Never have I been so grateful to have my mindfulness practice than I am at this current time, with the coronavirus taking its toll on the world and our country vaguely in lockdown. Mindfulness means so many different things, and at times like these I appreciate all its benefits.
To quote Jon Kabat-Zinn, it is good to ‘weave your parachute every day, rather than leaving it to the time you jump out of the plane’.
I am not so sure that we have jumped, as I remember that experience involves a degree of choice – right now it feels like we have been pushed, from a very great height. Our various parachutes – our inner wisdom and strength, our loved ones and also the drive to care for them, our basic will to survive, our beliefs and faiths – can all help greatly at such times. The more we take care of our parachutes, the calmer our journeys can be through stormy weather.
Before I say any more about how mindfulness has helped me recently with my thoughts and emotions, I want to acknowledge that I am one of the lucky ones in this country. Millions are facing and will face far tougher challenges than me on a daily basis, although the chances are that I will encounter grief, fear and anger as much as anyone. But for now, I have a garden, two teenage sons who can play table tennis together, a stimulating job I can do from home, a supportive husband and enough food. Admittedly my husband has been isolating upstairs for almost a week as he started showing signs of the virus and I am sleeping on the sofa, (taking invigorating showers in the garden!). He is being tested this week but is recovering, so hopefully he is OK. (Edit: he was!)
There are others whose situations must be so hard to deal with. Not only all the amazing health workers who put their lives at risk every day for others, but those who have not so clearly chosen their paths: people with existing health conditions, families living together in small spaces, people living alone, single parents, families with children with special needs, people losing their livelihoods and suddenly facing extreme money worries, to say nothing of people in abusive relationships or who are homeless. And all the others I am not mentioning. And people with little support from friends or family, or inner resources to fall back on in times like this.
Even though I know my situation is fairly secure compared to others, I have still felt a sustained level of stress over the last month, swinging between anxiety unlike I have ever felt – for my family, the people of the world, and myself – and brief times of calm, joy and gratitude and almost forgetting about it for the odd moment.
I planned to write this blog a week ago about my new friend, Thud. I found I was waking in the morning and for a few moments not being aware of the coronavirus and its impact on my sons and the world – and then, THUD. A ton of bricks hit me as I remembered. Part of the mindfulness approach is that we practise acceptance of all aspects of our experience, including those we like and those we don’t. By acceptance we do not mean resignation, but rather a willingness to accept that whatever it is, is actually happening. So often it is our resistance to what is occurring that causes us most of our suffering.
Can I learn to put out the welcome mat to Thud? To befriend him/her/it? (not decided the gender yet!). I know that by doing so, the attack will be less. So some of the time I am managing to notice Thud as something that comes and goes, to stand back and have some perspective, to manage to focus on my breathing or the pain in my chest. And by doing so, Thud can charge around while I stay calm and centred, clinging onto my mindfulness parachute for what often feels like dear life.
These days Thud arrives sooner when I fist wake up, and I do not have so many seconds of ignorance about the virus and its dreadful impacts, of our politicians who are in such a position of power over people’s lives. But I am learning how to greet Thud and what works best to reduce the pounding in my chest. When I am aware of Thud, I then have a choice – what do I feed him? Either a quick or not so quick scroll through the latest news on my iPad, which pounds me downwards, or can I get to my morning meditation? To a place of refuge, love, patience, kindness and wisdom?
The meditation usually enables me to firstly rest from Thud, and then let Thud and his family of horrors wander around my mind without being so disturbed by their rantings. And then it sets me up better for the day ahead. It is my morning parachute care.
I became aware how the news greatly affected my mood, almost always for the worse, a month or so ago. It was interesting to see what drives me to do something that I know will make me feel worse. I think it is a strong dislike of uncertainty, and a desperate hope for good news driven by my fear. So can I be with the uncertainty and the fear, can I sit with these strong feelings calmly and with compassion and patience? Sometimes I can. And at those times I can resist the urge to hear the latest news and do something more uplifting instead. I now try to be very strict about how much news I hear, aiming for a middle path. It is astonishing how different I feel when I do. I am not shutting myself off from it completely – but I have changed various settings so it does not pop up all the time, and have started listening to more music rather than talk radio.
I love Rumi’s poem, The Guest House, about welcoming all that comes. Not that these situations are actually welcome, but one can still welcome them, as one might an unwanted guest And the other day I heard a word in that poem I had not heard before - Rumi suggests we greet them ‘laughing’. I cannot yet do that, but being able to occasionally put out the welcome mat, and choose to give Thud some space rather than feed him with latest news, does help me find some grace and calm in the midst of this stormy weather. Not sure I will ever be able to laugh at all that the virus brings, but there are some wonderful things humanity is discovering about our compassion for each other. At least inclining the mind towards ‘welcoming’ makes me feel somewhat lighter and less of a victim, compared to my default position of trying in vain to resist what is happening.
Many years ago I used to have paragliding lessons, (like parachuting but you are sitting). One day I was high in the sky over the glorious Sussex Downs and suddenly the wind picked up unexpectedly. Being the novice I was, there was nothing to do but let myself ride the waves of the wind. I knew there was no way I could resist the powerful current. I just had to let it take me. I went up and down for a while, with no control, and eventually came down to land. (My fellow paragliders were actually rather disappointed as when everyone saw what had happened to me when the weather turned worse, all remaining flights were called off and they never got to go!).
So best wishes to everyone as we face these uncertain times. Do what you can to care for your parachute, with compassion and patience. And bring self-compassion to yourself for the times when you are having high expectations of yourself. And may we ride the waves of the wind with grace and courage.