With the uncertainty about the coronavirus comes a tremendous amount of stress. Many questions about the virus and its implications remain unanswered—and may continue to be unanswered for the weeks and months ahead. Immediate challenges from the virus, such as illness or loss of work, bring stress. This stress is often compounded by worries about the future. Even if someone isn’t experiencing challenges at this moment, anxiety can still ensue by worrying about what’s next.
From a mindfulness standpoint, an effective technique to help reduce stress is to practice “not knowing.” By not imagining outcomes based on fears, you can remain open and present to what is. To practice, try to notice when you worry about the future and then remind yourself that you don’t know. Will this last for months? I don’t know. Will I get sick, or will my loved ones get sick? I don’t know. Will life return to the way it was? I don’t know. This practice can help your anxieties lose some of their power, as you realize that your mind may be creating stories about what’s to come— when in reality, you simply don’t know.
It can be freeing to notice your thoughts without getting lost in them—and instead, live in the immediacy of the present moment. As of today, the present moment reveals that the coronavirus issue is upon us and life as we know it is changed. Beyond that, we simply don’t know what’s next.
All we know is that we’re all in this together, since we’re all part of the interconnected web of life. And we can only hope that it’s our interconnectedness, rather than our social distancing, that helps pull us through this crisis. Meanwhile, reminding yourself “I don’t know” may help ease anxieties about the future, as you bring your awareness to the present moment.
If you’d like to try a meditation to help you release stories about the future that can create stress, check out my latest podcast episode here: https://joyrains.com/episode-8/.
The practice of meditation helps you respond to life’s events consciously, rather than react unconsciously. This can go a long way towards reducing stress. For example, if you’re waiting in line to pay for your purchases and someone cuts in front of you, rather than going into an immediate stress-related reaction (such as shouting “How dare you cut in front of me! I’ve been waiting 20 minutes!), meditation can help you notice events without having such a strong emotional reaction. You may be able to calmly say to the encroacher, “Excuse me please, people are waiting in line here. Please step to the back of the line.”
Practicing meditation doesn’t have to take long; simply sit in a quiet place for a few minutes, close your eyes and bring all your attention to your breath, noticing your chest rising and falling, or noticing the coolness of the air when you inhale and its warmth when you exhale. Any time your mind wanders, gently bring your attention back to your breath. This practice, even if done for a few minutes a day, can help recharge and center you.
If you’d like to listen to guided meditations, check out my new podcast, Mindful 180. https://joyrains.com/category/mindful-180-podcast/
Got stress? Here are three tips to help you center and find balance.
Tip #1: Create a Stress-Free Zone at Home
Have a “stress-free zone” in your home. You can learn to associate a dedicated place with quieting your mind, a place where you sit for a few minutes each day and focus on your breathing. You could devote an entire room to this practice, or just a corner of a room—or even a favorite chair. One busy professional carved out a small space next to the dryer in her basement laundry room. Installing a sliding translucent screen for an outer wall transformed this basement nook into a quiet meditation space. Another person transformed a bedroom corner into a private space by using a sheer curtain as a divider. Your “stress-free zone” should include a dedicated place to sit, such as a chair or meditation cushion, and could also include inspirational items, such as books of short readings, music, or artwork. Taking the time to pause—even for a few minutes a day—can go a long way towards managing stress.
Tip #2: Weave Mindful Moments Into Your Day
Consider weaving “mindful moments” into your day-times when you quiet the chatter in your mind and bring your focus into the present moment. For example, when you walk to the coffee machine in the office, bring all your attention to the soles of your feet as they touch the ground. Any time your mind wanders, gently bring your awareness back to your feet. Or when you eat lunch, bring all your awareness to the process of eating: the pace of your eating, the taste of the food, the colors of the food on your plate. When your attention wanders, gently bring it back. This process of bringing all your attention to what’s happening in the present moment can also go a long way towards managing stress.
Tip #3: Do a body relaxation meditation.
Sit in a quiet place and gently lower your eyelids to a soft gaze or a full close. Slowly move your awareness throughout your entire body, either starting with your feet and working your way up, or starting with your head and working your way down. Pause at each muscle group and see if you can release any tension. You may want to silently say to yourself “relax” with each inhale, and “release” with each exhale. Or you may want to imagine a muscle group getting warmer and warmer until the tension melts away. If you find that you’re more relaxed, see if you can develop a muscle memory of what your body feels like when it’s relaxed, so you can tap into that memory in times of stress.
These three tips are simple to practice, and best of all, they’re free! They don’t require any special equipment or training. All they require is remembering to stop and pause—if only for a few moments.
Since studies show that behaving more compassionately toward yourself and others can make you happier, why not develop a compassion habit? The brain has neuroplasticity, or the ability to form new neural pathways and new ways of being. You can actually train your brain to operate from a center of compassion. Here are some tips on how to develop a compassion habit:
Start with yourself. Unless you practice self-compassion, it can be difficult to bring compassion to others. Every day, take time to be compassionate toward yourself, whether you pamper yourself with a bubble bath, practice a type of meditation designed to cultivate feelings of compassion, or simply pause for a few minutes to rest.
Notice your thinking. If you become aware of thoughts that are less than compassionate, see if you can shift to a more positive attitude. Although this can be especially challenging in some situations and with some people, the more you practice, the more natural a compassionate mindset can become.
Ask your inner critic to retire. Many people have developed an inner voice that freely offers negative judgments about their actions, such as “That was such a ridiculous thing to say!” or “You really messed up that presentation.” Ask this inner critic to step down, telling it that the job is no longer available. Replace internal criticism with internal encouragement, such as 19th century psychologist Emile Coue’s famous phrase, “Every day, in every way, I’m getting better and better.”
Look for commonalities. When you’re with people around a dinner table, notice everyone eating together. When you’re at a music venue, notice everyone listening to melodies together. Even when you’re sitting in traffic, you’re all here together, in this shared experience, as frustrating as it can be. The more you notice the common bonds between you and those around you, the more you’ll realize how interconnected we all are, and the more accessible a mindset of compassion can become.
Bring a compassionate approach to those around you—friends, family, colleagues, clients, and even those you don’t know. Take small steps, such as smiling at the cashier in the grocery store, or holding the door open for someone. You don’t have to make grandiose gestures to bring compassion into the world. As the activist Marian Wright Edelman said, “Be a flea for justice. Together all the fleas can move the big dog.”
Let operating from a center of compassion become a habit. When you consider that the first seven letters of the word compassion form the word “compass,” this can remind you to allow a mindset of compassion to guide your actions in the world.
One of the divers in the Thai cave rescue of 12 soccer players and their coach spoke of the importance of focus, saying, “You cannot let your mind slip out of focus, because when you start thinking, ‘I’m going to get stuck,’ that’s when you panic. You cannot think about anything else besides the task at hand.” The whole world watched the skill and focus these divers brought to the task at hand—and let out a collective sigh of relief as the last boys were rescued.
While few, if any, people reading this post have the experience of cave diving, most people still need to bring focus to their tasks at hand. A proven way to develop this focus is through the practice of meditation. Contrary to what some might believe, meditation is not a practice of suppressing thoughts, but it’s a process of coming into awareness of them—and then shifting your attention to a neutral object of awareness (such as your breath) each time another thought grabs your attention. Essentially, it’s like you’re taking your mind out of drive and shifting it to neutral–again and again and again, sometimes as often as every second or two. Just as the repetitive motion of doing abdominal crunches builds core strength, this continual shifting of awareness helps build your mind’s muscle—and develop your ability to focus.
People often tell me they can’t meditate, saying that their minds won’t settle down. Like starting any new practice, be patient and give yourself time to learn. It’s best to start small until you get used to meditating, and then you can gradually increase your practice time. You can find a selection of free, three-minute guided meditations here: https://soundcloud.com/joyrains.
You can also weave “mindful moments” into your day to help develop focus. For instance, try a walking meditation by bringing all your attention to the soles of your feet as they connect with the ground. Any time your mind wanders, simply bring it back to the feeling of the soles of your feet. Meditation practice doesn’t have to take a long time; sometimes it can be as simple as remembering to pause—if only for a few moments.
Whether you experience turbulence on an airplane, in your work life, or in your home life—meditation can help see you through times that are challenging. You can practice meditating by shifting your attention from your thoughts to something neutral, such as your breath or the feeling of your feet on the ground.
If you’re traveling in an airplane that starts to pitch and shake—your imagination may kick into high gear. The scenarios you imagine are dire: the plane dropping thousands of feet, crashing into the ocean, and your family members grieving your demise. Pretty soon you are in a full-blown stress response.
WAIT. Consider that your stress response is more in response to your thoughts than in response to what’s actually happening with the plane. You don’t know that the plane is going to drop, or that you’ll crash into the ocean, or that this will be the end of life as you know it.
CONSIDER. All you know is that you are experiencing turbulence. That’s it. See if you can stop making predictions about a dire future outcome.
CONNECT. Plant your feet on the floor beneath your seat. Feel the connection between the soles of your feet and the carpet. This will help keep your attention in your body, rather than lost in anxious thoughts.
BREATHE. Bring your attention to your breath moving in and out of your body. Perhaps you can notice the coolness of the air when you breathe in and its warmth when you breathe out. Notice your chest rising and falling. You can even silently say to yourself, “rising, falling” with each inhale and exhale to help keep your attention on your breath.
Every time you notice another anxious thought arising, see if you can release it, and gently bring your attention back to your feet and your breath. Bring your attention back as often as needed, even if it’s every second or two.
Remember, turbulence is not a permanent condition, and this, too, shall pass.
Nine-to-five jobs are no longer the norm. Employees send and receive work-related texts and emails around the clock, as work life spills over into home life. The two aren’t as separate as they used to be.
Since employees spend more hours working, proactive employers give a high priority to employees’ well-being to help prevent job burnout. Companies who want to remain competitive and attract talent are putting practices in place that help create happy, healthy employees.
Take Google, for example. They offer many perks to keep employees happy and healthy: free gourmet cafeterias, nap pods, onsite doctors for free employee checkups—and since 2007, meditation programs. Google management realizes that meditation not only reduces employee stress, but it also improves the company’s bottom line.
This makes perfect sense when you consider the costs of stress in the workplace. The World Health Organization estimates that stress costs American businesses up to $300 billion a year in job turnover costs, healthcare expenditures, and absenteeism.
Companies are wise to take measures to reduce stress. One practice that’s simple to put into place is the ancient practice of meditation. The benefits of meditation can be profound: increased awareness and focus, reduced stress, and enhanced well-being.
Even the scientific journals are weighing in, publishing studies that show meditation in the workplace makes employees more resilient in the face of challenges—and decreases reactivity to stress and the risk of burnout.
If you search online for companies that provide employee meditation programs, you’ll find companies such as Google, Target, General Mills, Intel, and Etsy. These programs show a shift in corporate cultures to more employee-friendly models. For instance, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh places a high value on employee happiness, a model that’s helped his company achieve great success.
Hsieh and other CEO’s realize that a happy, healthy employee is a productive employee. That’s why meditation in the workplace is catching on. Not only is the practice a proven path to happiness and well-being, it’s accessible to anyone, it can be done most anywhere, and best of all, it’s free!
One of the reasons people like to micro-manage everything is because they are worried about outcomes. And yes, I easily fall into this category, which is why I took up the practice of meditation almost 30 years ago!
One day at the local post office, I was worrying about the label on a package, as it didn’t look as if it was affixed properly. The best words of advice came from a mailman, who said, “The things you worry about generally don’t happen. It’s the things that come out of left field that cause you difficulty—things you never even dreamed of.”
Approaching life with this mailman’s wise words in mind, one can enter a state of “not knowing,” where you let go of predicting outcomes and instead, live in the present moment.
“Not knowing” is different than “not planning”
Entering the space of not knowing is different than not planning. One can plan for the future without getting lost in anxiety about imagined future outcomes and without trying to “control” the future. People can control their actions, but they cannot control the results.
The practice of “not knowing”
“Not knowing is most intimate” is an important concept in meditation practice. Intimacy in this sense means the direct awareness that brings you closer to both the immediacy of the present moment and to your true self. By not imagining outcomes based on fears, judgments, memories, and the like, you can remain open and present to what is.
Consider the following scenario: A woman takes a taxi to the airport in near-blizzard conditions. Snow falls steadily, and cars spin out of control, yet she remains in a space of “not knowing” and remains calm about what will happen next. Will the car spin out? Will they get into an accident? Will she miss her flight? As each anxious thought begins to arise, she reminds herself that she doesn’t know, and the thought loses its power.
She only knows for certain that snow is falling and accumulating, and drivers are struggling with poor road conditions. She finds it freeing to notice her stories without getting lost in them—and instead, live in the immediacy of the present moment.
She simply notices when she wants to make an assumption about the future, and then she reminds herself that she doesn’t know. If you could listen to her thoughts, you might hear: Will I get to the airport? I don’t know. Will the weather be ok to fly? I don’t know.
Being comfortable with not knowing can bring enormous freedom and with it, awareness of the moment as it really is.