This is a very uncertain time. There is uncertainty about the spread of COVID-19, and about how safe it will be as social distancing restrictions are relaxed and we can begin to move about more. There is uncertainty about work and personal finances as well as the larger economy. There is uncertainty about childcare and remote learning and when schools might open for in-person classes again. The list goes on and on.
How do we find peace the midst of so much uncertainty? This is a real challenge for many of us. One thing we can do is to focus on the present moment. Regardless of whatever else is going on, if we are able to bring our attention back to our present moment experience we can get out of the stream of thoughts regarding all the things over which we have no control. In those moments when we are not caught up in thinking, we may find some calm.
It is our thoughts which create much of the suffering we experience around uncertainty. It is important to differentiate between those things we can control and which we need to consider how best to address, and the worries we have about all the things we cannot control. Take being without work, or working less, or working the same but getting paid less. These are major concerns for many right now. In response, there are decisions we can make about cutting costs, accessing savings, asking for help from family, and applying for unemployment among others. These are all important to consider and to take the time to address. There is also worry about all these issues, such as wondering when we might be able to work again, or whether unemployment will be approved. These are things we cannot control, and worrying about them only serves to increase our stress level.
Saying it’s better not to worry about things outside of our control is one thing, yet actually being able to do this is quite challenging. Practicing attention focused meditation can help. When we meditate on a specific object of awareness, like the sensations of breathing at the nostrils, we may feel the sensations for a few breaths, then the attention wanders and we find ourselves caught up in thoughts. Eventually we realize that we are thinking, and as soon as we are aware of this, we can choose to intentionally redirect the attention back to the sensations of breathing. Short meditations are available on the Mindfulness Center website https://med.virginia.edu/mindfulness-center/continue-your-practice/audio-recordings/
This practice of focusing the attention, noticing when the mind wanders, and redirecting the attention back, can increase our capacity to choose where we place our attention when we are not meditating. If we then recognize we are ruminating on something, we can redirect our attention elsewhere, perhaps to breathing, or to listening to sounds, or to some other activity we’re engaged in, like cooking or walking or other exercise.
The more we worry, the more the neural circuits of worrying get reinforced, leading to even more worrying. Interrupting this cycle by redirecting the attention away from thinking as we do in meditation can eventually lead to the reinforcement of present moment awareness circuits in the brain, and we may find we are less prone to worry, or at least better able to interrupt the cycle when it occurs. Given that worrying leads to suffering, and developing the ability to redirect our thoughts is challenging, it’s important to remember to also have kindness for ourselves. These are difficult and challenging times, and giving ourselves a break as we try to navigate them is something we have the capacity to do which can also help diminish our suffering.
Filed Under: Monthly Musings