At times when I have felt a sense of helplessness in the face of uncertainty I have turned to simple meditation practices to help me through these difficult moments. When I was on an extremely turbulent plane flight (you know things are bad when the flight attendants encourage you to grab the paper bags in front of you), following my breath in and out with the mantra of “just this breath in, just this breath out” helped me power through one of the more terrifying hours of my flying experience. When I was waiting in the emergency room with my son, unsure and anxious about strange symptoms he was having (he is fine now), focusing on my breath was my steady companion that helped me ride the waves of intense fear that were present.
When I have felt helpless in the face of others’ suffering that I could do little about to make a direct impact, I have turned to the ancient practices of compassion and loving-kindness meditation (involving focusing on and repeating certain phrases of care and well wishes for others). At these times when I otherwise felt helpless, having something active to focus on somehow brought a sense of ease, making the intolerable seem more bearable.
Researchers studying responses to adversity and trauma looked at what helps some people have a more positive response and be more resilient in the face of difficulty than others. The findings suggest that active coping strategies (e.g., problem solving, expressing emotions, seeking social support) are more effective than passive ones (e.g., avoidance, wishful thinking, social withdrawal).
I have been thinking a lot about the challenges that all of us face in this current pandemic, and ways that we can best cope. For sure, being able to make active choices to do the best one can to follow guidelines for safety, and seeking social support and connection are methods of active coping we can use. But how do we deal with the enormity of grief and suffering within our own homes and/or around us in our communities and in the world, that can often leave us feeling helpless?
I have been finding that short moments of compassion and loving-kindness meditation have helped to give me something more active to do in the face of such helplessness. Below is a Mindful Pause for Difficult Times that you might try. This can be done for 20 seconds whenever you think of it, or for 20 minutes, or anywhere in between. You can change the words in any way you see fit. The idea of this mini pause is to send yourself some compassion on the inhalation, acknowledging whatever emotions might be present for you and imagining taking in what you might need in this moment. On the exhalation, send out feelings of care and loving-kindness to those around you. In this way you are balancing compassion for yourself as well as others.
Some of the many benefits of engaging in loving-kindness practices on a regular basis include reducing stress and distress, generating positive emotions, increasing feelings of social connection, building personal resources, and even reducing inflammation in the body. In addition to these many benefits, by acknowledging (rather than suppressing or avoiding) one’s emotions, this short practice becomes a more active way to work with feelings of helplessness.
Mindful Pause for Difficult Times
Instructions: Say the following to yourself as you breath in and out, repeating this as many times as you would like. Pay attention to the physical sensations in your body and see if you might call up feelings of strength, courage, calm presence and compassion in any way that might be available for you. If you would like, try putting one hand over your heart and one hand on your abdomen, as you feel the rise and fall of each breath (which can help to trigger the release of oxytocin and calm the stress response).
Breathing in, I draw in strength, courage and calm presence. Breathing out, I send compassion to my loved ones, my community and the whole of humanity.
You might also break these phrases down individually if you prefer (and substitute whatever it is that you would like to draw in for yourself — e.g., peace, comfort, etc.). It might look like this:
Breathing in, I draw in strength. Breathing out, I send compassion (imagine sending compassion from your heart to your loved one).
Breathing in, I draw in courage. Breathing out, I send compassion (imagine sending compassion from your heart to those in your community).
Breathing in, I draw in calm. Breathing out, I send compassion (imagine sending compassion from your heart to all beings of the world).
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