Calmer Choice, non-profit organization in Barnstable, Massachusetts Calmer Choice, non-profit organization in Barnstable, Massachusetts

Uncertainty, Mindfulness and 14 Things

I know I certainly had plenty of uncertainty in my life before COVID-19, and mindfulness is something that I often say saved my life over 20 years ago after a traumatic accident with my then 4-year old son. I continue to practice mindfulness daily both formally and informally to this day as if my life depended on it, which it does.

Practicing mindfulness also reduced my habitual ruminations and my tendency to worry about the future. Yet, this current uncertainty feels different than any uncertainty I have ever had, it is big. So, I know that for me right now, my mindfulness practice must be bigger, stronger, kinder.

“As a mindfulness teacher, what would you recommend for people experiencing stress right now?”

Before I can answer, I ask myself, what am I practicing right now with my own stress? I work with my own painful physical sensations and difficult emotions before I can suggest anything to anyone else.

So, let me share a few experiences where my mindfulness had to get bigger, stronger, and kinder since the pandemic.

After a few weeks into this, I had the awareness of an opportunity: for this heart, body, and mind to be thought of as a sort of laboratory. In this current set of conditions, my opportunity is to observe, investigate, learn, and grow just like in a laboratory.

Brain lab
Observe, investigate, learn, and grow just like in a laboratory.

Now, in just one day, sometimes in a mere hour, this “lab,” gets to observe irritability, doubt, sadness, grief, fear, worry, anxiety, impatience, etc. I am also savoring moments and glimpses of peace, love, kindness. The gift of mindfulness is remembering that I can apply it to absolutely everything.

There is nothing mindfulness cannot hold–if I get out of the way.

It reminds me of Rumi’s poem, The Guest House:

This being human is a guest house.
Every morning a new arrival.
A joy, a depression, a meanness,
some momentary awareness comes
as an unexpected visitor.
Welcome and entertain them all!
Even if they are a crowd of sorrows,
who violently sweep your house
empty of its furniture,
still, treat each guest honorably.
He may be clearing you out
for some new delight.
The dark thought, the shame, the malice.
meet them at the door laughing and invite them in.
Be grateful for whatever comes.
because each has been sent
as a guide from beyond.

I love this poem and remember learning it 20 years ago. I do have to admit I am not a big fan of welcoming and entertaining my fear and anxiety. I mostly want them to go away. Even though I know that makes the fear and anxiety persist and hang out longer.

My favorite song, “I Saved the World Today” by Annie Lennox, reveals this “wanting things to go away” that I have. The chorus captures it perfectly... “Hey, hey, I saved the world today, everybody’s happy now–the bad things gone away.”

Anyways, back to the “lab” and my opportunity to observe and investigate it all with kindness.

This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival.

Welcome and Entertain Your Feelings

After sitting with some intense fear, a couple of weeks ago, I decided to pay attention to the fear. A teacher of mine once said, “To pay attention means to care, which means to really love. Attention is the most basic form of love. By paying attention we let ourselves be touched by life, and our hearts naturally become more open and engaged.”

I could not imagine myself loving this fear, so I tried just paying attention to it.

I sat with the intense fear and the frozenness I felt in my body. I turned to the fear, welcomed it, and said “Okay I’m paying attention. I hear you, things are scary right now. Can you just take a little step back so that I can ask you some questions?”

Fear only stood back slightly, so I asked, “What is up?”

Fear answered, “I am just trying to protect you from getting hurt.”

I thanked it for wanting and trying to protect me now and ever since I was a little girl. I felt fear soften. Then I told fear I have more courage than you realize...and I just sat and hung out with fear for a bit.

I was surprised at what happened next.

My body was not gripped by it anymore, fear settled, my heart opened, and I felt this compassion for myself.

Then another day I was visited by what I thought was my old “friend” anxiety but turned out to be something else. I didn’t recognize it right away because it showed up differently than it had in the past. Again, I invited anxiety into my laboratory to observe and investigate. “Oh, you are not anxiety. Are you grief?”

When I allowed grief in, there was an opening around my heart, and tears followed. It was in paying attention (the love) and feeling it in my body, then naming and welcoming the guest (hello grief!) that allowed this opening to occur.

I was glad I did not kick the “guest of anxiety” out.

14 Things To Help Your Journey

Through this journey, I have gathered 14 things (so far) that have helped me navigate this crisis. They are just random, so there is no clever acronym to help remember. I do not have to do the numbers in order. I can skip right to number 14 if I want.

Depending on what is happening, I ask myself “what is called for here?”

  1. Know that others are going through the same thing. I am not in this alone.
  2. Carefully choose where I direct my attention. Realizing that negativity bias and catastrophizing can start to overtake me. So, I tune in to the body first, and then I direct my attention to the good around me. I find things to be grateful for.
  3. I ask myself, "Am I helping or harming?" The constant viewing of the news was harming, so I reduced the amount of time I was watching and reading about the pandemic. That gave me control over my decisions.
  4. In my formal mindfulness sitting practice, I watch thoughts and specifically name the type of thought. Instead of labeling it “thinking-thinking,” I say “worry mind, anxiety mind, oh that rabbit hole again?” Knowing that the nature of my thoughts shape and drive my lived experience, I want to understand them. Also, practicing virtually with colleagues and teachers keeps me accountable to sit the whole time and not find myself suddenly standing up and in the kitchen cleaning. There are many online or virtual groups available right now and it’s so helpful to practice with others.
  5. I have good friends to talk things through.
  6. Creating messages of care for myself and others.
  7. The Guest House poem from above. Put out the “welcome mat” to emotions. Sit with them, understand them, and remembering ‘guests’ do not stay forever.
  8. When emotions are strong, I say things like, “This too shall pass.”
  9. Try to get good rest. Going to bed at the same time and getting up at the same time.
  10. Humor. Making sure I laugh.
  11. Nature. The woods and the ocean and fresh air are vital right now.
  12. Reading poetry and listening to songs. Both have new meaning to me and touch my heart in a new way.
  13. Connecting with those I love. My oldest son sends me what I call “The Daily Oliver" – photos of his cat doing funny cat things, and my youngest son sends me videos he puts music to of him skateboarding or the dogs he takes care of.
  14. What can I do to help? Helping others in need. Whether it’s a phone call or making a meal, etc.

I share this list only as an example. These are the resources I have available and sometimes forget about. I encourage you to look at your own resource list. How many can you come up with? And who could you share it with?