People quite often talk about how ‘these are stressful times.’ After a while, such sentiments fade into platitudes and we risk losing sight of what they actually mean; they’re as routine as tying our shoelaces or saying ‘good morning.’ And yet, these last few weeks have been particularly stressful for many societies and individuals, as we all struggle to understand what it means to live in the midst of a pandemic. We strive to understand our responsibilities at these times, even as we try to guard against illness and panic and dis-ease of all kinds. At such times, the observation that ‘these are stressful times’ takes on particular weight, and it would be wise for us to be mindful of how that weight impacts upon us and on those around us.
I’ve been receiving quite a few messages from people asking about how their mindfulness practice might help to support them in these stressful times, and so I thought I should simply send this out to our wider community in case this is a general concern. ...
Perhaps the most obvious way that mindfulness practices can support us at the moment is simply through helping us to manage our stress and anxiety. The social impact of COVID-19 has been tremendous, creating panic and irrational behaviours all over the world. In some cases, such behaviours are more dangerous than the virus itself. So, simply put, try to remember your 3-step breathing spaces, and make sure you still maintain a formal daily practice whenever possible. Such practices help us all to find more skilful, more spacious sites from which to make decisions and take actions. Breaking the ruminative cycle with these practices can help prevent our thoughts from spiralling to catastrophes (that we’re inventing rather than experiencing).
In addition to helping us to deal with the anxiety associated with fear (of infection and of sickness), these practices can also help us to deal with other fears, such as the emerging fear of running out of toilet paper (sigh!) or even the fear of being in proximity with other people, which can quickly slip into fear of other people themselves. To be clear on this, while it is necessary for us to maintain physical distance between ourselves and others at the moment, being frightened of others is not necessary or helpful (and is damaging in itself).
There are clear connections between the cultivation of mindfulness and the development of compassion (towards others and the self), and so our practices might support us as we seek to overcome the irrational consumerism, the fear, and even the racism that has emerged during this health crisis. We should guard against allowing fear to overcome kindness; but we should also ensure that kindness is skilful rather than mindless or reckless.
There are also very specific ways that mindfulness practices might be of use at this time. Consider, for instance, the way that your ‘body scan’ exercise helps you to check-in with your body, to see how it’s really feeling (rather than how you fear it might be feeling).
Or, even better, think about how the ‘routine activity’ exercise might be applied to washing your hands – rather than washing them mindlessly (or forgetting whether you’ve washed them at all), take the time to transform hand-washing into a mindfulness practice. Indulge yourself in the sensations of washing your hands. Do it deliberately and carefully and slowly, keeping your awareness in your fingers and hands and wrists for the whole time. Scan your hands for each tiny sensation as you wash. Enjoy it. Make it luxurious and special. Make it something you look forward to doing. See what your whole body feels like when you wash your hands – can you feel those movements elsewhere? In your neck or chest or stomach … in your feet? How are you breathing? Are you trying to hold your breath and clench your teeth?
Remember, washing your hands properly with soap and water is the #1 best thing you can do to protect yourself and others from COVID-19, so make it into something that is also good for your soul.
Exercises like the ‘habit buster’ (in which we try to reveal the conditioned mindlessness of our habitual activities) might help us with the need for so-called ‘social distancing’ during a pandemic. Where we might normally greet a friend with a kiss, or a hug, or a handshake (or all of those things), often without thinking, we might try to become more mindful about how those actions start in our wills and move into our bodies. There are lots of opportunities there to intervene in ourselves and halt the behaviours before they emerge, and yet we can still embody the affection, the compassion, or the love that we wanted to share with someone else. A careful elbow-bump, a gentle foot-tap, a respectful bow, even a loving gaze. Perhaps it’s useful for us to explore how mindfulness can help us see that ‘social distancing’ is the wrong term – what is needed is ‘physical distancing,’ but this need not distance us emotionally or socially from others.
Finally, as universities, schools, and other institutions close their doors or shift to online provision of content, those of us who attend mindfulness groups will want to consider the wisdom of sitting in close physical proximity with others and breathing deeply together … Community support matters in the practice of mindfulness, as you know, and, since you’re receiving this email, you’re already aware of the online community within and around this MOOC. I’d certainly encourage you to keep engaged on our forums or through our classes – you can maintain physical distance and still be in a supportive community of practice.
Anyway, these are just some little ways in which our mindfulness practice might help to support us through ‘these stressful times.’
Be safe, be kind, be well, and remember to breathe, Chris
Dr. Chris Goto-Jones Leiden University - Centre for Innovation. University of Victoria. www.mentalpraxis.com
During the 2020/21 COVID19 pandemic, Chris Goto-Jones started writing periodic 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.