I’m someone who lives with a lot of anxiety more generally. As I half-jokingly tell my beginning students, it’s why I started meditating. It’s also why I started training in martial arts. But that’s not why I keep meditating; why I keep training.
My experience is most people do not seek out a meditation practice or a martial arts practice because their life is already full and happy and all is well. That’s not generally how humans work. We hate change. Change is uncomfortable and often painful. We seek change only when we’re in enough suffering that the discomfort of change feels better than the discomfort (or pain) of the status quo. Suffering is a catalyst for change—some for the better and some for the worse.
But what often happens as we continue in these practices—mindfulness, meditation, martial arts, yoga, psychotherapy, and so forth—is our lives get better. We start to feel better. Sometimes we take that as a sign that we no longer need these nourishing practices. We’ve somehow “outgrown” them. Folks whose bodies require medication to keep them healthy can often experience something similar: I feel better, so why should I keep taking this medication? Mindfulness is not the same as medication, clearly; but, there is something they have in common: you have to maintain a practice to maintain its efficacy. Sometimes the ‘dosage’ may change, Most of us don’t suddenly become perfectly mindful and “outgrow” the need to ever practice again. If we stop practicing, our mindfulness skills eventually dull and fade over time (this is backed up by research).
As someone who has spent decades noticing, feeling, and responding to my own anxiety through mindfulness practices—with varying success in the mindful bit—I suggest that we never really “outgrow” mindful practices. Like a wheel, suffering and pleasure alternate throughout the world and throughout our lives. Whether we are living in either a personal or a global moment of peace; or a personal or global moment of suffering, the mindfulness practices we’ve cultivated remain an important source of warmth, strength, and support.
In some ways, it’s much easier to practice mindfulness, and to train, when we already feel happy. Mindfulness is often—though not always—inherently pleasant and can feel like a reward in and of itself. But when we’re suffering, either individually or collectively, that is when mindful practices are hardest; and when they are the most important. It can be easy to forget that. When we practice in times of suffering, we may not experience the same rewarding positive feelings we remember from the past and this can feel disenheartening. We train vigorously during the easy times in part to sustain us during the hard times; so that when there is chaos and unrest, we have tools we can use to help minimize panic and create the posibility for calm responses. Right now, we’re in a time of global panic and we need these practices more than ever.
In response to the Covid-19 crisis, fellow meditation teacher Chris Murray-Jones said recently,
Under present circumstances, when we sit to meditate, we can hardly expect our minds to be undisturbed by feelings of anxiety, perhaps even anger, and stress. The advice is sometimes given that we should let such feelings go. This is good advice but, in my experience, we have to let them come first [emphasis added]. Trying to fight or resist those feelings only reinforces our attachment to them, and so makes them even stronger than before.
When feelings of confusion and distress arise, we allow them to wash over and pass through us like a giant wave…. We don’t expect them to go away forever, of course. At least, not for a long time yet. But if we pay close attention, we begin to see that deep within this process—in the very middle of the in- and out-breath—there is a point or place of quiet, peace and stillness…”
I’m here to urge you, whatever practice you do—be it meditation, yoga, karate, tai chi, aikido, jujitsu, shiatsu, and so forth—during times of chaos such as the present moment, keep practicing. Find a way to practice at home. Find a way to connect remotely with others who practice. Even if you have to find more creative ways to explore your practice, this is what our practice is for.
Just as important, we need to reframe our goals of our practices during times of chaos. If we expect to feel as happy or relieved as we do in times of peace, we set ourselves up for disappointment. Believe that your practice itself—whatever it is—will be sustaining in some way, and that even if you don’t immediately feel better, it is still worth it, and it will make a difference. Maybe your anxiety or panic won’t completely subside. But at the very least, you will be more mindful of it. And with mindfulness of our emotions, we have the capacity to change our responses to our emotions. And that becomes the basis for being kinder, more compassionate people in the world.
One last thought, and a call to action: if you have a mindfulness practice, consider sharing it with others. Whether in-person with a household member, or through remote classes, consider finding a way to share what you know. Remember that not everyone has access to practices that empower, sustain, and nourish them in times of chaos. We’re all in this chaotic world together. Let’s practice mindfully and kindfully living together, as well.
For those who may not have access to a mindfulness practice, outside of Culture of Safety, Kyren teaches meditation as part of the Samatha Foundation of North America. Through the duration of the Covid-19 crisis, Kyren is currently leading (free) classes online by Zoom Sunday evenings at 5pm Central and is collaborating with other teachers to create more opportunities for learning a meditation practice remotely. For more information, email Kyren at firstname.lastname@example.org.