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Reflections of a Meditation Teacher During a Global Pandemic

As published in the Caribbean Medical Journal July 29th, 2020

I’ll let you in on a little secret – being a meditator doesn’t mean that you never feel worried or stressed out.

There’s a perception out there, probably from years of (good-natured but exaggerated) representation in television and film, that people who meditate are an elite group of enlightened, super-disciplined, and almost ethereal beings who can magically transport themselves to a mental space void of stress and worry at the blink of an eye. Such characterisations may make for entertaining movies and TV shows, but in reality, meditators are not exempt from the stresses and strains of life. Just like everyone else, we experience the full range of human emotions – the positive ones and challenging ones – and this never has been more apparent for me than during the coronavirus pandemic. I’ve spent many years practicing, and now teaching, mindfulness and meditation, so I know first-hand the transformative impact it can have on chronic stress, burnout, anxiety, and depression. When the stress of the pandemic and living in lockdown started to take a toll on my mental health and wellbeing, I knew that if I wanted to help myself and my family navigate this crisis, I’d need to be a bit more intentional with my self-care. The metaphor of putting the oxygen mask on ourselves first so that we can help others has never been truer.

Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgmentally. Sometimes described as “being in the moment”, mindfulness is the basic human ability that we all have to be fully present, aware of where we are and what we’re doing, and not overly reactive or overwhelmed by what’s going on around us. The attitude of mindfulness is most reliably cultivated through the formal practice of mindfulness meditation, which is a mental training practice that teaches us how to slow down racing thoughts, let go of negativity, and calm both our mind and body. Over the last 30 years, there have been hundreds of published studies in support of the practice, and now mindfulness and mindfulness meditation has grown in popularity to the point where it’s offered in meditation studios, hospitals, clinics, schools, and workplaces worldwide. For many people, myself included, it’s an essential part of their self-care routine.

When the World Health Organisation declared the coronavirus a pandemic, I looked on in disbelief and dread as so-called “first world” countries grappled with deaths in the tens of thousands, overwhelmed health care facilities, rising unemployment, and economic fallout. My heart broke for the staggering loss of life, grieving families left behind, and a world upended almost overnight. I wondered if my beloved twin-island republic had the capacity to withstand the seeming tsunami of death, loss, and pain that approached our shores and I worried how this would all affect my loved ones and me. Would I be able to keep them safe and healthy?, Would there be food shortages?, Would our medical system be able to cope?, Would my small business survive?. In the early days of the lockdown, I struggled to stay “in the moment”, as my thoughts were largely preoccupied with imaginings of the future. Predicting, anticipating, planning, and worrying – I was in a future-oriented thought loop that I knew I needed to come out of.

Stress of this kind, in small doses, is not inherently bad. It can help us to problem-solve, anticipate challenges, and dodge unwanted consequences. It becomes unhelpful however when it becomes persistent, compromising our ability to cope with the challenges facing us and make decisions in our best interest. If I didn’t act quickly, the stress and anxiety I felt would only continue to grow to a point where it stopped being helpful. I’d need to fortify my usual self-care practices if I wanted to buffer the emotional strain of life during a worldwide pandemic.

To achieve this, I adopted a more intentional, deliberate, and focused approach to my self-care routine. To help boost my resilience and experience more positive emotions, I put myself on a self-care schedule that was non-negotiable, and I set repeating events in my calendar to make sure I blocked out time for these activities. I continued to start my day with meditation, but now I added a mindful eating practice to my morning routine, giving myself enough time to slow down and really pay attention to the smell, taste, and look of my food, without multitasking. Throughout the day, where I’d normally scan my body and soften any places of tension I may have been unconsciously creating, I now added a few mindful stretches in the sunshine to get some fresh air and mood-boosting Vitamin D. I limited my news intake to regular intervals, and was intentional in my use of social media – using it more to connect with, and offer support to, friends and family, rather than mindlessly scrolling. I continued with my feel-good-endorphin-producing daily exercise routine. But I now made it a part of my mindfulness practice; exercising without the usual distraction of music, and using the opportunity to give my full attention to the sensations of each inhale and exhale in my body.

Little by little, I began to pull back from an elevated stress response and find something resembling peace of mind during a global health crisis. The benefits of having a mindfulness practice of your own in your psychological toolkit cannot be overstated. When life throws you a curveball, you’ll be glad you have some tried and true techniques to turn to when your emotional reserves feel depleted. Would I rate myself 10/10 for self-care during every day of lockdown? I am not sure if I would, or if that’s even realistic. But I do know that my mindfulness practice helped me to keep a (mainly) calm spirit and a steady mind – for myself and for my loved ones – during one of the most challenging times of my life. And for this, I am grateful.

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