As heavy disruptions continue to find their way into our lives, it can be very easy to get deeply lost in thought. In particular, being LOST in FUTURE thought that does nothing to serve us in the present moment.
When will the disruptions end? When will our lives resume as normal again? How long will travel restrictions be in place? When can I stop socially distancing myself from my friends, co-workers, and others in my community? Will my summer plans be ruined by the current COVID-19 pandemic? etc. etc. etc.
It is very natural to ask ourselves these types of questions as we grapple with the unknown in regards to our current situation. And with these questions can come the heaviness of fear and anxiety as we cannot predict the future or know what is going to happen.
It is important to understand that during times like this, there are strategies that we can put into action that can help better deal with difficult thoughts and emotions that we may be experiencing. Developing a mindfulness practice allows us to better sit with uncertainty and to train ourselves in steadiness, trust and being more centered.
Jack Cornfield, a well-known author, mindfulness practitioner, and clinical psychologist, once shared a story about being a monk in training back in the 1970s in Thailand and Laos. During this time, he had devoted his life to focusing on combining loving kindness and self-compassion with the practice of mindfulness, and incorporating together the wisdom of Eastern and Western psychology.
One day he and his renowned zen master, Ajahn Chah, were wandering through the rice paddies on their way to a nearby village. Out across the rice paddies was this giant boulder. Pointing to the boulder, Jack’s teacher asked, “Is that boulder heavy?” Jack answered, "Yes, of course it is". His teacher simply smiled and replied, “It’s not heavy if you don’t pick it up.”
Jack understood what Ajahn Chah was trying to teach him in that moment which was to learn inside how to witness what is present without being lost in it. The boulder represents the heaviness of strong emotions such as fear, anxiety, worry, doubt, frustration etc. Although they are present in our lives, we don’t have to pick them up and bear their weight on our shoulders all of the time.
So, what can we do if we find ourselves in this position? It’s not about ignoring these emotions or conversely venting about them either. We can learn to better navigate these emotions by noticing them, naming them, and placing them aside. In a way, it’s about depersonalizing these emotions to remove the heaviness that they can cast on us.
The açt of noticing these emotions and setting them aside, coupled with some mindfulness breath work, can ease the impact that they have on us. It is a trainable skill that we can develop if we spend the time to work on it. As Jack Cornfield says, we can literally visualize ourselves placing these emotions inside a jar and setting it aside. We can acknowledge they exist but in setting the jar aside, we are creating the space needed to separate ourselves from these strong emotions in the moment. We can also say to ourselves that for now we will let them go. For just this moment, we will not let them dominate our thoughts.
Once we’ve done this, we can take 3-5 minutes to sit quietly and do some breath work. Here are 2 different breaths to experiment with:
Mindfulness can help to provide us with different tools and strategies to lessen the impact of negative emotions if we are open to it. The activity described in this blog post takes no more than 10 minutes. All we need to do is to find a quiet place to reflect on our emotions, name these emotions and set them aside in whatever container we visualize. Once we've done this, we can do a few cycles of breath work. This exercise is free and simple! Give it a try.
What are some current strategies you are putting into action to combat potential stress, fear, and anxiety during these difficult times? Would love to hear your thoughts in the comment box below.
Thanks for reading.
Neila Steele & Andy Vasily