Calm Your Body to Calm Your Mind

“Not everything that is faced can be changed.  But nothing can be changed until it is faced.” -James Baldwin

We are in the midst of a pandemic.  Let’s imagine that you sit still to practice mindfulness – the simple art of non-judgmental awareness.  You observe your breathing.  You notice that your breathing is tight and that your body is tense.  You feel anxious.

What do you do next?  Do you continue to sit and observe?  Do you label your emotions?  Do you get up and do something else? What is a wise and compassionate response to an observation of a body and a mind filled with stress?

It can be a skillful choice to call a friend, journal, or go for a walk.  We might practice art, spend time in nature or dance.  It can also be a wonderful choice to practice yoga.  Yoga is an excellent way to calm the nervous system because it links the mind and the body together through the power of breath and movement.  When we intentionally slow down our bodies and our breathing, we often slow down and calm our mind. 

This story begins with an essential element—the power of observation. But what we do when we notice distress – whether we continue observing, try to ignore it, or take an action to intentionally calm our nervous system – is up to us.  Small positive choices can make a big difference over time.

Want to experiment with linking movement and breathing?  Notice how slow, intentional movements affect the state of your body and mind.

The Healing Power of AND

If you are like me, you are on a roller coaster of feelings during this coronavirus time at home.  Sometimes, I momentarily forget about the virus while walking in nature or laughing with my kids, and then suddenly I remember once again. Hope, grief, sadness, joy and despair flicker in and out of my awareness.  I experience moments of awe at the way we are working together in community.  Other times I feel loneliness and worry about the physical and social isolation—both for myself and for others. 

During these challenging times, I remind myself again and again to create space for AND.  AND what? you might ask.  By AND, I mean allowing for both sadness and joy.  Loneliness and connection.  Despair and hope.  If we don’t create space for all of it, we run the risk of either anxiously clinging to positivity, or conversely, wallowing in despair.

Creating space for AND involves: A = Allowing the full range of emotions and becoming Aware of the present moment.  N = Nurturing—nurturing ourselves as we struggle, and nurturing a healthy mind that is also able to see what is good.  D = Discovering.  We can cultivate curiosity to move beyond our typical ways of responding and discover new and beautiful possibilities.  Allow, Nurture, and Discover (AND).

It’s not easy to open to all of our emotions.  Yoga, mindfulness, self-compassion and growing the good all help.  It also helps to journal and pick up the phone to call a friend to remember that we are not alone.  There are a lot of things that we cannot control in this situation, but practicing AND paves the way for a healthier emotional life and a more peaceful mind.

Creating Space for Grief

When I learned that school had been canceled due to the coronavirus, I was more than a little shocked.  My default coping mode was to get busy and stay positive.  I also knew that I had to move my body and spend time in nature each day. 

Simultaneously, I became less diligent about my daily meditation practice.  Unconsciously, I think that I knew that if I sat still for long, grief and despair would catch up with me.  Anxiety mounted as I tried to stay busy, positive, and focused on service to others.

This past Saturday morning, I awoke at 5am, unable to fall back asleep.  I decided to spend the next couple of hours journaling, meditating, and doing mindful yoga.  The discomfort was immense.  I had a strong urge to get on my computer and start DOING SOMETHING.  But I disciplined myself to stay present until 7am.

An hour later while I was making breakfast for my children, I suddenly broke down sobbing.  I was crying because I felt so much empathy for all of the people struggling.  This situation is somewhat challenging for me, and I offered myself compassion for that.  Additionally, I am aware that there are many, many others who are suffering in big and small ways: people who are living alone and completely isolated from human touch, people who don’t have enough savings to cover their bills, people that might not have enough money to buy food, and people who are dying from this virus. 

My children came into the kitchen to check on me, and I told them that I was crying because this situation is sad.  It is really, really sad.  The three of us hugged one another and mourned together in the kitchen for a period of time.   I cried for a bit more, and then I went back to making pancakes.  I noticed that I felt markedly less anxious after my tears. 

During this pandemic, I am reminded that in addition to practicing gratitude, noticing what is good and being of service to others, we also need to create space to acknowledge and hold ourselves while we grieve.  This situation is incredibly sad, and it is healthy and natural to mourn during these times of collective pain and social distancing.  We can remember that we are not alone in our distress.  We can both grieve and rise together.

While I Lie Awake at Night

The other night I lay in bed, unable to fall asleep.  I was feeling sadness about something that had happened earlier in the day, and I offered myself a little compassion for the difficulty.  I then went through my usual repertoire of things I do when I lay in bed: I thought about three good things that had happened that day, and then I did the 61 points meditation that so often lulls me to sleep.

I was still awake.  So, I repeated the sequence: three more “good things” and another round of 61 points.

Still awake.  Hmmm….  What now?  I wondered to myself.  Should I get up and do some mindful yoga?  Or stay in bed?  Then it flashed into my mind that I could offer myself kind wishes.  I felt compassion for my little sleepless self, and I began to offer myself kind phrases:  May I be safe.  May I be happy.  May I be healthy.  May I live with ease.  I repeated these phrases slowly and kindly in my mind, and it felt good.  Like an extra warm blanket covering me while I lay awake in bed.

At some point my mind dazed off, and eventually I fell asleep.  I feel so grateful for my self-compassion tools (and mindfulness and gratitude practices) that offer me comfort when I encounter the inevitable challenges of daily (and nightly) life.

Note: I have guided audios of 61 points and loving kindness/ kind wishes meditations available if you’re curious to try (maybe next time you can’t sleep). 

Mindfulness Is Not About Being Calm

I recently began teaching a mindfulness curriculum to a group of middle school students in a Milwaukee Public School.  Before I even began teaching, one of the middle school teachers said to me, “Mindfulness doesn’t work.”

Hmmm…..I thought.  Mindfulness is about intentionally being present in the present moment in a non-judgmental way.  To say that mindfulness doesn’t work is like saying, “The present moment doesn’t work.”  The statement, “The present moment doesn’t work,” doesn’t make any sense because the present moment isn’t supposed to “do” anything.  The present moment is simply the present moment.

I shared this with my students and inquired about what it is that they thought that mindfulness was supposed to “do.”  They shared with me that they had been told that mindfulness was supposed to make them calm, and they thought that using mindfulness was not going to “work” to make them calm. 

“Mindfulness is not about being calm,” I shared with my students. “Mindfulness is about being present.”  I then shared with my students a story about how I had practiced mindfulness just before teaching.  I had felt nervous that morning because I had never taught this particular group of students, and instead  of trying to make my anxiety “go away” (which would likely have compounded my anxiety), I turned toward it.  I said to myself, “I’m feeling anxious,” and I reminded myself that it is common to feel anxious before teaching a new group of students.  I brought my attention inside my body and noticed how it felt hot and tight in my neck and shoulders, and there was a buzzy sort of feeling  that radiated through my entire body.  I intentionally brought my attention into the soles of my feet to help myself feel grounded, and I noticed my breathing.  Because I noticed that my body and my breath were indicative of a “fight or flight” response, I also chose to intentionally slow down my breathing.  Regulating the breath is not a mindfulness strategy, but my mindfulness practice of observing the anxiety response in my body helped me to make the skillful choice of intentionally slowing down my breath.

The idea that mindfulness is about being calm is one that I often hear propagated by well-meaning parents, teachers in schools, and even by mindfulness instructors themselves.  I think that the reason that people market mindfulness as a “strategy” to stay calm is because calm is often a by-product of practicing mindfulness.  Research is clear that the long-term effects of practicing mindfulness include the ability to regulate and maintain a sense of evenness or calm in the face of stressful circumstances and emotions.  However, if we practice mindfulness as a strategy to make a difficult emotion or thought go away, we may end up feeling more anxious because resisting an experience often causes a secondary wave of anxiety.  If we instead embrace difficult emotions with a compassionate and mindful awareness, even if the difficult feelings temporarily increase, our long-term trajectory is toward equanimity–a sense of evenness amidst the ups and downs of life.

Even though practicing mindfulness is not about producing a state of calm in the moment, practicing mindfulness over time can help us to stay present and grounded amidst the continual ups and downs of this human experience.  This evenness in the face of difficult experiences in turn sets the stage for us to make skillful choices that can help us to more fully enjoy this journey of life.