Why Practice Mindfulness & Compassion During These Challenging Times

Audio of this post. Useful if you want guidance during the reflections and meditations.

Welcome! Thank you for joining me as I share with you some reasons to practice mindfulness and compassion during this time of global crisis and societal change. Throughout this talk, we will engage in brief and simple practices that can  be used immediately.

To move into a space of exploration, let us begin with a simple grounding practice where we focus on touch points (feet and hands) to anchor us in the moment and calm our sympathetic nervous system. This practice will support you as we engage in the heaviness of the topic at hand.

Let us begin…

Please find a comfortable posture with your feet on the floor and hands on your lap. Gently close your eyes or soften your gaze. Whatever makes you feel at ease. Taking a deep breath in through your nose and exhaling out through the mouth, like a deep sigh. Now letting your breath find its own rhythm in and out through the nose. Bring your attention to your feet touching the floor.  Notice your right foot touching the floor, now your left foot. Taking a deep breath in and out. Now bring your attention to your hands. Wiggle your fingers. Notice your right hand and what it feels like, now your left. Taking another deep breath in and out. Now shifting your attention to where your body contacts the chair. Knowing that you’re right here, safe and grounded in this moment. Taking another deep breath in and out. Noticing how your body feels right now, in this moment. Did anything shift from when we first began? And when you’re ready, flutter your eyes open and come back into your surroundings.

You can use this simple mindfulness practice any time during the day and even before bed. I have found it particularly helpful when I am agitated, restless, overwhelmed or lost in thought or reactivity. 

Just the other day, I guided my daughter in using this practice on our way to school. It was her first full day back (we currently are in a hybrid model – where kids are home one day working and in school the other day) and she was feeling intense anxiety, so much so that she felt nauseous. Together, we focused on our feet touching the car floor and our body contacting the seat. These few seconds helped calm her nervous system enough that her stomach settled and she was able to exit the car with a smile. 

So why practice mindfulness and compassion right now? Well, we (individually and collectively) are grappling with multiple crises and a society that is transforming before our eyes. 

This reality can be scary. And yet, I also believe, along with many others, that there is a lot of hope. Perhaps, this time is calling us to remember what is important and find new ways to express it.

First, mindfulness in its simplest definition is the deliberate act of paying attention to the present moment without expectations or judgment. Compassion arises from our natural inclination to care for and connect with others, including ourselves. It is the act of recognizing suffering, the willingness to turn toward it and the motivation to relieve it. 

To quote Sharon Salzberg, one of my most admired meditation teachers, “In order to do anything about the suffering of the world, we must have the strength to face it without turning away.”

Mindfulness and compassion practices do just that. Together, like two wings of a bird, these practices help us cultivate and activate inner strength and hope while revealing our capacity to hold our fear, anxiety and anger (and many other intense emotions) – not ignore them, cover them up or stuff them away. 

These emotions are completely natural. It’s the way our bodies try to protect us. 

As we learn to become more aware of them, especially how they arise in the body, we can acknowledge them with kindness insomuch that they do not possess us or become our lens, because this narrows our attention. When our attention has blinders on, we tend to react rather than respond skillfully to our experiences, thus potentially harming others and ourselves. 

When in the car with my daughter, and she shared her anxiety, I noticed the physical sensation of anxiety arise in my body. Fearful thoughts entered my mind. Because of my practice, within seconds I recognized what was occurring in my body and mind, was able to allow them to be there; in essence, holding them like one might hold an injured baby bird, so that I could respond compassionately to my daughter rather than reacting out of my fear. 

These practices cultivate such inner strength and resources, even an inner refuge, so that we can respond from a place that not only reflects what we care about, how we want to live and show up in the world, but as Jack Kornfield, a renowned meditation teacher, says, “to connect with something greater and deeper than the storms that are swirling around” us. 

I have come to believe that we can stand in the eye of the storm as we take action to change the conditions that created the storm. This is how mindfulness and compassion practices are serving me during this most challenging time. 

Recently, I attended a virtual book launch for Sharon Salberg’s new book Real Change: Mindfulness to Heal Ourselves and the World” where she posed these two questions:

  1. What’s still true in this time of uncertainty, crisis, and grief?
  2. What can I rely on that is fundamental?

I was moved by these questions. And what I realized is that I rely on my breath to anchor me in the present moment. I can pause and know I am breathing without any effort. In the midst of the chaos I am witnessing and often feeling, I find stability in both my breath and my body like feeling my feet on the floor, and taking a deep breath in and out. My partner will ask at times, “Why are you sighing?” And my response is, “Because I am calming my sympathetic nervous system and coming back into presence.” 

Sharon’s answer is love. She shares that “we are not defined by isolation and fear, but rather wisdom, generosity and love.”  This is a beautiful reflection of these practices.

Mindfulness cultivates our inner wisdom through our present moment awareness. We can notice when we get lost in thought or hijacked by intense emotions, as well as remember what is fundamental to us.

Compassion opens up the heart, accessing its wisdom, and cultivating both our generosity and love; increasing our courage to turn toward suffering and try to ease it. Seeing more clearly our shared common humanity – that we all want to be safe, secure, happy, healthy, to belong and to feel purpose.

So let’s reflect for a moment…What is still true for you right now in this time of uncertainty, crisis and grief? What can you rely on that is fundamental? 

Perhaps it’s simply feeling your feet on the ground and knowing you’re still breathing; maybe it’s the smile of your child, or the wagging tail of your dog. Maybe it’s friendship. The answers are personal and endless.

Dr. Rick Hanson, whose work connects neuroscience, psychology and mindfulness, writes about growing the good in our brains – decreasing the stress of negative experience and increasing the positive in the mind. He suggests when we are experiencing a positive moment, to pause and soak it in for 20-30 seconds. This not only feels good in the moment, it grows new neural circuits in the brain, thus hardwiring happiness. 

In other words, as we take in the “good” that does exist even when it appears there’s none, we move more quickly out of the grips of fear, anxiety and anger towards hope, peace and action. 

Pause here and think upon one small, perhaps brief, positive experience you had today. Close your eyes and allow the memory of it to warm your body like rays of the sun touching your face.

Mindfulness and compassion practices cultivate our courage to be with reality, the love we need to hold our own and others’ suffering, the resiliency to weather our emotions and experiences, and the agency to act.

Let us practice one again…

Settling back into our bodies. Taking a deep breath in and out. And feeling our body relax. Closing your eyes if that feels comfortable for you. I invite you to place a hand or hands over your heart center. This tender touch is another way of easing our nervous system and allowing our hearts to open up. Turning your attention to how your heart feels right now. See if you can make room for whatever you are feeling. Allow it to arise without judgment. Now think about someone or some place that makes you smile or feel cared about. Allow the warmth of this person or place to grow in your heart, to spread throughout your body. Invite whatever feelings you’re experiencing into this kind and gentle space of love. Seeing if you can allow these feelings to bask in love’s warmth. If you feel resistance, that is ok. See if you can be gentle and allow your feeling to be just as it needs to be right now. Think about holding that feeling with tenderness as if you were holding an injured baby bird.This is mindfulness. This is compassion. And when you’re ready, flutter your eyes open and return to your surroundings.

Meditation is an invitation. There are no right or wrong ways to experience these practices. And yet, to benefit from them, we need to deliberately practice.

First we can meditate formally like we just did to form new habits in how we relate to our experience. This is especially useful during challenging times like these. We can more easily access these skills and respond to our experiences from a more wise and centered place.

We can also practice informally when we are moving throughout our day, such as scrolling our phone and noticing what is arising in our bodies and minds, sitting with an upset child and calling upon our compassion, soaking in the joy of finally seeing a friend or loved one in person. 

Sharon Salzberg says, “We practice in order to cultivate a sense of agency, to understand that a range of responses is open to us. We practice to remember to breathe, to have the space in the midst of adversity to recall our values, what we really care about–and to find support in our inner strength, and in one another.”

If you would like to explore mindfulness and compassion more, I invite you to join my free, drop-in virtual meditation group. Go to my website www.growingourvoice.com for details.

I leave you with a quote from the late John Lewis. May it inspire you as much as it has inspired me. 

“So I say to you, walk with the wind, brothers and sisters, and let the spirit of peace and the power of everlasting love be your guide.” 

Thank you for your presence and may you be happy, healthy, safe and at ease.

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