First of all, my apologies for taking an extra few days to write this email. As for many of you, I know, this has been a challenging time for me as well. So, I’m a little behind with things. Many thanks for your patience and understanding.
The last week or so has seen some big changes for many people, as the conditions of ‘lock down’ have eased in many countries around the world. Perhaps you are one of the people impacted by this change, and perhaps you’re not. Whichever is the case for you, it’s good for all of us to remember that the easing of ‘lock down’ restrictions is not the same as the ending of the pandemic – it’s simply a change in the way we’re living with it.
Judging by some of the emails I’ve received, I’m going to guess that the significance of this change is going to take a little while to settle. On the one hand, for some people, the easing of restrictions feels like hope; I’ve had a few messages that spoke of the beginning of a return to ‘normality’ (whatever that turns out to be). On the other hand, for some people, the easing of restrictions feels like anxiety; even without clear progress on a vaccine or a cure, many people now feel obliged to be outside amongst other people...
One of the fears that many people have mentioned is that the official easing of restrictions might encourage some people to behave irresponsibly – to ignore social distancing protocols, to get irritated or angry or even violent when things are not ‘back to normal.’ For such people, the feeling of relief at the ‘end’ of ‘lock down’ risks leading to a rather cavalier venting of the pent up pressure. Rather than helping society recover, such behaviour risks endangering everyone even more. As we’ve seen many, many times in our course, the desire for things to be other than they are is the very heart of suffering, for ourselves and for others.
Emerging from all these concerns, one consistent theme in the messages I’ve received has been about the challenge of going outside, after having been inside for so long. For some, this is both a literal and a metaphorical issue: opening the door and going outside.
I think I have three observations to offer on this topic today:
In some ways, this challenge echoes one of the challenges we set ourselves in meditation practice all the time. Perhaps we start our practice with our awareness turned inwards, resting gently on our breath or on the sensations in our body or even on our thoughts and emotions. But then we turn the light around and allow things from outside our bodies into our awareness, be these things sounds or sensations or smells or sights. And then, as you may have experienced in our course, the last stage of many mindfulness meditations is ‘open awareness,’ in which we allow our attention to be drawn to whatever arises within or around us.
An image that often helps me with this last stage of a practice, especially when I have been feeling small or compressed or restricted, is that of a house that has been sealed shut for a long time, perhaps with shutters and curtains over the windows, and with the doors boarded up. The inside of the house is dark and dusty and musty. But then, I move around the house and open all the curtains and shutters to let the sunlight (or starlight) in; I open the windows to let the fresh air and a breeze in – the house begins to breathe again. And finally I open the doors to let visitors in, and to allow me to go out into the garden beyond. If that house is our mind, imagine how much fresher, more spacious, and more beautiful it becomes when we open it up.
Another practice that is often used to support a process of opening up or expanding beyond our internal world, analogous to emerging from quarantine, is sometimes called ‘loving kindness’ or ‘compassion’ meditation. This practice is very important in a number of Buddhist traditions, and many mindfulness practitioners encounter a variant of it during MBSR and MBCT courses. Perhaps you have tried it during our course?
A typical pattern for this practice would be to do a normal breath and body meditation to help settle your mind, and then to start bringing different groups of people to mind, wishing them well. You might think of someone you love or someone who loves you. You might think of someone you dislike or someone who has wronged you. You might think of someone you hardly know or someone you simply passed on the street once. And finally, you might also think of yourself (which is the hardest step for many people). All the while, directing to all these people your hope that they can be safe, free from suffering, and free from dis-ease. You might repeat that phrase in your mind as you imagine those people. As you do so, you open your heart to this larger world around you, and thus you transform the way your presence in that world impacts it.
Practices like this can also be done in movement. When you go outside, for instance, you might make your walking meditation into a compassion practice. When you see people on the street, or people struggling to maintain distancing protocols in a store, you might take a moment and a breath to say to yourself: I share the support offered by my practice with you.
For some people a practice like this can feel uncomfortable, awkward, or strange. It can sound lots of alarm bells for people who are wary of religious or esoteric practices. However, the cultivation of compassion in this way need not be seen as a form of mantra or prayer (although they can be), but simply as a way to practice the exercise of compassion. After all, we get much better at the things we practice. The more we respond to things and people with compassion, the more easily that kind of brain activity will happen in the future. It begins to become hardwired into our brains. Compassion practices like this are akin to strength training for our minds.
In addition, you might simply try this kind of exercise as an experiment, in the spirit of our ‘meditation labs.’ It might be interesting for each of us to check in with ourselves and see how differently we feel about the world when we make the deliberate choice to move through it with compassion. See how different you feel when you return from the store feeling angry and resentful about the conduct of the people you saw there, and when you return from the store having shared the support offered by your practice with the people you encountered. Chances are, those people are anxious and stressed and struggling too.
Finally, it’s not uncommon to feel at least slightly agoraphobic (fearful of open or wide spaces) after extended periods of confinement or isolation. Part of the reason for this in the way that confinement, even voluntary seclusion, encourages us to turn inwards and to focus more of our attention on interoceptive experiences (ie. the feelings and sensations inside our minds and bodies). Hence, moving outside can feel disorientating or stressful. A gentle way to ease this transition might be literally to pause on our doorsteps as we leave the house. Stand and make a deliberate choice to go outside. Pause on the doorstep and take a few breaths, perhaps letting your outbreath be a little longer than your inbreath (which is known to be calming). Look up. Look at the sky. Look at the trees or the buildings. Gradually allow your exteroception (ie. feelings and sensations from outside our bodies) to enrich your sense of where you are. And as you start to walk, let your awareness rest in your feet, so that you know the feeling of the street. Invite your attention to your skin, so that you know the feeling of the air. In other words, gift yourself the opportunity to rebalance your interoception and exteroception, after such a time of seclusion.
For some people, the sudden flood of sensations that accompany going outside might be overwhelming at first (and for some it might always feel overwhelming), and this kind of deliberate, mindful approach might help to keep balance. However, this too might be overwhelming. And if that’s the case for you, try to remember the ‘3-step breathing space’ that we discussed and practiced during our course. One of the immensely important purposes of that tiny little practice is support us in finding balance between the avalanche of sensations that we experience all the time in the world and the stability and tranquillity of the present moment. You may remember that we start that practice with Awareness of all the aspects of where we are at that moment, opening our awareness to any- and every-thing that’s on our mind; then we Gather our attention in to focus deliberately on our breath, here and now, letting everything else fall away; and then we slowly Expand our attention out again, rebalanced in the present, but once again in the same place we started (A.G.E.). This 3-step breathing space is perfectly portable – you can take it with you wherever you go.
And I think that’s probably more than enough from me for this week. I hope these little observations are interesting and perhaps even supportive during these unusual days.
As always, I wish you health, safety, and ease of being.
I share the support offered by my practice with you,
Dr. Chris Goto-Jones.
Leiden University - Centre for Innovation; University of Victoria.
During the 2020 COVID19 pandemic, Chris Goto-Jones writes weekly emails to the participants of the MOOC DeMystifying Mindfulness on Coursera and FutureLearn. Following requests to put them all in one place, they are reproduced here.