I hope this little note finds you, and that it finds you well, even as we all continue to navigate these uneven and unusual days.
For many people, these are days of concerted effort and deliberate action, even if only in the very small things that we might normally take for granted. Some of you have told me about making the choice to establish new routines for your days, perhaps including walking or exercise or painting or meditating. Some of you have written to describe your renewed resolve for your mindfulness practice, attempting to timetable 10 minutes or 20 … or 40 … or 90 into each morning, afternoon, or evening, as though replacing your regular work schedule with a practice schedule. You’re setting goals to give your days shape and purpose. You’re exerting some control over the world as you encounter it, perhaps fully cognisant of the fact that there’s so much that is probably out of our control right now. Many of you have asked me what I think about this …
Well, I think that giving yourself a routine that includes modest, attainable goals each day, including some mindfulness activities, is probably an excellent idea in the current climate. We all know very well how uncertainty, change, and feelings of groundlessness can heighten stress and anxiety. Feeling like we just don’t know what to do can itself be very debilitating and can form part of a depressive cycle. Having something simple to do (ie. something we can realistically, actually accomplish in the time and with the resources we have) can be stabilizing, and can help us get to the end of each day with some sense of satisfaction – like we’re not just doing nothing and waiting for quarantine to end.
However, the danger that I see for some of the people who have written to me over the last week or so revolves around what I sometimes call the ‘tyranny of targets.’ As we’ve seen over and over again in this course, creating targets for ourselves can be a double-edged sword. Yes, doing so can motivate us, but it can also lead us into cycles of self-judgement and self-recrimination when we ‘fail’ to meet those goals. So, we talk very often in this course (and in the field of mindfulness more generally) about the importance of being gentle and generous and compassionate with ourselves (as well as with other people), including in our judgments of our so-called failures.
You might recall, for example, that when we notice that our attention has wandered off into fantasies or memories during a meditation, we are always told to acknowledge that this is perfectly natural and normal, and then to gently (albeit firmly) invite our attention back to where we wanted it to be (which is often on our breath). This kind of response is very different in tone from labelling these wanderings as failures and then berating ourselves for them, which would likely make our practice sessions rather terrifying for most of us. Instead of focussing on ‘failing’ to achieve perfect concentration, it is a more mindful approach to emphasize that we succeeded in watching our breath for some time, and we even succeeded in noticing when our attention had wandered from it. Every moment of success is a moment of success that we would have missed if we hadn’t practiced.
Even better (from the standpoint of developing our mindfulness practice) might be to see the effort involved in recognizing the wandering mind and guiding it back to our breath as the heart of the practice itself. This constant effort of return is the essence of the work involved in mindfulness practices. Doing that work is the whole point of the practice – the more we do it, the better we’ll get at it – that’s why we call it practice! When we go to the gym, we don’t consider it a failure when we lower a heavy weight because we can’t hold it up against gravity anymore, but instead we lower it and then lift it again … and again … and again. And so we work at the exercise and get stronger.
Of course, it’s one thing to know on an intellectual level that this kind of attitude will be supportive for us, but it’s quite another thing to embody this attitude, to really feel it when we ‘fail’ to meet our targets each day, instead of just beating ourselves up automatically. But again, the embodiment of this compassionate attitude also takes practice – that’s why the audio guidance for our meditations continuously guides us towards gentleness and acceptance. The more we practice gentleness, the better we get at it. So, one piece of advice if you’re struggling with being kind to yourself would be to listen to the guidance as you do your practice (and to actually listen to it, and do what it tells you!).
So, are daily goals a good thing at the moment? Yes, they are, but given the heightened levels of anxiety and uncertainty in general, it’s extra important that you set modest, achievable goals for your days (maybe that’s 10 minutes of practice every morning, maybe it’s 30 minutes in little intervals during the day, maybe it’s 2 full hours of formal sitting practice on a hard wooden floor with a cup of tea balanced on your head?). It’s important that we recognise that trying to meet the goals is itself work, and when we miss them we just try again the next day – that’s not a failure, that’s just the exercise. And it’s important, too, to realise that if your goal was 30 minutes and you managed 5 minutes, that’s not failure, that’s 5 successful minutes, which is infinitely better than none.
I know that some of us think that there’s extra pressure on us to be productive during the ‘lock down,’ even if only because we’re trying to find activities to replace those we’d normally have done. However, the opposite is really true: given the heighten levels of pressure, anxiety, and uncertainty, we should be placing less pressure on ourselves than ever. Things are already more stressful than normal – we don’t need to make them even more stressful than they are! Remember Buddha’s two arrows!
Try to be mindful of the trap of thinking: because I have all this time at home now, I should be able to practice for hours every day. Instead, perhaps remind yourself that these are extraordinary times with extraordinary pressures on people – give yourself permission to be less rather than more demanding, more rather than less forgiving. Even in normal times, the amount we practice and the goals we set ourselves are deeply personal things; for some, even just getting out of bed in the morning is a win.
Some of you have asked what am I doing with my days at the moment (occasionally as a not-too-subtle way to ask whether we’ll be doing any live Zoom sessions in the next few weeks, I think …). Well, I’m working on my routine too. I’m trying to do two formal practices each day, one at each end of the day, with something informal like a walk in the forest in the middle of the day. That’s not a million miles from what I would usually try (and often fail) to do before ‘lock down.’ I haven’t set goals for how long each of those practices will be, and the one in the morning is often rather short (I’m not really a morning-person!).
Anyway, I hope this has been of some help, or at least of some interest.
Keep breathing, keep washing your hands, and keep well.
As before, 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.