “I just can’t wait any longer for these babies to get born! Induce labor right now so they are born today!” And if somehow you managed to induce labor yourself, what do you think would happen to those half-developed kittens or puppies when they were born? Flowers and babies develop according to Real Time and do not respond to human impatience. The same is true for disease, which is another natural thing. Epidemics move through communities according to their own patterns of ebb and flow, in Real Time. When health professionals caution against making an arbitrary decision to end quarantine and reopen businesses, they are talking about recognizing the Real Time nature of the way COVID-19 is moving through the population. When people ask, “When will this be over?” the true answer — regardless of what anyone does or doesn’t do — is, “It will be over when it ends.” Natural things flow in Real Time, which is something over which humans have no control. When we try to control it by setting deadlines for births and quarantines and other natural processes, we get very unpleasant outcomes.

Thinking about flowers and babies, you might imagine that Real Time is such an obvious concept that everyone can simply step into it and live it out. But attempting to control time is an integral part of Western culture’s efforts to control things in general. I have already addressed Real Time in an earlier blog post about COVID-19 but I am coming back to it now because it’s so hard for people of today’s culture to truly engage with Real Time. They approach it intellectually, but the relentless time pressures of the world around them are so strong that they’re unable to translate what they know with their minds into a practice of real living. Further, the intensity of conflict between Real Time, which is the natural experience of every biological entity, and the human time we are all pressured to march by, is so intense that it leads to dissociation and anxiety.

But the conflict between Real Time and human time has physiological impacts, too. Artificial light has dramatically altered the daily Real Time rhythms that pattern our lives, in ways we’re beginning to realize contribute to health problems such as cancer, obesity, insulin resistance, and cognitive dysfunction. The tremendous increase in heart attacks, strokes, and car accidents that happen the first Monday of Daylight Savings Time every year is a direct result of the conflict between the Real Time our bodies naturally live on and the human time — or perhaps I should call it the inhuman timing — our society insists we adhere to. The sudden displacement of human time by just a single hour disrupts the already-precarious balance of our diurnal cycles so much that it reveals the magnitude of the underlying asynchrony.

Real Time also has seasonal elements. One of the best-known of these, in many Indigenous communities, is the way winter slows things down and tells humans, animals, and plants to slow down, too, and go inside — whether that’s inside a home or under the ground. So winter is traditionally a time for staying in, for telling stories, for being still. It’s not a time for going out and about, for rushing to accomplish things. When there are lots of terrible accidents and deaths on icy and snowy winter roads, it’s because people have been pressured by human time demands — from their jobs, from schools, from gymnastics practice and karate lessons — to buck the natural Real Time flow of winter. You can only buck Real Time so far. You can put snow tires on your car and put studs on your snow tires. But you’re skating, as they say, on thin ice.

Here is a Real Time understanding of COVID-19: The situation asks us to be still and stay in. If we do, the disease cannot spread. The people who have the disease will recover without transmitting it to other people. (The longer we delay the being still part of things, the longer this will take.) After the last transmission happens and this last person recovers, a little more time passes. Then the disease dies out because it has no one else to visit. Without someone new to visit, the viruses have nowhere to go, and they can’t live any longer in a person who has recovered and whose body has learned how to kill the virus. So the viruses in the last person to recover from the disease die out without leaving a new generation behind. When that happens, this event will be over. Then it will be safe for everyone to come out again.

You could picture COVID-19 like a wave of cannon balls flying through the air 5 feet off the ground. If everyone ducks down and is still so they just fly overhead without hitting anyone, after a while the wave will have passed. Then everyone can stand up safely again. But in this example, we imagine that if someone stands up and gets hit by a cannon ball, the people shooting are encouraged to fire a whole new round. So as long as people keep standing up and being hit, cannon balls will keep getting shot through the air. But if everyone stays down, there are no targets to shoot at. So after a while, the people with the cannons quit shooting and go home.  If we could have all stopped moving and been completely still at our homes when COVID-19 first came to America, we could have done this fairly quickly. But people won’t stop moving. They won’t be still. They say they CAN’T be still . . . but of course, they can be still if they are hooked up to a ventilator. People seem to have forgotten the difference between “can’t” and “don’t want to.” It’s an important difference.

At any rate, the longer that some of us keep moving, and the more people who keep on moving, the longer it’s going to take for the wave to pass over us and be gone. If people keep insisting on living in human time — on saying “I have to do this now” and “I have to do that now,” it’s possible this hard time will never really end. Health professionals are warning us about that, too, but we don’t want to listen. We want to have our cake and eat it too: we want to do what we want to do now, but also have this wave pass over us and be done. That is, we want to have healthy puppies and kittens we can sell, and we also want to have them after just one month instead of waiting the two months it takes.

Reality doesn’t work like that. And it’s finally time for Western culture to come to grips with Reality.

COVID-19 is not taking “no” for an answer.

COVID-19 in the Context of Sacred Commemorations

These are the desert lands that challenged people in the traditional story of liberation and community bonding that is honored in Jewish traditions this week, the spiritual significance of which was celebrated by the great spiritual leader of the people in Christian traditions on the last night of life before his own moment of challenge and transition. Image is from the public domain.

This week, of all weeks — and this week of this particular year, of all years — is one that should stir into waking life a visceral understanding of Indigenous values, deep within the hearts of people of the dominant culture. For this week commemorates events during which individuals set aside their own personal fears and desires, and did so for the benefit of the greater good of their entire community, understanding that any individual is only as safe and whole as the larger whole of which they are an embodied part — the Whole that is the very source of life.

The original events were occasions when participants learned through spiritual ways of knowing. The stories that tell about what happened then are mythic ways of knowing that bring this Knowledge into our times so we can experience and learn from this wisdom in our own lives. The different ways of knowing are not restricted to any one culture in terms of existence, as they exist in all cultures. But spiritual and mythic ways of knowing are more widely recognized as valid in Indigenous culture than in Western culture — even though, as you can see in the stories to which I am about to refer — mythic and spiritual ways of knowing have had great power in Western culture for millennia. Valuing these ways of knowing in no way minimizes or devalues intellectual or experiential ways of knowing. (In fact, rituals such as those described below engage experiential ways of knowing.)

Wisdom emerges only when all the ways of knowing, learning about, and responding to the natural world and to life itself are integrated. And the systems of values by which communities and individuals live are informed by, and manifest, the wisdom of that community.

During Passover, people of the Jewish tradition ritually eat certain foods that are limited in taste and quality because they commemorate a time the People as a whole were in a time of hardship and facing an unprecedented change in their lives. Not only that, they were hunkered down in their homes during a time of plague, filled with fear as the keening of grief echoed through the night landscape. But we do not read of the most devout members of this group setting themselves apart from their community at that time, insisting they had a right and even a duty to go outside and gather better foods for their holy offerings. We do not read of them violating the instructions they had been given to shelter in place in order to gather for a reading of their holy texts. Instead, we see these people acknowledging and honoring their deep relationship to one another, their social and spiritual and biological contract of kinship and oneness, by setting aside their own individual fears to do what was necessary for the good of All. We know, if we read that story, that the tension between their individual fears and desires and the genuine, desperate need to protect well-being of the whole community was a throbbing source of anguish for many years after this one night. The story paints the struggles clearly, and it’s clear that even so many years ago the community leaders found it necessary to invoke authority, law, and punishment to maintain the unbroken unity that permitted everyone to survive the ordeal. In those laws and punishments, we see the response still visible today, to the value system of “individual rights are the most important thing” that has come to dominate contemporary culture when it rebels against the value system that prioritizes the good of the whole. This is not the time or place where either value system was born, however. Both live within human hearts. It is our responsibility and our joy to work through that struggle within ourselves during each and every challenging moment — the most creatively productive moments — of our lives.

During Easter week, people of the Christian tradition ritually commemorate, first, their great leader’s own commemoration of the Passover tradition just mentioned. In one of the sacred stories told of these events, in the book of John, the story is even told in such a way as to ritually align this great spiritual leader with the lambs killed during the original Passover event to provide not only food to people about to face the most grueling moment of their lives, but the blood with which to paint their doorposts in order to spare them from death by plague. Notice that this blood, which is compared to the blood of the spiritual leader, becomes the blood of the People themselves — a sign of their literal common blood as living beings related to one another and bound by this mark of blood. The death of the leader as the story plays out marks them as being of One Blood — a community — as his blood symbolically marks the doorposts of their individual lives. And again, in this story, we see the same struggle between individual fears and desires on the one hand, and the greater good for the whole on the other. When the leader is arrested, he does not resist though one of his followers responds at first with violence. After the arrest, another follower denies that he knows the leader, out of fear for his own life — not once, but repeatedly. Again there comes a time when the people in the community hunker down to wait things out. Even the leader, who has been killed, hunkers down to wait for death to pass by. And then, in the proper fullness of time — determined by Real Time, not by human decision — the community is reborn and life begins to pulse again . . . in the entire Whole. It can only happen because the people were finally able to set aside their own individual fears and desires, their own timetables of what should happen when, and allow themselves to be carried on the river of Real Time and What Is. This is the river of All My Relations. And it carries everything, not just human beings. As this particular spiritual leader pointed out, it carries even the sparrows, and the very lilies of the field.

The struggle between individual needs, fears, and desires and the greater good for the Whole of which we are all a part exists within every heart. In Indigenous cultures, the value system that is privileged, that is taught to young people and generally upheld in specific situations when important decisions must be made, is one in which the greater good for the Whole has precedence. There are fairly recent historical stories of times when individual young warriors raced out ahead of the rest of a war party because their anger at recent and violent injustice, or their desire for personal war trophies, spurred them into wanting to score an immediate individual victory over an enemy. The war chiefs stopped and abased them for daring to risk the larger victory and survival of the People as a whole for the sake of satisfying personal desire. There is a fairly recent historical story of a leader who was stripped of his authority and honors because he put his own desires for love ahead of the good of the whole People, engaging in a relationship that he knew would create violent animosity between different families and so endanger the whole group. At this time, stories of individual sacrifice for the good of the whole are playing out across Indian Country. They are not my stories to tell, so I do not share them here. But I am filled with pride and admiration for the People as I learn of such stories.

Now, as in the times of these stories I have just told, is a time of great trial for everyone. It is these times of great trial, times of desperate hardship and risk, that the value system of Serving the Greater Whole is most essential to uphold. This is what the sacred stories of the traditions I have shared tell us, even now. It is what the people of two great religious traditions of the world celebrate this very week.


Cisco“Sit here on the ground with me,” I encouraged the hesitant woman. She was an older beginner rider who had contacted me because she was afraid of riding her horses. She wanted to ride but didn’t know how to get past her fear. As we stood in her dusty, New Mexico arena, I told her to sit down on the ground and not worry about getting her horse yet. “One of the things that can happen when we have fear with riding is that we feel disconnected and out of control. What you need to realize is that we are always connected to the Earth. You are not disconnected. When you are riding, your horse’s feet are right here on the Earth. You are connected through your horse. Through each footfall. Feel that connection.”

When the woman got on her horse, I helped her to continue feeling connected. It’s easy to think that being on a horse means we’re suspended several feet about the ground. But that’s simply a perspective. In reality, we are still connected. As I held her horse so he wouldn’t move, the rider closed her eyes and felt her connection down through her body and then into her horse. From there, we mentally went down each of her horse’s legs until the rider felt that she was very solidly connected to the Earth with four horse legs and hooves connecting her to it. From that point forward, the rider was able to ride her horse and handle her fear whenever it arose. Whenever she rode, she took time at the beginning to connect with her horse. If she got scared while riding, she simply reconnected with her horse’s legs and their connection to the Earth.

AnnieThe lesson the rider learned that day can be used as we deal with COVID19 fear and anxiety. Right now, a lot of people are feeling as if they are disconnected from everything in their lives. They don’t know when they will go back to work. They don’t know when they will be able to hug a loved one again. They don’t know when they will be able to go out to dinner or to the gym. There is so much uncertainty, and that uncertainty leads to fear and anxiety.

But the horses can teach us, just like they taught that fearful rider, that we are always connected. We are never truly alone even in this time of self-isolation and physical distancing. You are probably sitting or standing as you read this post right now. Take a deep breath and think about your feet. Think about your body. Where are they? What do they feel like? They are connected to the Earth, whether your feet are actually on the ground – remember, your floor eventually goes down through layers and meets the Earth – or your body is in a chair that is connected to the floor. We are always connected. Through the Earth, we are connected to each other. Every single human being on this Earth is connected right now. No one is alone. YOU are not alone. Feel the connection and breathe.


Hunkering Down with the Horses

The wind came rolling down the canyon, rustling the pines and then spreading out along the flattened area where the horses would normally be grazing. We had been told a big snow storm was coming, perhaps even a blizzard. I had put hay in the two barns, hoping to encourage the horses to seek shelter in either one. Instead, I watched as the horses moved in a way that looked like they had been assigned places in the pasture. As if choreographed by some voice I could not hear, they turned their hindquarters to the wind. Then, they dropped their heads low, almost reaching the ground. They stood close enough to be companionable but not in a way that any of them touched each other. Then, they waited. There was no anxiety among them. No frantic whinnying. No white-eyed fear. They knew, deep in their bones, what to do. Turn away from the storm, drop their heads to protect their eyes and ears and noses from the wind and snow, and wait it out. The horses knew the storm would end.

I have learned many things from horses during my 20 years of researching the horse-human relationship from within Indigenous worldview, and I will be sharing many of them on this blog. One of the most important things I have learned is to listen to the horses. Listening doesn’t mean just with the ears. It means listening to their entire being, to their herd, to the way they interact with life without projecting anything onto it. I have seen horses react in stressful situations such as evacuating from a wildfire. I have seen them need to be removed from fencing in which they have gotten tangled. I have seen them give birth, and I have seen them die. They have lessons they can teach us for this time of pandemic. The one I write about today is to be quiet, go inward, and know that the storm will end.

Mustangs, horses of the Land, were especially made to weather storms. Their tails have a very low set, which allows it to cover the space between their back legs, keeping them warm. They have smaller ears, meaning there is less surface area to allow heat to escape. They grow thick coats that catch snow and ice on the ends of their fur and keeps their skin warm and dry. These are the tools they have, and they use them successfully because where they live, there are no barns and rarely any trees under which to shelter.

The horses teach us how we can weather the COVID19 storm. The biggest thing they are teaching us, a lesson that many people still are having a hard time listening to, is to hunker down and wait it out. Not to panic but to do the things we know we need to do until the storm is over. The horses don’t see storms as a disruption to their lives. They recognize that storms are a part of life. Illness is a part of our lives. It always has been. We have become complacent due to modern medicine but COVID19 is a wake-up call. We now have the opportunity to adjust our lives when this storm passes so that we learn how to live with and survive the storms of illness.

We have the ability to weather this storm because we can stay in our homes until this storm is over. We can work from home or we can take this time and do the things we always say we are too busy to do. We can read, exercise, talk to friends and family via the Internet, write poetry, learn a musical instrument, and the list goes on. If we are essential and must work outside the home, then we can come back to it as the safe haven that it is. We have the tools to hunker down. We simply need to recognize them and use them.

When the horses hunkered down for that storm in their pasture, they didn’t know how bad it would be or when it would end. They simply knew that no matter how bad it got, it would end. While we know that this pandemic will become a severe storm, a blizzard, we also know that it will end. And when it does, we will be changed, individually and as a herd. What we do with that change is up to us. Hopefully, we will learn from the horses so that we will be prepared for other storms.

Some COVID Hope in Quarantine

We’ve talked about how important it is to slow down and start living in Real Time if you want to get in touch with the beneficial wisdom of Indigenous Knowledge that can generate COVID hope. Here’s your opportunity to experience Real Time, at least a little bit, and the peace it can bring in a time of great anxiety. We all need COVID hope while we’re in quarantine, self-isolation, or shelter-in-place.

Play the video below. Focus on the sound of the wind in this video. Listen for the birds. Look at the grasses moving. Breathe. Let your body relax. Open your heart to the earth and the sky, the wind and the trees. Let the Land give you a sense of calm peacefulness. Exhale.

Now play the video again. See the area on the hill to your left at the beginning? There are fewer trees there because some years ago there was a very large and devastating wildfire that burned through this entire area — even the place where the photographer was standing to make this video! Why is this important? Because it reminds us all that sometimes things change, and in ways we consider devastating. That’s simply a part of life. But life goes on. And somehow there is beauty again. The world isn’t exactly the same as it was before, but the wind still blows through the grasses and the pines, the birds sing their winter song, and the sun shines even in a clouded autumn sky.

Life will come back again. Breathe. Relax your body. Release your anxiety. Resist the habit impulse to engage in displacement behaviors that will only make make your body more tense.

Watch this video whenever you want. It’s the Land’s gift of Real Time peace for COVID hope.

Filmed by Jo Belasco on the Pine Ridge of northwestern Nebraska, November 2019. The view is to the south and southwest, which are the directions associated with Experiential ways of knowing and Spiritual ways of knowing, respectively. If you look at the directions of south and west on our Circle model, you will see why these directions will help you receive healing from this video.