Mindfulness can help you not make the stress of COVID-19 worse.
I’ll start with the easiest way to practice mindfulness; you need not even be meditating. Stop whatever you’re doing and shift your attention to the physical sensation of three or four breaths as they come in and go out of your body.
That’s basic mindfulness practice.
For me, the most valuable aspect of doing this is that pausing to follow my breath enables me to notice what’s going on in my mind. To paraphrase John Milton, with our thoughts, we can make a heaven or a hell of our lives.
As far as I can tell, what’s going on in most minds these days is the COVID-19 virus. Everyone seems to have his or her way of keeping informed. Some people read every article on the web they can find. Others check the online headlines a few times a day and only read stories that appear necessary for keeping well-informed (that’s what I do). And others don’t look at the news at all; they assume if there’s something critical they need to know, someone will get in touch with them.
No matter how you’ve chosen to keep informed, how can practicing mindfulness help you to cope with what’s going on? Here are two ways:
1. Use mindfulness to notice how your want/don’t-want mind is making you feel worse.
When I use mindfulness to become aware of what’s going on in my mind, what I notice is what I call want/don’t-want mind. This mental state is characterized by the belief that I have to—absolutely have to—get my way about things. This belief has never been more apparent than in these days of COVID-19:
I don’t want to be sheltering-in-place 24/7
I don’t want my loved ones to get this virus
I want the freedom I used to have
I want to know what the future holds regarding COVID-19
I could spend all day in the throes of want/don’t-want mind regarding COVID-19. The problem is that all that wanting and not wanting, not only doesn’t help me to get my way, it also generates anger and fear. Of course, this doesn’t mean I shouldn’t do what I can to prevent getting the virus. I definitely should—and so should you. But once you’ve done that, I hope you’ll remind yourself that stressful emotions, such as anger and fear, only add a second layer of suffering to the suffering already stemming from living under pandemic conditions.
If you truly understand the fruitlessness of living in a constant state of want/don’t-want mind when it comes to this virus, your anger and fear will start to subside, and you can begin to accept life as it is at the moment. This is one of the principal values of mindfulness. It helps you become aware of what your mind is doing. In this case, you’ll be able to see that the stories you’re spinning about the virus—wanting this, not wanting that—are only generating anger and fear and have no effect whatsoever on what’s happening now or on what will be happening in the future.
2. Use mindfulness to bring your attention to your present moment experience.
When you’re better able to accept life as it is, your mind will become calmer. This is the time to try this second practice. Stop whatever you’re doing and pay attention to the physical sensation of three or four breaths as they come in and go out of your body. You should feel a sense of relaxation in your mind and body—a shedding of stress. If you don’t, wait a few seconds, and try this mindful breathing exercise again. When I do this, I realize that at this very moment, I’m OK. Yes, there’s a background of sadness because of all the suffering this virus is causing around the world.
But right here, right at this moment, I’m OK.
This realization brings with it a sense of relief and a feeling of equanimity even in the midst of these difficult times. I can get back to this place anytime time by repeating the exercise.
I still get caught in the net of want/don’t want mind over COVID-19, but I know the drill: stop, take a few conscious breaths, see the fruitlessness of all my wants/don’t-wants, acknowledge with compassionate that this is a tough time for everyone, and then notice that, right at this moment, I’m OK.
I hope these mindfulness practices will be helpful to you.
Toni Bernhard is the author of How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers (Second Edition), soon to be released as a pocket guide, How to Wake Up: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide to Navigating Joy and Sorrow, and How to Live Well with Chronic Pain and Illness: A Mindful Guide. She can be reached at her self-titled site, Toni Bernhard.
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