Uncategorized

Mindfulness of FEAR

Unlike previous blogs, which I wrote with the reader in mind, this blog is written for me.  If you would like to continue to read, please feel free.  And if you feel that its contents may be useful for you, in coping with the fears that you are experiencing at this time in response to global, national, community-wide, and/or events that are personal to you (none of these are mutually exclusive, of course), I’m glad.  But this blog is, for me, a form of “putting on one’s own oxygen mask first,” recognizing that if I am not taking care of myself, I am not going to be able to support others whom I need and want to support.  I am going to write what I need to read, and remember, and practice.

First, I am going to name it.  I AM AFRAID.  I notice myself taking a deep breath, and letting out a looong exhale, the moment I type these words.  I AM AFRAID.  And I notice it again.  As I drove to work this morning, trying to listen to commentary on last night’s presidential debate (which I turned off exactly 7 minutes into it because I was so overwhelmed by FEAR, although the emotion was not named at the time), I found myself shouting at the comments made by people attempting to objectively speak about political and economic perspectives.  Their remarks seemed so irrelevant that they infuriated me.  All I could focus on were imagined worst-case scenarios, where human rights are threatened and violated on an ever-increasing trajectory, where the ability to feel safe, to maintain a sense of trust, and to remain hopeful about the future is absent,  and where I am so powerless and vulnerable that I am consumed by an existential crisis.

My heart is pounding.   As I got deeper and deeper into the preceding paragraph, my FEAR grew stronger and stronger.  I am currently experiencing FEAR.  Again, noticing, recognizing, calling out that emotion, I notice a return to a more grounded place.  Just noticing, being mindful of fear, rather than continuing to be caught up in the fear by trying to run away from it – by engaging in a debate in my mind (a slightly more civil version than the triggering event), shouting over the interviewees on the radio, trying to tell myself that “if only….”then worst case scenarios can’t possibly happen, or by imaging taking some action so that when the worst happens, I’ll be able to somehow morph into a superhero who can restore safety and hope.  All of those things I do try to escape the fear – the behaviors and the “mental gymnastics – actually serve to fuel and intensify the fear

When I owned, and paid attention to my fear instead of continuing to focus on what triggered the fear, a significant shift began to occur.   As I redirected my attention from the multitude of things over which I have no control, to the one thing that I actually have some control over, my actions, I felt myself regain a sense of safety and control. Starting with some basics, taking a few, deep, conscious breaths, reorienting myself to my physical surroundings, beginning to notice that my fear is no longer the dominant, overwhelming force that it was only moments before, and choosing something useful – to focus on (anything in the venn diagram where “what matters” and “what I can control” overlap.

During my commute, I went from feeling overwhelmed by fear to feeling calm and ready to proceed with my day, in a relatively short period of time. I know that all of the formal and informal mindfulness practice over the years served me well in a time of need. Undoubtably, I will have many opportunities to practice my response to fear over the weeks and months to come.  Here it is again, just anticipating.  FEAR.  I take a breath….

getting unstuck, mindful living, mindfulness, Racism, self-help

Mindfulness of White Privilege

protesters holding signs

 

In this present moment in 2020, protest marches, vigils, and extensive media coverage are bringing awareness of racism and racial injustice to the forefront.  But what happens when, in the weeks, months, and years to come, the visibility recedes, and sense of urgency subsides?  What will ensure that the demands for justice, equity, and the dismantling of the systems that perpetuate racism actually bring about a society that promotes opportunity, welfare, and well-being for all?  I believe that mindfulness has a crucial role to play in raising and maintaining awareness of White privilege, and preventing it from continuing to influence the individual behaviors of White people, and the systems – judicial, educational, economic, healthcare, and so many more – that have benefitted White people, at the expense of Black people, since the founding of our country.

I remember the day in graduate school, over 2 decades ago, when the professor teaching the required course that, I believe, was called “Diversity”, handed out copies of Peggy McIntosh’s article titled White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.  I found the article so powerful.  I believed that by learning about and being moved by my recognition of White privilege, I would be forever immune to the scourge that is racism. I have carried a copy of this article to each of the various positions and offices I’ve occupied and have shared it many times when it has been relevant to the conversation.  As I listen and learn from today’s voices, I realize that intermittent “aha” moments, as well as my best intentions to be a “good person”, are far from sufficient.

Many claims are made about the practice of mindfulness and its benefits to physical and emotional well-being.  It is defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn as “the awareness that arises from paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”   I have thought about and practiced mindfulness to become more intentional in so many other facets of my life that were previously ruled more by habit and the feelings of the moment than by the values that I espouse.  Based on my experiences using mindfulness to make significant changes in many of my personal and professional habits, it is clear to me that mindfulness can and must play a crucial role in preventing racism from influencing  my behaviors (aware that NOT doing something that SHOULD be done is a “behavior”) related to social justice.  I am going to need to commit daily, and re-commit throughout the day, to being aware of thoughts and assumptions I may have because of the culture of White privilege in which I was raised, aware of opportunities to extend the rights and privileges I enjoy as a White person to others, and aware of systemic inequities that favor White people over Black and other non-White people if I am to consistently behave in ways that are aligned with the truth that we are all equal, as opposed to the racist fiction that White people are superior, more deserving, etc.   I will also need to be aware of, and accountable for, times when I unmindfully engage in behaviors through force of habit or the feelings of the moment that are racist or supportive of racism.

I have been most successful in remembering to be mindful when I have found or created a visual cue – an inspiring quote that I have copied on a post-it and placed next to my keyboard, a poignant comic taped on the wall above my desk, a phrase on the white board on my refrigerator.  I am currently reading  How to be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi , which would be an excellent visual cue to wake up to on my nightstand if not for the fact that it I am reading it digitally, on my Kindle.  Having been made aware of the potential to contribute towards economic equity by supporting Black owned businesses, I ordered the next book on my reading list, White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism by Robin DiAngelo from the Black-owned Frugal Bookstore in Boston.  In the meantime, I will leave a printed copy of this blog on my nightstand to serve as a visual cue to keep racism in the forefront of my awareness.  If the current passion for social justice is joined by sustained mindfulness that leads to consistent challenging and dismantling of racist institutions, I am hopeful for a more just and equitable future for all.

To read Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, go to:  https://www.racialequitytools.org/resourcefiles/mcintosh.pdf

To read more about mindfulness from Jon Kabat Zinn, go to: https://www.psychotherapynetworker.org/blog/details/511/mindfulness-and-awareness-according-to-jon-kabat-zinn

To order from Frugal Bookstore, go to:  https://frugalbookstore.net/

coping with COVID-19, mindfulness, self-help, stress management, Uncategorized

Coping With COVID-19:  The Mindful Fight

photo of woman wearing red boxing gloves
Photo by Jermaine Ulinwa on Pexels.com

The current global pandemic is causing even those who are normally most immune to worry to experience unprecedented levels of anxiety.  The dire threat of this virus alone is terrifying.  Add to that the uncertainty about how it will affect our lives in the days, weeks, and, perhaps, months to come, and our dizzying efforts to adjust to changes that impact every aspect of our lives, it is no wonder that the resulting stress feels oppressive.   Possibly the greatest contributor to the staggering stress levels is the lack of control that we have over our lives and the lives of our loved ones.

The fight against COVID-19 is creating so much anxiety and stress.  What can mindfulness possibly bring to the table to cope with the seemingly overwhelming challenge? Mindfulness, defined as paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, can help us to identify and bring attention to what we can control.  Without minimizing the need to keep abreast of the latest developments and guidelines, if we can redirect our attention from all that we can’t do, control, or anticipate, and imagining worst-case-scenarios, to things that we can both control, and that are associated with improved health outcomes, we can decrease both stress and our risk of becoming sick.

What would it be like to fight for health, instead of fighting against COVID-19?  First, consider all of the domains that contribute to good health:  physical, emotional, spiritual and social.  Insuring that each domain is attended to builds resilience to illness and stress.  Then, identify behaviors within any of these domains that are within your control, including:

  • Physical health: make healthy food choices, eat mindfully, exercise, drink more water
  • Emotional health: read, engage in hobbies, learn something new, meditate, spend time in nature, keep a gratitude journal, connect with a therapist via telehealth
  • Spiritual health: participate in virtual worship experiences, read from or follow inspirational figures, pray
  • Social health: keep in touch with family and friends, join and take part in communities (based on shared geography, values, or interests), practice random acts of kindness

Start small.  Choose one domain, or just one activity within any of the domains.  Then, commit to doing at least one thing every day that is aligned with your healthy intention.  Tell people about your intention so that they can support you (maybe even join with you!), and create visual cues or reminders so that you will remember your intention.  The threat is real, however, allowing the threat to monopolize our attention contributes to feeling overwhelmed by uncertainty, fear, anxiety, and stress.  There are many things, especially in these challenging times, that are beyond our control.  But instead of being consumed with the fight against COVID-19, fight mindfully – commit to and engage in the pursuit of health.

mindful living, mindfulness, self-help, stress management

Mindfulness in Scary Times

greyscale photography of woman wearing long sleeved top

It is impossible to open a newspaper or turn on the tv, the radio, or any electronic device, or leave one’s home, or engage in conversation, without one or more scary topics triggering anxiety.  The topics range from politics, to economics, to the environment, to violence, and, of course, coronavirus.  What may trigger our fears, and often the most potent trigger for our fears, often comes in the still of the night, or the moment when we can finally escape all of the business and pressures of daily life and find ourselves with a little peace and quiet.

Whenever we are faced with a threat, or a perceived threat, our minds are drawn to that real or perceived threat like the proverbial moth to the flame.  The instinctive “auto response” to threat can be crucial to our survival, as when we are driving in a snow storm (at least before global warming…..) and are laser-focused on the road ahead – a distinctly different experience from the typical way that we mindlessly drive a familiar route, arriving safely at our destination without having any memory of our time at the wheel.  That auto response can also create misery for us – as when we look back and realize that we had a sleepless night, worrying needlessly about something that, in the light of day, seems either trivial, or unlikely to ever occur.

The current challenges don’t fall under either of these categories – they are NOT trivial or unlikely to impact us in some, serious way, and maintaining focused attention on them does NOT in any way increase our chances of a positive outcome.  When we focus on things that we cannot control, we experience an increase in stress and anxiety that, actually, makes us more vulnerable.  Anxious minds are not as rational, logical, and adept at problem-solving as calm, well-rested minds.  And stress hormones are secreted, and continue to be produced as long as the mind is fixated on  scary thoughts, wreaking havoc on immune systems.

Mindfulness, which can be defined as paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, allows us to control what we CAN control – what we pay attention to – when we do not have as much control as we wish we had over the scary reality.  What we are paying attention to has more impact on our sense of wellbeing in any given moment, than what is happening in our surroundings.  I can be on a pristine, tropical beach, feeling the warm sun on my skin, toes buried in soft sand, completely cut off from the sensual experience because I’m so stressed anticipating the work piled up waiting for my return.  Or I can be sitting in the dentist’s chair, visualizing that beach, feeling comfortable and relaxed.

Important issues need our attention – there are serious problems that need solutions, and dire threats that require us to take protective measures.  Being mindful, choosing to focus attention on what we can control, rather than becoming overwhelmed, immobilized, and panic-stricken by fixating and ruminating on worst-case scenarios, allows us to live more fully, with a greater sense of well- being, and in a position to respond in healthier ways to the challenges we face.  Easier said than done!  The following recommendations may help to direct attention in ways aligned with healthier coping:

  •  Limit time spent tuned into the media, in all forms.
  •  Maintain or increase structure and routine.  Be especially mindful of sleep hygiene and bedtime routines.  Eat healthy.  Stay hydrated.  These behaviors increase resilience to stress.
  • Obtain and implement guidelines for safety set forth by credible sources.
  • Exercise.
  • Spend time in nature.  Practice yoga and or meditation.  Recite or keep visual reminders of inspirational prayers, mantras, or affirmations.  Keep a gratitude journal.
  • NOTICE when your conversations – with others, and in your own mind – are focused on “what ifs” and worst-case scenarios, and contributing to physical, emotional, and spiritual distress.  REDIRECT the conversation to things you can control, or things in your life that bring you a sense of gratitude, joy, accomplishment, peacefulness, etc.

I repeat, easier said than done.  As a mindfulness-based therapist, Mindful Living teacher, and meditator with decades of practice who is still subject to the same challenges of living in scary times, I don’t think that it is possible, or even desireable, to eradicate fear.  Practice makes better, not perfect, and setting the intention of improving this moment will, over time, result in improved health, well-being, and resiliency in the face of real threat.


		
Uncategorized

Mindfulness When Things Go Wrong

wrecked iphone

Meditation can be intrinsically rewarding – a brief vacation  or respite from the hustle and bustle of daily life, a relaxing or refreshing activity, or even a time set aside to connect with a community of fellow meditators.  Following each meditation session there may be a lingering feeling of relaxation, the sense of being a bit more grounded, and a bit less reactive to challenging events.  The same may be true, however, for a number of activities, like taking a nap or a bubble bath, sitting with a good book, or having a glass of wine with a friend.  With so many demands on our time, why choose to sit in meditation?

When things go wrong, our “fight-or-flight” response takes hold. For our distant ancestors who lived in primitive conditions, surrounded by wild beasts, far from the top of the food chain, the activation of stress hormones that allowed them to spring reflexively into action to save themselves was crucial to human survival.   In our complicated and complex modern world we typically do not encounter tigers or other predators with teeth and claws, but instead are bombarded daily with challenges from social, psychological, financial, electronic, environmental, political, and so many other domains. Because our brains have not evolved to keep pace with such radical change, we tend to perceive and react to all kinds of challenges as if they were tigers – our bodies tense, our breathing becomes shallow and rapid, our attention narrows, and we experience intense urges to either attack or run away from the situation.  When we become caught up in the fight-or-flight response in contexts where it is not called for, our behavior is likely to be counter-productive to effectively responding to the actual situation at hand.

A meditation practice is to mindfulness what regular exercise is to fitness. One meditation session, like a single trip to the gym, is not going to produce significant or sustained results.  Hopefully, in addition to the possibility of some short term positive feelings, the single session will allow us to experience the deeper satisfaction of knowing that we have done something that is contributing to our overall health and wellbeing, and a boost of confidence that despite the inconvenience or discomfort, “I can do this!”  If this sense of deeper satisfaction and confidence boost result in another meditation or exercise session, we may be on track to realizing some tangible benefits.  Just as working our muscles, over time, will result in greater endurance and strength, meditation practice, over time, cultivates the quality of presence we call mindfulness.

Mindfulness, the ability to remain rooted in the present moment, able to take in information from the external environment, and experience sensory changes as sensory changes and not as indicators of imminent physical danger, allows for improved assessment of, and response to things that go wrong.  In most cases, the outcome will be improved by pausing, gaining greater perspective on the situation, considering options, and choosing a response most likely to navigate the challenge successfully. Failure to respond mindfully may even lead to secondary problems, as when we react aggressively (“fight”) and are then faced with consequences our own bad behavior, or when avoid dealing with (“flight”) smaller problems that then grow into bigger problems.  Mindfulness may also prevent the sorts of problems that we frequently associate with “mindlessness”, as when we caught up in distractions that result in losing or forgetting our belongings, missing turns, or saying things without thinking rather than pausing, considering our current circumstances, and responding thoughtfully.

Things will go wrong.  If you start, or recommit to a regular meditation practice today, maybe they won’t go wrong as often, and when they do go wrong, you may be better able to get back on track sooner.