The essence

“Avoid non-essential travel”. Leaders of countries from Canada to Australia, from the UK to Japan are all telling us this exact same thing.

The double whammy of the enforced work-from-home and curtailment of our freedoms, latter through reduced tube, bus, train and flight services, is giving most urban dwellers several free hours every day. The time they do not spend in travel to work, for instance.

“Non-essential travel” remains amorphous and undefined though.

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Is it essential travel if I pop to my corner shop to collect my copy of the Financial Times? What if I also pick a copy of Vogue magazine with it? And a cup of coffee from the Costa machine in the shop? And an impulse-bought bar of mass-produced chocolate while I am there?

Is it essential if I go out to buy eggs and other fresh foods for the week, and stick to my list?

Is it less essential if I am topping up my supply of pasta and more essential if I am shopping for my high-risk elderly neighbour?

What if my walk is not just a purposive trip to the corner shop, but about getting some sunshine on my face and some wind in my hair?

What if I take the train – with literally one person per carriage these days – to go sit in Trafalgar Square for a while or to go see my nephew whom I have not seen in weeks, never mind FaceTime calls?

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To know what is non-essential, we need to know what is essential.

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“All the essential spring dresses you will need” – the headline of a mailer from a fashion site I have bought infrequently from over the years.

“Unisex sneakers you need now” – screamed another mailer headline.

“Create a working space you love” – said another mailer.

Are spring dresses essential? Are new ones essential? Do we ever need “unisex sneakers”? As for a working space I love, all I can say is creative pivoting may be capitalism’s biggest skill.

Food? Fashion? Books?

Health? Love? Sunshine? Mobility?

Money?

What is essential?

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The essence of something is often arrived at by answering what it is not.

Neti-Neti.

Not this, nor that.

You reject what is not essential till you arrive at what is.

Unlike other fixed signals of essence, the process of Neti-Neti also accommodates indeed nurtures growth and reinvention.

If we are no longer something, if we no longer stand for something, if we shed those inessentials, we are one step closer to being our authentic and whole self.

We are then also free to grow into something we discover through this process of reviewing and reflection.

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The coronavirus pandemic has brought sudden disruption to our society, polity, and markets.

That is also giving us space and time to ponder and recognise our essence.

Things may not be the same when we have finished pondering.

Think ahead. Be ready.

Meanwhile, wash your hands often and stay safe.

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Additional reading: UK key workers aka the people doing the really essential work