The Man Who (Almost) Missed the Pandemic


Imagine closing your eyes one day in mid-March and not waking up until the end of May. Now imagine you took that long and refreshing snooze this year, laying your head on your pillow just as the coronavirus pandemic was beginning to make headlines.

If you think that sounds like something out of a Washington Irving story, you wouldn’t be the first. In fact, when The New York Times heard about Daniel Thorson ’09’s 75-day retreat during the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, they dubbed him “a latter-day Rip Van Winkle.”

Thorson is in residence at the Monastic Academy, a nonprofit contemplative training center located in Northern Vermont where he’s participated in numerous retreats, most of which lasted for a week or two. And while he didn’t sleep through most of the spring like Van Winkle, he did spend those 75 days in solitude and silence. “I had no access to any news or information and didn’t speak to anyone about anything related to current events,” he explains.

While Thorson knew about COVID-19 before he started the retreat, which began just two days after the World Health Organization declared the virus a global pandemic, he tried to put it out of his mind. “To dwell on it without any hope of taking action or finding out more information was just going to cause anxiety and worry that wouldn’t help anybody,” he says. Rather than “doom scrolling” through social media as many of us were doing, Thorson spent the spring reading 1,000-yearold texts.

A philosophy major who served on the Debate Team and was a member of Kappa Alpha, Thorson both lives and learns at the Monastic Academy, where he works on curriculum design and development.

Thorson wasn’t completely out of touch during his retreat. On his daily visits to the main building of the center to use the restroom and get food, he took note of new social distancing and masking precautions. “I knew supply lines were still running because we were still getting food, energy was still running, mail was coming,” he says.

Those regular peeks into civilization allowed Thorson to calibrate his expectations of what the broader world would be like upon his return. Still, he was unprepared for “the new etiquette around social spaces” he observed on his first trip to a grocery store, and confesses he still hasn’t “completely installed it.”

While Thorson acknowledges that while it was isolating to miss out on the collective experience of the coronavirus shutdown, especially for a self-described news junkie, he’s grateful that he was able to avoid what he perceives as “an intensification of anxiety at that time.”

Thorson is the host of a podcast with a title that befits his early coronavirus experience: Emerge: Making Sense of What’s Next. Much of the discussion on the podcast centers on possibilities such as pandemics, climate crises and transformational learning. “The topics I’ve been covering on my podcast for years that once felt fringy are now more mainstream,” he says. One of the reasons he came to the Monastic Academy is because he suspected something like COVID-19 would happen.

Thorson clarifies that he didn’t undertake the retreat to avoid or ignore catastrophe, but “to become the kind of person who can respond to this kind of situation in a way that doesn’t add to the insanity, and instead is more calm and even-keeled and responsible. I came to the Monastic Academy to live with a kind of resilience in the face of global and national calamity.”

He got the timing just right.


Thorson offers two practices that can be of service during times of isolation and uncertainty.

Learn to feel your feelings. “Spend 15-30 minutes a day focusing on what you’re feeling in your body. In particular, focus on your belly, solar plexus, heart and throat — this is where emotions tend to express. Open, allow whatever is there and let it be. To cope with difficult emotions, you need to actually feel and accept them.”

Engage in difficult conversations. “When you feel anxious or hopeless, it changes everything to speak those feelings aloud and have them heard and honored by someone you trust. One rule of thumb: If it feels like a hard conversation to have, or a hard feeling to share, that’s usually exactly the direction to go.”