17 April 2020

Mindfulness Locked Down (I)

The realisation may already have dawned on you: mindfulness prepares you for the times in which you live. Pandemic or no pandemic, lockdown or no lockdown, upheaval or no upheaval, ‘practice’ means embracing the conditions of the moment with a warm heart, looking them straight in the eye and responding with as much skill and care as you can muster.

For able-bodied practitioners, a lockdown offers a legion of opportunities. A rich and longstanding tradition of prison meditation programmes attests to it. Even in the midst of disagreeable change, disruption to habits, removal of presumed comforts, escalating social panic and the freshly exposed human proximity to death, we can draw upon our compassion and intelligence to be open and awake to it all.

Start Here

This might not be easy, so where to begin? As always, start where you are. Remember, there are no hierarchies on the path of mindfulness. Prior attainments or perfect conditions are wholly unnecessary. A blissful moment in meditation has no more value than any other moment. A lockdown has no less going for it than what you might consider to be ‘normal life’. When awareness is well established, the mind’s tendency to inflate the significance of particular experiences is diminished. In its place, equanimity can flourish.

In this way, mindfulness practice is grounding. It is a natural antidote to the mental wobbling, catastrophising and forgetfulness humans are prone to when anxious. We wise up more quickly to our tendency to fixate on bad news, defend against emotional upset and impulsively stockpile goods out of fear. We let go more readily of rigid views about the future and our primitive struggles with uncertainty.

The moment we catch ourselves sliding into despair or being afflicted with the contagious panic of others, we can gift ourselves the space to breathe, to feel, and to re-orientate ourselves in this moment. Life in its fullness become possible again. At other times, feeding a neighbour, caring for the sick or mourning the dead might be the focus of our practice.

Start Now

Thanks to the concern and generosity of countless good-hearted people, there is a plethora of free online resources to guide you safely through a lockdown. Their contents vary but the underlying principles align neatly with the basics of everyday mindfulness:
  • maintain and develop routines that attend to basic human needs for care, exercise, social contact, creative engagement and contact with nature. Choose wisely what you feed your mind as well as your body.
  • maintain and develop a healthy balance between ‘being’ and ‘doing’. This necessitates limiting the number of activities you undertake, completing them fully, and remembering to pause before you commence new ones.
  • reduce or avoid poor coping strategies, i.e. the ones that provide only short-term relief from psychological discomfort and tend to inspire dependency or excessive use in the longer term. 
  • spend time listening inwardly. Let your body and heart tell you what matters, what is of value and where meaning is to be found, especially in turbulent times.
  • pay attention to the ordinary and humble details of existence (or at least endeavour not to discount them). Washing your hands can be a meditation as well as physically life-preserving. Chewing a piece of food can be an act of kindness to one’s body rather than a mere stepping stone to the next morsel. Walking from one room to another can be a conscious act that enables you to arrive, inwardly and outwardly, into a totally fresh space.

Stay Safe

As the old saying goes: when we take care of the present, the future takes care of itself. The mental quality of mindfulness is, by nature, protective (more about this here). Just as we might socially distance from others out of care, we can do something comparable with our minds when they get sucked into vortices of worry, catastrophising and doom-mongering.

 When we are able to hold in awareness, with intimacy and without aversion, the latest horror story our minds have concocted, all the while allowing the energy of associated feelings to express itself, we are doing something powerful and profoundly liberating: being with things as they are.

Negative thoughts lose their toxic charge when we offer them friendly respect and give them space. Psychologically speaking, this is a kind of social distancing. It is a lot less painful than the attrition warfare we are prone to waging with our unruly minds. It also frees us up to act wisely and kindly.

Wise action and creative engagement with all forms of life are necessary expressions of mindfulness practice. Even in a lockdown, might we consider that the most ordinary activities, carried out with attention and intention, have effects beyond their apparent significance? When we tap deeply into our presence in the world, might the world in turn become more present to us? Here lies the innate interconnection between ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ that abides regardless of whether or not we venture beyond our front doors.

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