Developing mindfulness and awareness during a crisis can be like riding whitewater rapids. It’s easy to talk about, but actually doing it requires inner strength, stamina, and a firm resolve. The way to develop this inner strength is to take every opportunity to practice it, bit by bit. Being in quarantine, as in a solitary retreat, is a good time to do this kind of practice.
Here are eight of my favorite ways to develop mindfulness and awareness – the basis of all forms of inner strength. Self-isolation may be a necessity these days, but it also turns up opportunities to develop a peaceful mind and a sense of relaxation.
You’ll soon notice that opportunities continually present themselves! You can constantly practice “breaking state” – stopping in the midst of a habitual thought or behavior, and consciously acting independently of the urges of that habitual pattern. Here are some ways to do it.
1. Reverse the trend. Go slow when you want to go fast, and vice versa. When you feel like contracting in fear, expand. For example, if you are sliding into a poverty mentality, give something away. Return kindness for rudeness. Patience is a form of generosity you can cultivate toward yourself as well as toward others. Give both space and time; take a deep breath and shift perspective: look at the sky, feel your feet on the ground. Affirm that there is plenty of time to do everything, and relax the contraction. Become attentive to these habitual patterns and vary them until you feel the friction of change.
2. Do ordinary tasks with wakeful attention. Brush your teeth, or your hair, as if for the very first time (with a beginner’s mind) or for the last time (with awareness of the imminence of death). Notice what it’s like to do it mindfully rather than absently and mechanically.
3. Notice when you are basing your choices or behaviors on external standards (which you may have internalized) such as praise or blame, good or bad, right or wrong. Think deeply about what it means to “cause harm” –– are critiques like these harmful to yourself and others in any way? Relax any concern about how you appear to others. Relax any concern about how others appear to you.
4. Take risks, perform small acts of courage. Appreciate the courage it takes to change. Make fresh choices and new plans, then follow through. Just do it!
5. Practice witnessing thoughts and feelings. Sit quietly upright and relaxed, and simply label thoughts and feelings: “thinking . . . thinking . . . feeling . . . .” Label and witness these thoughts and feelings without getting involved or following them. Build up until you can spend 20 minutes or more a day with this simple exercise.
6. Cultivate mindfulness in all your actions throughout the day. Create your own reminders or exercises for breaking state, for waking up. This is a discipline, and true discipline is an act of courage –the courage to step outside the trance of narrow self-involvement and fear. To keep it real and fresh requires vigilance. If this practice becomes a routine habit, then you’ve fallen asleep again. Stand tall, and renew your enthusiasm! If it becomes a duty, an obligation, involved with hope and fear, guilt, or an idea of gaining something, you will become resentful. Right relationship to wakeful living is the goal here, not the trading of one trance for another.
7. Become aware of how and when you are ruled by your unexamined likes and dislikes. What are they? Write them down. Begin to notice when you are reacting with revulsion or attraction to something. Why do you dislike it or like it? Is there be a different way you could look at it? Is there a different way you might respond to it?
8. Be ready to be surprised! As you engage in clear thinking and step out of shame-based, fear-based trances, you’ll be able to trust the goodness of your true self. You may be amazed at how wonderful it feels to speak and behave with mindfulness, clarity, and precision. This wonderful feeling is the direct result of your practice of mindfulness and awareness.
And here’s a fun imagination game!
This game could be called a visualization, but it’s really more like having an intentional daydream. Imagine your most important goal in life as a living symbol. It could be an animal, bird, or other vivid image that has meaning for you. Relate to it, feel its energy. Take some time to become fully established in relationship to your symbol so that it becomes alive for you. Then visualize the symbol moving on a path straight out into the distance, then up to the top of a hill.
As you make your way up the path, continue to experience the power and vividness of your chosen symbol. Walking this path is a symbol of you walking forward on your life’s path toward attaining your goal.
As you continue walking, on either side of the path you notice temptations and obstacles of all sorts, manifesting in varied ways: people, objects of desire or fear, situations from the past, symbols of shame and fear, sadness or grief, seduction and distraction.
These manifestations may try to divert you from your path, but they cannot block your path. Nor can they prevent you from going step by step, walking wakefully and intentionally. They can’t stop you or distract you . . . because you are mindful that these obstacles are only scams. You maintain an undistracted, fearless awareness of your goodness and your goal.
As you keep going, step by step, knowing that you are going to stay on the path, you become more and more focused on your goal. You can afford to take some time to experience things to the right and the left of you, to hear and feel the pull of their old familiar scams. As you see them, it’s as if their words appear in midair, like comic strip speech balloons: “Hurry up!” “This is dumb” “Wouldn’t a cookie taste great right now?” You happily “pop” the balloons and move on.
After taking the time you need to walk this path in a way that builds your inner strength, you arrive at the base of the hill, having left all of those obstacles and distractions behind. Take one last look back at them, noticing how good it feels to have overcome them, and then turn and proceed up the hill into the presence of this living symbol.
You see that now your symbol has become even more vivid, meaningful, and powerful, as a result of your efforts. Feel its energy permeating you as it merges fully into you, dissolving into every cell of your body, carrying its resources, intelligence, and power into every part of your being. Take some time to experience this, knowing and sensing that it is transforming your relationships to your past and future in ways that thoroughly free you from fear and confusion.
When you come back to ordinary awareness, feel yourself relating to all of your ordinary routines with a new energy of appreciation and joy.
Be well and stay home, friends! Good luck!