Sigal Samuel/Vox: “Our calm is contagious”: How to use mindfulness in a pandemic

Meditation teacher Tara Brach offers some tips for calming your coronavirus anxiety — so you can better care for others.

If you’re feeling extra anxiety these days due to the Covid-19 coronavirus, you’re not alone. This pandemic has us all facing more stress and uncertainty than usual. It also has many of us asking: How do we keep from spiraling into full-blown panic?

As we try to navigate our anxiety about the coronavirus, there’s one quote I’ve been trying to keep at the forefront of my mind. It’s by the Vietnamese Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh: “When the crowded Vietnamese refugee boats met with storms or pirates, if everyone panicked all would be lost. But if even one person on the boat remained calm and centered, it was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive.”

Tara Brach, an American psychologist and a widely respected teacher of Buddhist meditation, sent out this quote in a recent email newsletter. It prompted me to call her up and ask for some guidance about using meditation to navigate this pandemic.

The first thing to know is that the word “meditation” actually refers to many different practices. In the West, the most well-known set of practices is “mindfulness meditation.” That means paying attention, purposefully and non-judgmentally, to your experience in the present moment. It can involve a formal practice — like when you sit down, close your eyes, and focus on feeling your breath go in and out. But you can also practice mindfulness while you read the news, say, or shop for groceries.

I talked to Brach about how we can use mindfulness and other meditative techniques to find balance during the coronavirus crisis, and about why this is not a selfish escape from reality: Many neuroscience studies have shown that meditating can help us regulate our own emotions so we can better pay attention to other people and act more altruistically. A transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Sigal Samuel

I’m guessing that you, like the rest of us, have been feeling stressed about coronavirus. What have you personally been doing to stay calm and centered?

Tara Brach

Yes, like everyone else, I feel the hugeness of this and I feel fear for my dear ones and for the most vulnerable people in our world. What I’ve been doing is a mix: walking in nature and taking in beauty; talking to people and feeling our shared vulnerability and connectedness; and doing a lot of meditating. It gives me a pathway back to steadiness that’s just immeasurably helpful.

Sigal Samuel

For people who don’t have experience meditating but who are looking for a way to avoid sinking into the panic vortex, can you suggest one or two simple meditation practices that would be useful for our current situation?

Tara Brach

Sure. The first step when we get really gripped in fear is to calm our sympathetic nervous system. A simple way to do this is with long, deep breaths. Take at least three full breaths, counting to five with the inhale, and counting to five with the exhale. And with the exhale, intentionally release tension. That begins to calm down the nervous system.

Our breath is often the most helpful home base for coming out of our circling worry thoughts and back into our senses. But we can also come back to the sounds we’re hearing in the moment, or the sensation of our hands or feet tingling, or the sight of a tree or table. Coming back to the senses in our body helps us come back to the present moment. [SS: You can listen to a five-minute guided mindfulness meditation here.]

Sigal Samuel

In your new book Radical Compassion, you also offer a short meditation practice called RAIN, which I’ve found helpful. Can you spell out what the acronym means?

Tara Brach

Yes, I use the acronym because It’s an easy-to-remember handle if you’re getting caught in fear. It stands for recognize, allow, investigate, nurture. [SS: You can listen to a guided RAIN meditation here.]

First, just recognize, “Okay, I’m feeling fear.” Mentally whisper it, and that helps right away.

Then allow it. Just let it be there, don’t try to run away or fix it or control it or judge it.

Then investigate it. Begin to come into the body and just feel where the fear is in the body. Find out how it feels and breathe with it, with a gentle quality of attention.

And then nurture. You might just put your hand on your heart and offer a kind or soothing message to yourself. You can say to the fear, “Thank you for trying to protect me; it’s okay.” I sometimes will say to myself, “It’s okay, sweetheart.”

Sigal Samuel

I’m curious about the “recognize” part, this idea that when you can name a fear, it loses some of its power over you. What is it about that mental notation that changes the activity in the brain?

Tara Brach

When we’re in fight-flight-freeze mode, our limbic system has basically hijacked us, and we lose contact with our prefrontal cortex, the most recently evolved part of our brain, which has to do with executive functioning and making good decisions. When we name what’s going on, we start to activate the prefrontal cortex. Mindfulness reconnects us with that.

Sigal Samuel

Outside of a formal meditation practice, how can we use mindfulness in our daily activities while we’re navigating this pandemic? For example, should we be mindful of our news intake — how, and how often, we’re taking in updates about the virus?

Tara Brach

I think it’s good for all of us to take in the amount of news we need to take in to be informed, but also to know how to turn away from our screens. Listening to beautiful music or going outside for a walk will really nourish us. What the news will do is keep on agitating us. For some people what really works is [to limit news intake to] one time a day, and that can really make a difference.

Sigal Samuel

What about practicing gratitude? I’ve generally found that my brain can’t be anxious when it’s busy being grateful.

Tara Brach

Yes. Human beings have a negativity bias. We get very fixated on threats and often overlook goodness and beauty. So it needs to be an intentional practice to celebrate goodness. By that I mean that we actually pause and savor seeing the gleam in our child’s eye or watching the new blossoms come out.

Many people get gratitude buddies and, at the end of the day, they’ll send a note to their buddy naming three things they’re grateful for. That can really lift people up and change the mood.

Source: Vox

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