Breathing Deeply

August 4, 2020 by

By John Schorling

There is so much going on now that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed.  The corona virus pandemic is continuing to worsen in parts of the world, with cases still going up around the US.  Even Virginia, which had been bucking the trend with decreased numbers, has experienced an increase again.  Schools are due to open soon, yet conditions are such that it’s impossible to know what a “safe” return might look like. The economy is shrinking and the unemployment rate remains high.  The unrest following the murder of George Floyd has largely subsided, but the need to address 400 years of racial injustice remains as urgent as ever.

In the midst of all this, is it possible to just be, to let go of thoughts about all these challenges and return the attention to our present moment experience?  It’s challenging to do this, and yet even pausing to take in a few deep breaths, breathing in to a count of 4, noticing the rise of the abdomen, and breathing out for a count of 4, noticing the fall of the abdomen, can help down-regulate the stress response.

Another technique that may be helpful is what Tara Brach calls the “U-turn”, switching the attention from getting lost in the “trance” of thinking and worrying to bringing attention to the body and noticing where we are feeling stress.  Much of the stress we experience is due to worrying, and bringing our attention back to the present moment by recognizing what we are feeling and noticing the associated sensations in the body can help interrupt this cycle.

None of this is meant to imply that we shouldn’t try to change the things that are contributing to our stress if they are within our control.   But much of what we worry about often is outside our control, and getting too caught up only increases our stress levels.  Making this distinction can be very helpful in increasing our effectiveness, allowing us to focus on those things that we can influence.

With regard to COVID-19, we may not be able to change the ongoing national and global trends, yet we can make choices that affect ourselves and those around us.  We can choose carefully where we go and avoid higher risk situations if possible.  We can social distance and limit certain interactions with others. We can choose to wear a mask.  We can remember to wash our hands regularly and to not touch our faces.  If our work involves interacting with people who are or might be infected, we can carefully follow personal protection and care protocols.

Dealing with all that is going on now is hard, and recognizing this and responding with kindness and compassion for our own experience can be helpful.   We may judge ourselves for not coping better or doing more which may just lead us to feeling worse and being less effective.  This has been referred to as the second arrow of suffering.   The first arrow is the impact of the situation itself.  The second arrow is how we may blame or judge ourselves for how we’ve responded, increasing our distress.  Rather, if we are feeling stressed, we can try to treat ourselves as we would  friend in a similar situation, or imagine what a friend or trusted other, perhaps a spiritual figure, would say to comfort us.   As we navigate these difficult times, we can all likely benefit from a little more kindness and compassion for ourselves and each other.

Filed Under: Monthly Musings