Coping with a Trying Year

December 17, 2020 by

By John Schorling

The end of the year is near, and what a year it has been. Although it has been very trying, there are signs of better times ahead. The coronavirus pandemic has had an immeasurable impact, and vaccines may finally change its course. The pandemic as well as the tragic deaths of multiple innocent people killed by police have highlighted issues of systemic racism and racial injustice and will hopefully lead to lasting changes. The results of the presidential election have been contested as never before, and the outcome finally seems settled. Despite these hopeful signs, all of these events have led to uncertainty, pain and grief.  How can mindfulness help in coping with these?

Much of our suffering arises out of our reactions to events.  The events themselves can cause distress, this is inevitable.  Then our minds go to work, and we can get caught in a cycle of thinking and worrying that perpetuates, and perhaps amplifies, this distress.  When this happens we have a choice, we can continue to feed these stories, or we can choose to pay attention to our present moment experience, and perhaps let them go, at least for a little while.

This is one of the benefits of a regular meditation practice, it trains our brains to be able to do this.  When we practice meditation, we focus our awareness on a specific object, like the breath, and notice when thoughts arise. We can then acknowledge them, perhaps also noticing the accompanying emotions and bodily sensations, and choose to return the attention to breathing.  Then when we are engaged in other activities and we find ourselves getting caught up in stories that are increasing our distress, we can shift our attention to breathing and let go of the thoughts in real-time.  The more we practice this, the easier it can become.

We can also respond to our own suffering in these circumstances with self-compassion.  If we are dealing with difficulty, we probably want things to be different than they are.  We may think we should be stronger or doing more and we might judge ourselves or be self-critical.  All these can increase our suffering.  Instead, if we can respond with kindness, recognizing that things are difficult and we are struggling to cope, just as many others in similar circumstances are, we might find some solace.

It can be helpful also to notice what we are worried about and whether we have any control over it.  Our minds don’t automatically differentiate between concerns we have control over or those we do not, and so we need to be mindful of our thoughts.  If we do have some influence, we can ask what we might do about our concern to make things better. For example, with regard to the risks of coronavirus, we can heed the recommendations for wearing masks, social distancing, and hand hygiene.

If we don’t have control over what concerns us, we can consider whether there is anything we might do to increase our influence and, if so, do we want to exercise this?   If we are concerned about climate change, are there actions we can take or a cause we want to join to try to address this?  If there is nothing we can do, or we decide that this is not something we currently feel we can pursue, then we can work on letting the concern go.  Once again, practicing meditation can help with this.  We can notice what’s arising, acknowledge it with kindness, and see if we can let it go.  This in essence is practicing the serenity prayer: “May I have the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference”.

Intentionally cultivating positive emotions, like kindness and gratitude, can also be helpful, particularly in difficult times.  As we enter the holiday season, we can treat ourselves and others with kindness, and note the things we can be grateful for, like friends and family, and vaccines that can finally change the course of the pandemic.  Despite all the turmoil that we might be facing, we can always pay attention to our experience as it arises, and be grateful for this moment, and for this breath.

Filed Under: Monthly Musings