March 19, 2020

Coronavirus - The New Human Story

Eventually this crisis will end, and at that point we have an opportunity to rewrite the story of humanity. Will we use this pause in business-as-usual to reassess consumerism, globalism, and how we define a well-lived life? Or will we scurry back to business as usual? That's up to us.

 Jeff: Welcome to Commune, a global wellness community and online course platform featuring some of the world's greatest teachers. We are on a mission to inspire, heal, pass down wisdom, and bring the world closer together. This is the Commune podcast, where each week we explore the ideas and practices that help us live this healthy, connected, and purpose-filled life.

Jeff: As a quick note to begin for all the yogis and meditators who are practicing social distancing, I hope you all are, and you're not able to attend your local yoga studios, Commune has launched a virtual yoga and meditation studio where you can practice with great teachers online and interact digitally with like-minded folks from across the globe. It's completely free at

Jeff: Okay, thanks for all the feedback you sent connected to the special episode on coronavirus over the last weekend. I hope that it provided some relief from anxiety and fear you may be experiencing.

Jeff: Personally, I learned that I supposedly have a very calming and reassuring voice that quite a few people use as a replacement for Ambien, but I suppose helping people sleep is not a bad skill to have right now.

Jeff: I will apologize in advance for droning on endlessly about the coronavirus here on the podcast and on social media. I have had a number of other kinds of podcasts interviews scheduled, but I've canceled them for a number of reasons, pretty much because this is all I can think about. The episode that was previously scheduled for this week was about an experiment in cooperative living, which I don't think is particularly appropriate for the moment.

Jeff: Today, I am fortunate to have my partner in social isolation sitting exactly six feet away from me.

Schuyler: It's very sexy.

Jeff: Yeah, corona has not done a tremendous amount for anyone's sex life, that's for sure. Of course, she's already added some levity and crassness to this particular episode. Hello, Schuyler.

Schuyler: Hello, darling.

Jeff: 19 years ago, when you opened Kula Yoga Project, that was in response to the last epic crisis, 9/11. Ironically, this global crisis had you close them instead of open them. Tell me a little bit about what's going on in your and our life and just set that scene for everyone.

Schuyler: Yeah, it's definitely an irony that has not been lost on any of us in the Kula community. To just outline it very briefly, in 2001, of course, there was 9/11 and you had your business, your music label down in Lower Manhattan, just blocks from the World Trade Center. I was a film editor and like everybody else in that aftermath, was looking for things to do to help. Out of the literal ashes of the World Trade Center area, we built my little humble yoga studio that really became a nexus for community-building. It was quickly a community success, if never much of a business success, but it was quickly the hub for people to come together and find solace through human contact. We've been chugging along for the last 18, 19 years.

Schuyler: In the interim, Wanderlust was born out of the same building. You and Sean created this epic new thing called a "wellness festival," also bringing people together in IRL and we birthed three kids and extended our personal tribe and now here we are in the next big cataclysm, which has been compared to 9/11 by all kinds of people. It is so ironic to feel how diametrically opposed the response to this one is and necessarily has to be. Here we are, shuttering. I'm shuttering Kula, we're shutting Wanderlust Hollywood in Los Angeles. The festival season has been canceled and we're...

Schuyler: Well, we still have our kids. Closer than ever. That part of it is quite sweet, actually, the forcing our children to be with us who really mostly do everything they can to avoid us and be with their friends, this is, in a weird way, the most sadomasochistic thing a parent can do, but from a business perspective and a community perspective, it's been very, very strange.

Schuyler: Everyone's seeing the explosion of virtual community. There is so much opportunity and real richness there and it's interesting to think about how different it is for us in small and global communities because we have this technology to continue to bring us together and it is really meaningful and people are finding real, true solace and comfort through that, while in a parallel universe, there's all kinds of viral misinformation, so the technology that we have at our fingertips is, is both our medicine and our poison. It's quite a ride.

Jeff: Yeah. I mean, crisis or inflection points tend to give people an appreciation for the things that they have. I remember vividly in those months after 9/11, strangers on the subway platform or on the sidewalks high-fiving each other and hugging each other spontaneously, this idea that out of collective grief, strangers could recognize each other's common humanity.

Jeff: Ironically, now the best thing that we can do for each other is not be with each other. That, I think, is hard for a lot of people, but at the same time, I see and sense the seeds of something similar, a sentiment that is similar, that we need to reprioritize around the things that make life truly worthwhile and just in our own little humble experience, while we have been impacted, we're now camped and hunkered down at our retreat center in Topanga, which is lovely and fortunate beyond any comparison, but the reason why we're here is that every retreat for the next three months has been canceled.

Jeff: Just in the past few days, we've, I think, enjoyed experiences with our children making kooky SpongeBob cakes and art projects in sitting in front of the fire reading and having moments of deep appreciation for this incredible miracle of life that we don't generally enjoy or get to have. Of course, then we scurry back to and worry about the financial reality.

Jeff: We're in a very strange bubble right now just because we have not seen the pandemic itself play out yet. We are on the 10-yard line of that process. While there is a tremendous fear and anxiety that's mostly based in the future and there is a little sense of, I don't know, relief right now that some people are having buried underneath all of the anxiety around being able to take a little time and do those things, cook, read a book, take a nap, but that over the next couple of weeks, just given the math and the theories around exponential growth, I think we're going to see and how to endure a new kind of reality that that may be very difficult.

Jeff: On some level, I think we're all preparing for that. I mean, to give a sense of the fluidity of the situation, just since the last podcast on Sunday, restaurants, bars, schools, gyms have all closed. San Francisco, I think 8 million people in California are on basically full lockdown and day over day, just in the United States, COVID-19 cases are increasing over about 30 to 40% per day and the total number is doubling every two days.

Jeff: To give a sense of just the global numbers, as of yesterday, last night, March 17th, worldwide infections are at about 200,000 and deaths are at about 8,000, so right now, we're in this little bubble, given that most people have not contracted the disease and under the fear and anxiety and the social distancing, there's sort of this odd sense of relief where we have the permission not to sit in endless traffic and take endless meetings and go to that job that we don't love and engage in small talk instead. We're shifting some of our priorities and our behaviors to connect with our families and read a book and appreciate the things that make life worthwhile.


Schuyler: The underpinnings of life that all of us really crave and we're so distracted from. I mean, the modern life has for almost all of us become so busy and so stacked with work, really, and ambition that we... It's very difficult to unravel to the core of really what makes most human beings happy, which is human connection and really, a degree of simplicity.

Schuyler: It's really been intense for me to look at this moment because of my own internal thoughts about climate catastrophe and you know very well that I'm a bit of a climate catastrophist and have been for years and have a certain amount of climate depression and anxiety and one of the things that I've always thought about regarding climate change and the future of humanity is that there will come a time when things will get so bad, whether it's in the next 10 years or 50 years, that we are going to have to radically shift our patterns of behavior and our lives will by necessity become simpler and more local.

Schuyler: It's always been my feeling or my suspicion that as difficult as that will be and certainly, there will be horrible

Schuyler: ... well suffering in there that there will be, I believe, a relief and that most of us are on a hamster wheel and I 100% include you and me in this body of people. We're on a hamster wheel of productivity and ambition and our... what we think is... what we think we want isn't necessarily even what we want. The plans we have as a family to, "Oh we hope we're going to go to Europe," and the stress of trying to make that trip, well those, that's just done.

Schuyler: There's... I know you and I both share a certain amount of relief that we're now not having to plan and execute that trip. I do think that... I've always felt like that's coming, but that that shift really can only come for masses of people when it happens to us all together because our sense of ourselves and our desires for ourselves as successful and productive people in the world is tied to what everyone else is doing.

Schuyler: Unless you're really like an iconoclast and who's living off the earth, like my parents who've always been living this way. But otherwise we're all in this rat race together. Unless we reorient collectively, it's very difficult to reorient yourself personally. I've... I never imagined in my wildest dreams that this would come in this context.

Schuyler: I always pinned it to a climate change event and that it would happen in that way and that it was far out in the future. Well here we are reorienting like this in a way that yes is dramatic and yes, there is suffering, there are people dying and it is dire, but it's actually not as dire and dramatic as it could be when we're looking at a whole cascade of fires and floods and tornadoes and the drama of what climate change would look like.

Schuyler: There's a part of me that feels haltingly optimistic that we as a global community can look at this as an opportunity to rewire ourselves. Obviously that's going to take massive systemic change and look, reorienting the way we relate to capitalism and to the structures of government. There's huge systemic change that would also have to happen. But that that only really begins when we as every atomized individual reorient the way we're going to live day-to-day, the way we're going to interact with each other and envision ourselves as citizens.

Schuyler: I guess I'm not an optimist, but I'm cautiously optimistic that there is the real seed for fruit in this moment.

Jeff: Yeah. There are dimensions into those thoughts and I share them. We did have a new global story that emerged in the aftermath of World War II. Of course, 70 million people died in World War II, to give you an extent sense of the extent of the suffering. But af-

Schuyler: Or the great depression and what that led to in the great new deal. Those opportunities came out of extremists.

Jeff: Yeah. I would say World War II, just from a pure fatality perspective, even more extreme.

Schuyler: Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeff: Out of that emerged this new story, this imagined order of Russia and the United States as the primary superpowers in the world, the military industrial complex notions of individual and materialism that then pushed us forward 80 years that have led to what our human reality is now. You may even say that the birth of liberal democracy and its vision for a multicultural globalism took its roots at that time.

Jeff: I think that that's apt because we may at this juncture need to re-examine globalism in light of the aftermath of whatever this epidemic or pandemic may be. Just to give a sense of the math and also just to underscore the importance of social distancing at this juncture. I know it's out there, but I'm not sure people have completely internalized why it's important.

Jeff: It's really just a pure math equation based around exponential growth. There's a very succinct interview in the New York Times with a infectious disease epidemiologist named Britta Jewell that does a very good job at elucidating this.

Jeff: But essentially, if you think of exponential growth in a... with an example that we can all get our heads around like breeding rabbits, for example, if you start with two rabbits and this is really paraphrasing Britta Jewell and the number doubles every week, after 10 weeks you've got a thousand rabbits and that seems like a reasonable number.

Jeff: But if you wait another 10 weeks, you have a million rabbits and it is not particularly instinctive or intuitive to grasp how quickly these numbers can go up, which is why I think that there is some... a little bit of complacency left because we just have seen as of today, March 18th very few fatalities in the United States.

Jeff: But if you really play this out, it's all about the reproduction rate of the pathogen of the disease. Let's say that the reproduction rate is two, so essentially for every infected person, that person infects two more people. What that essentially means is if there was a fire that was burning through the forest, it would burn its way through half the forest. By extension, that means 50% of the people in the world and in the United States by extension are going to contract the virus.

Jeff: There's some people that are more susceptible, children don't seem susceptible as much. The actual median age globally is 30, which is actually gotten a bit older over the last 10 or 15 years. But still, that's pretty young. As we've learned, it's mostly immune-compromised people that that die from COVID-19.

Jeff: But even if you play this out, there's 8 billion people more or less, this is back in the napkin math, but there's 8 billion people on the globe and if 50% of the people contract it, that's 4 billion people. Let's use the fatality rates coming out of John Hopkins, which is a very, very reputable science-based source at 0.6%. Essentially that would be 24 million people perishing globally.

Jeff: That is a significant number and the excruciating pain and distress that that will cause is real. But let's just take, if we accept that math and we don't know for sure, but if we do accept that math, there will still be 8 billion people more or less minus 24 million on the planet having to write the new story of humanity.

Jeff: We have seen... one of the most remarkable things that we've seen just even in the last seven days is how quickly behavior can-

Schuyler: Adjust. Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Jeff: ... change globally. Sea levels have been rising for 40 years, school shootings, income inequality, criminal justice issues, racism, you can just go on and on and on with all of the acute issues and salient issues that are impacting our society. But government has generally obfuscated and the human condition has remained the same and just time marches on. But this is different this time.

Jeff: It's almost like the meme of it. It's actually more of a replicate. The cultural replication is actually almost stronger than the viral replication of it.

Schuyler: Yeah.

Jeff: Where it is impacting the way people are living their lives on a global scale. This is having all sorts of ramifications and implications even in the short-term. I know that you Schuyler brought this. In the New York Times there is a section that's focused on the environmental impacts of COVID-19 and how essentially the skies have been clearing over parts of the country. I think today it's the clearest day in LA with the least amount of particulate in 40 years or something like that.

Schuyler: Yeah. It's amazing and there's all of these NASA images of all parts of the world and how sparkling clear they are and left the canals of Venice are running. You could actually see the bottom of the canals for the first time ever.

Jeff: Hmm.

Schuyler: Of course that's because nobody's in them. But-

Jeff: Yeah. I've seen these somewhat ridiculous memes like we're the virus, human beings are the virus and Corona is the vaccine or from my more... for my friends that listened to the earth, that environmentalism has not had a good marketing agency until now.

Schuyler: Right. Yeah. For the... Yeah. How do we get climate change to hire COVID’s press agents?

Jeff: Right. Yeah. 


Jeff: There was this one particular thing that caught my attention from a researcher at Stanford University named Marshall Burke, who calculated that the improvements in air quality recorded in China may have saved the lives of 4,000 children under five years old and 73,000 adults over 70. Essentially better air is saving more people than Coronavirus is killing.

Schuyler: Yeah, I read that. It's amazing. The... it's also impossible to release, extrapolate from there what the global effects are. I think in a certain way, as you were getting at, the bigger impact is whether we look at our ingenuity, our creativity as individuals and as governments, and see the opportunity to really create lasting change and seize it, or do we scurry back to business as usual? That's up to us. That's really... it's up to us as citizens

Schuyler: ... to press our local and federal governments to see this as opportunity, and do we at the end of this, what really I think that the thing that economists and policymakers that I listen to say over and over is, we will be on the other side of this whether it's three months or a year. Whatever it is, there will be a vaccine, there will be herd immunity. This particular crisis will end. Then do we scurry to shore up our economies by investing in wildly polluting industries, or do we see that it is a good to do more telecommuting, which keeps more cars off the road and keeps us closer to our families?

Schuyler: Is this the time? Is this the moment when we invest in alternative energies? Is this the time? You can only hope that because everyone everywhere, because this is the whole world ... One country is never, obviously, solving climate change. We are in this thing together, and it's incredible. None of us could have imagined that a virus could have brought us together this way. The opportunity is there. The question is, will we take it?

Jeff: Yeah. I mean certainly a lot of these behaviors and lack of implementing the behaviors, just in retrospect, seem like inertia. I mean especially around remote work where now you have essentially every significant company in the United States and around the world with employees working at home. Not driving an hour each direction. Not sitting in over air-conditioned or overheated office parks, et cetera. From a quality of life perspective, from a resources perspective, all of that points I think into a new story which is more sustainable, and honestly, just more nourishing. But it's easy I think to sit here right now in this bubble prior to potential global economic collapse and daydream about the new world story when obviously this is going to put a microscope on income inequality like nothing ever has.

Schuyler: A hundred percent.

Jeff: And, is part of this new story a reexamination of globalism, but also essentially what at the core of it makes us truly content and happy? We've been living in this romantic era notion that has sanctified all of the virtues of individualism, and has promoted the notion of exploration and "wanderlust" where we're traveling the world in search of knowing ourselves on some level but also discovery. And are we really headed towards a more provincial, local, decentralized form of governing and organization where people are actually truly civically engaged in the issues that most impact them?

Jeff: Versus every four years a small percentage, or a certain percentage, of the citizenry casting a vote on issues that seem, I don't know, even just incomprehensible or not particularly tangible. I wonder about our ability to re-imagine that. There's spiritual dimensions of it. I mean as you talked earlier about this need for endless growth and productivity. It's all based in this notion of like, "Well, if only and only if, we can hit this number, or purchase this thing, or acquire this service or product, then we will be happy in the present and-

Schuyler: Yes, and that our measure for success, both individual and as a country, is in this fantasy of endless growth, which anyone who looks at it really from an environmental perspective, but also just from a resources perspective, even if you weren't going to worry about the environmental impact, it's a dream. I mean the continuing upward tick of the stock market is a fantasy, and we all have been involved in that fantasy together.

Schuyler: We've been buoying it up. But there is not infinite growth. That's just impossible. So the real restructuring of that and the envisioning of a different way of relating to human beings, not as human bits of capital as they are sometimes called, but as actual individuals who should live more locally and find their purpose from the meaning of their day-to-day lives in their local communities, is a seismic shift in the way we will live.

Jeff: Yeah. It will require new indices for how we actually measure progress and success, and I guess by extension human happiness and contentment. The 80th verse of the Dao has for the last number of years played a role in my life. I go back to it quite a bit in terms of how we think about self-organization, distributed leadership, government. I'll just read it for a minute.

Jeff: "If a country is governed wisely, its inhabitants will be content. They enjoy the labor of their hands, and don't waste time inventing labor saving machines. Since they dearly love their homes, they aren't interested in travel. There may be a few wagons and boats, but these don't go anywhere. There may be an arsenal of weapons, but nobody ever uses them. People enjoy their food, take pleasure in being with their families, spend weekends working in their gardens, delight in the doings of the neighborhood, and even though the next country is so close that people can hear its roosters crowing and its dogs barking, they are content to die of old age without ever having gone to see it."

Schuyler: I remember when you read that to me two years ago, and I immediately thought of my parents who have lived this Dao for the last what, almost 80 years, or 20 years since they communized in Northern California. But it really is the way they live. Though I worry about them, they're in the vulnerable population, I've been thinking about them so much, and how their life in this moment is not impacted. It's barely impacted. When I called them, nothing in their day-to-day life had changed. They grow most of their own food. They barely go into town, and they're incredibly happy in their funny little funky bubble. My brother and I have been freaking out because they really don't wash their hands.

Schuyler: I called my mom. I said, "Mom, you've got to take this seriously. This is really... I know you don't have a TV. All you do is listen to Amy Goodman for your news, but listen to her. She's telling you how serious this is. Now take this for real." I left this on a voicemail, and she called me back. She said, "Oh yes. I know we're not really big on the hand washing but we're going to do it. We're going to do it. I put out a sign so we'll remember." Then she texted me because amazingly she has figured out how to text. They wrote on a piece of cardboard, scrawled, "Wash hands," and put it right inside their doorway. She assured me she had a tincture, a very strong tincture of Reishi mushrooms, and they were going to be just fine.

Jeff: Maybe. I'm not sure if that's our future, but it may be somewhere along that spectrum.

Schuyler: A sprinkling. A sprinkling of that.

Jeff: Yeah. I think just in the end the core message right now, again, is social distancing and isolation. I just want to in summary underscore that point because in the absence of a vaccine, the only way to achieve herd immunity is by slowing the rate of reproduction, and eventually the virus just gets frustrated because it can't find a new body to infect, so really take that seriously.

Jeff: Consolidate your trips and your errands out of the house. Obviously, remote work, cancel any nonessential travel, all of your meetings should be by video or call. Then obviously engaging in all of the personal habits that have been well trumpeted at this juncture of not touching your face and continual hand-washing. This will be the basic test of our ability to work together and get through this, and hopefully imagine a new human story on the other side.

Jeff: If you have any thoughts feel free to email me at [email protected]. For now, stay centered. Follow the science. Don’t succumb to fear. And spread knowledge, not the virus.

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