by Pax Tandon, award-winning author of Mindfulness Matters: A Guide to Mastering Your Life
Mindfulness is the cultivating of attention so it is sharp, clear, and focused on the present. In other words, it is present moment awareness. Part of the benefit, relevant now more than ever, is that the practice allows us to sit with whatever our truth is in the present — to notice it, and not react to it, but simply allow it to be. In this way, we become adept at sitting with feelings of discomfort, our unfolding reality as it is, and allow it to be a natural part of our holistic experience, one that we accept rather than resist. When we push hard feelings away, they simply burrow deeper inside of us, where they fester and create health problems that ultimately manifest in other ways, such as physical maladies and disease, alongside a long term depletion that runs us into the ground. As you can imagine, when the body is expending so much energy on the stress response, constantly reacting to upsetting events and information, or keeping unappealing emotions buried, it has far fewer resources for remaining healthy and resistant to bacteria and viruses. In other words, immunity suffers, perhaps the most dreadful outcome we could invite in when we are globally fighting against a viral pandemic that threatens our health. Immunity is our greatest ally, and we must do what we can to bolster it. Mindfulness is a proven elixir for boosting physical immunity.
In addition, spending resources burning brain and body fuel on stress and worry every day depletes our energy, making it difficult to think clearly or make plans. We need to sustain long term reserves of energy to get us through this pandemic, the times ahead, and the waves of stress that will continue to roll in. We must establish a practice that helps us stay present, calms us, conserves our energy, and attunes to the deep space within, which is imperturbable and inherently life-affirming.
Mindfulness is that practice.
Mindfulness helps us tap back into our highest intelligence to support life. The body organically knows how to do this, with its 37 trillion cells all working in tandem to keep you awake to existence.
Effectively dealing with your difficult emotions is also a vital way to cultivate empathy for yourself, and consequently for others. When you know how to recognize challenging feelings within yourself and hold them with acceptance and compassion, you can then recognize them in others, and do the same for them. This is vital, as the world (beginning with our nuclear worlds, particularly taxed nowadays whether we are home alone or have a house full of children and other relatives) needs our love and patience now more than ever.
It is therefore essential that we practice some form of mindfulness every day. According to researcher Brene Brown, “normal crises” (e.g. a flood, a tornado, a death) crest in a standard rhythm — adrenaline gets you through the apex of the event, and then you carry on at a lower and slower state. But in a health crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic, where we seem to be in crises for the long haul, we need to prepare ourselves for a marathon, not a sprint. We’re depleting quickly and feeling a type of exhaustion that we don’t know how to recover from. We’re focusing so much attention outside ourselves — on adapting and coping to grim news — and struggling to live within the newly instituted rules that add increased constraints and strain upon our lives.
Turning in, and accessing the limitless repository of energy and calm within ourselves, is a way to hit the “refresh” button. It’s like active rest when you practice mindfulness, encouraging your mind toward stillness by focusing your attention, settling your body into relaxation (which simultaneously relieves muscles of the tension and stress they’ve been holding), and allowing your whole being to rejuvenate.
So, how do you practice mindfulness in these uncertain times?
1) One of the most simple and approachable ways to access mindfulness is to take a seated posture that allows you to maintain a long, erect spine. You can do this either by sitting in a chair, with your feat planted firmly on the ground, hands resting comfortably in the lap (palms facing up or down according to your preference), or on a cushion on the floor, legs crossed. If sitting on a cushion, simply ensure that your knees are below your hips pointing toward the earth, and not jutting upward. In both postures, elongate your spine and orient it so it is directly above your pelvis. Tilt the chin down slightly, and pull it gently back so the head and neck are in line with the rest of the spine. Relax the shoulder blades down onto the back. You may let the eyelids gently close, or, if you feel more comfortable, keep the eyes open with the gaze softened and fixed on a spot about a foot in front of you.
From this posture, turn your gaze inward, beginning to bring awareness to your breath. Allow your attention simply to rest on the breath as it flows into and out of the body. Note: you are not straining here, nor forcing breath in and out. You are simply resting your attention lightly on the inflow and outflow of breath, something your body does naturally moment to moment, and flowing with it. If you notice your mind wanders away to other thoughts, to-dos, concerns, or sensations, notice this (the noticing is the mindfulness!), and escort your attention gently back to the flow of breath into and out of the body.
- For some, it may be easier to rest the attention on a spot where you feel more of the sensation of your breath. For example, the tip of the nose, where you feel the cool rush of air as it enters the nostrils. Feel free to fix your attention on this spot as you observe your breath and focus on its flow.
- You can also experiment with trying to locate the point of origin of the breath in your body. This might be deep in your lungs, in your belly, or elsewhere – it’s a noticing of where in the body the breath is harnessed, and what your body does in response – how it moves in tandem with the breath, and stretches and contracts to accommodate the inflows and outflows.
2) Mindfully intake news and information — limit yourself to one or two sources (epidemiologic and science-related in nature, if possible, to access the most accurate and unbiased information) every day. Otherwise, you quickly hit depletion and overwhelm. This advice comes from ace vulnerability researcher Brene Browns, who labels too much intake, especially of the “wrong” sources, as “gasoline on the anxiety fire.”
3) Try playing with mindful sound and movement.
- One of my favorite practices right now is putting in my headphones / earbuds and listening to songs with 8D technology (you can find free selections on YouTube, or other streaming services like Spotify). Listening to music this way is trance-like, as if the sound is orbiting around your head. I close my eyes and just let the music carry me with it, as it moves around the space above me. It’s wonderfully relaxing and focusing.
- When you get out there for your walk or jog (doing this every day, for at least 30 minutes, is the current recommendation for good health), do so mindfully and in the spirit of play rather than work.
Begin to fully notice those things you probably took for granted before:
- Thrill in the sensation of taking in fresh, revitalized breath through your nostrils and into your lungs, and how your body has warmed the air when you exhale again.
- Feast your eyes on the flowers in bloom, their vibrant colors, or the leaves on the trees in their full verdancy, and their life-affirming qualities as they burst into being (this wakes up our consciousness and instills hope in life carrying on and powering through setbacks and challenging times).
- Immerse your attention on the feeling of your feet on the pavement or grass as you walk: the pressure on the heel as you take a step forward and press down, and then the pressure on the ball of the foot as you lean into it to and push off, creating momentum to bring the other leg forward and repeat the action.
Focus with mindfulness and gratitude on the gift to be ambulatory and walking, especially when others out there are sick and suffering or confined to their beds.
Some practical resources and final tips:
- A more extensive dive into the practice of mindfulness and the research around it, as well as many other tips and tools for living a flourishing life, can be found in my book, Mindfulness Matters:
- Watch my film, Mindfulness Matters (recently accepted into the Philadelphia Independent Film Festival) for a 6-minute visual reminder of mindfulness, it’s importance, and how to practice. Link to film: http://www.paxtandon.com/mindfulness-matters-film/
- Jon Kabat-Zinn, considered the founder of the modern mindfulness movement, is offering daily mindfulness practices and Q&A sessions through the end of April (at 11 am PDT, 2 pm EDT) through the Wisdom 2.0 Team. To register: https://bit.ly/MindfulnessRegistration
- I drew from Brene Brown’s work to inform this article about crisis and how to handle it. She has a podcast, and it’s a calming, useful, and empathic resource in Brown’s characteristically candid style. Find her on Spotify and other streaming resources for podcasts.
- The Garrison Institute, one of the premier retreat spaces for mindfulness learning and practice, is holding daily noontime (EDT) meditations online with its core teachers. To register: https://www.garrisoninstitute.org/programs-retreats/community-programs/
- Links to special seminars with esteemed leaders and teachers — a goldmine! — can be found here: http://www.garrisoninstitute.org/
- On whatever level you are feeling the impacts of COVID-19 in your life, whether as a healthcare worker on the front lines of the illness, someone who has directly suffered the loss of a loved one through this pandemic (or feeling extreme anxiety that you might), a working parent now tasked with managing children full-time at home, a traveler with wanderlust who’s suddenly confronted with having to stay put, an extrovert who’s grieving the loss of connection, or someone in the many the spaces in between, Mindfulness can help. Mindfulness can, in fact, save. Save you from unnecessary suffering by helping you maintain a calm and present perspective, save you from getting sick or succumbing to a more severe form of illness (when mindful of our thoughts, we can choose positive ones, and this, as proven by research, has a direct effect on our immunity, as does the lowering of stress, which also boosts our immunity).
The time is NOW. A mind that is present and resilient takes time to cultivate. Just like prevention versus cure, it is far more effective to stave off an illness before it occurs than to try to fight it once it has taken hold. This certainly applies to Coronavirus, and equally so to an unstable and troubled mind. Don’t wait for crisis — this one or the next — to begin a practice that can help keep you clear, focused, and in balance no matter what challenges life brings you. The skills you cultivate now will help you see your way through this global challenge with more ease, grace, and success, and prepare you for whatever comes next, with even more compassion, resilience, and efficacy.