One of the teachings that stuck with me from the last retreat I went on was that 90% of our suffering is only in our minds.
This is a great time to test that theory. Right now, as you read this, are you safe? Are you in physical pain? Do you have enough food and water? Are you okay right now?
The suffering kicks in when we start to think about what might happen. What if I run out of money? What if the economy collapses? What if I get really seriously ill? What if my friends or family die? What if it lasts for months? What if the virus spreads after they let us out?
I’ve been leading meditations in which, after a few minutes of focusing on the body and breath, I say the word ‘coronavirus’. Some people don’t react. Others feel a rush of energy or heat, their heart racing, muscles tensing. One person said they had a really strong desire to check the news straight away.
All the while, they are sitting on a chair in a room, perfectly safe, but the mind tells the body to react as if it’s under attack.
How do we deal with this reaction? Switch on the TV and hear more stories of death and restrictions? Find a distraction?
No. In mindfulness, our intention is always to notice and accept whatever’s happening. So I guide people to pay attention to the discomfort in the body – if there is any – and just feel it. Perhaps breathe into it. Let it be there.
What people find is that it passes as, of course, everything does. And it’s replaced by a feeling of stillness, calm and presence
Through a shift in attention and perspective, people can go from panic to tranquility in seconds. The next thing I ask people to do in these meditations, is imagine that this situation might have some positive outcomes for them, for others and for the environment.
There’s already much talk of this being a valuable time for reflection, slowing down and doing less. One of the most predominant characteristics of the modern age is people being busy, stressed and exhausted all the time.
Now, if you’ve got really young children at home or you’re on the frontline in the NHS, it might be that thing’s are even more hectic than usual. But for many people, this is going to be an invaluable respite from their normal way of living. You might even think of it as a retreat.
It is possible to imagine that there will be lasting positive impacts from the way that people are connecting to neighbours in new ways, strengthening relationships with friends and family, and reflecting on and appreciating what’s really important.
I’ve found it very heartening to hear the appreciation and solidarity of the Clap for Carers NHS applause on Thursday evenings, that 700,000 people have signed up to volunteer for the NHS, that there’s been a huge drop in deadly air pollution, that Captain Tom Moore’s fundraising now stands at £34.7 million, and that there have been countless examples of kindness and community spirit.
It’s important to remind ourselves of the positive, because the mind has a built-in negativity bias. It’s built for survival, not for happiness. It focuses on current and potential threats in order to try to keep us alive. That often manifests as having the same anxious thoughts on a loop, which does not help you in any way.
So, my top tips are:
- Keep your attention focused on the present moment and limit your newsfeed.
- When you notice uncomfortable emotions, let yourself feel them, rather than trying to distract yourself.
- Make space to focus on positive things that might happen as a result of this situation, as well as what you still have that you are grateful for.
There’s an old story in which a grandfather is explaining to his grandson that two wolves are constantly doing battle inside everyone: a black one and a white one. He explains that the black one represents fear, greed, hatred and jealousy. The white one represents love, kindness, compassion, peace and joy.
‘Which one will win?’, asks the grandson.
The grandfather replies, ‘It depends which one you feed.’