“Our Calm is Contagious”: How to be Vigilant in the Event of a Pandemic
Meditation teacher Tara Brach offers a few tips to calm your anxiety about coronaviruses – so you can take better care of others. Adaptation of the original text of Sigal Samuel by Jean-Pierre Deschênes
If you’re feeling extra anxiety these days because of the Covid-19 coronavirus, you’re not alone. This pandemic is putting us all under more stress and uncertainty than usual. Many of us are also wondering how to avoid falling into total panic.
As we try to navigate through our anxiety about the coronavirus, there is one quote I try to keep in mind. It’s from Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh: “When ships crowded with Vietnamese refugees encountered storms or pirates, if everyone panicked, all was lost. But if even one person on the boat remained calm and centered, that was enough. It showed the way for everyone to survive.”
Tara Brach, an American psychologist and a highly respected Buddhist meditation teacher, sent this quote in a recent e-newsletter. It prompted me to call her for advice on using meditation to navigate this pandemic.
Meditation and meditation
The first thing to know is that the word “meditation” actually refers to many different practices. In the West, the best known set of practices is “mindfulness meditation”. This means paying attention, in a focused and non-judgmental way, to your experience of the present moment. This may involve a formal practice – such as sitting down, closing your eyes and concentrating on feeling your breath come and go. But you can also practice paying attention when you read the news, talk or shop.
Extract of the interview:
“I assume you, like all of us, have been stressed by the coronavirus. What have you personally done to stay calm and focused?
Yes, like everyone else, I feel the immensity of it and I feel fear for my loved ones and for the most vulnerable people in our world. What I do is a mixture of approaches: walking in nature and admiring the beauty, talking to people and feeling our common vulnerability and interdependence, and a lot of meditation. It gives me a sense of stability, which is invaluable to me.
For people who have no experience of meditation, but are looking for a way to avoid sinking into the vortex of panic, can you suggest one or two simple meditation practices that would be helpful in our current situation?
Of course, the first step when we are really caught in fear is to calm our sympathetic nervous system. A simple way to do this is to take long, deep breaths. Take at least three full breaths, counting up to five on the inhale, and counting up to five on the exhale. And when you exhale, intentionally release the tension. This begins to calm the nervous system. (Translator’s note: cardiac coherence)
Our breathing is often the most useful basis for getting out of our worrying thoughts and regaining our senses. But we can also return to the sounds we hear in the moment, or to the tingling sensation of our hands or feet, or to the sight of a tree or a table. Returning to the senses in our body helps us to return to the present moment. SS: Here you can listen to a five-minute guided meditation on mindfulness.
RAIN (Recognize, Accept, Investigate, Nurish)
In your new book Radical Compassion, you also offer a short meditation practice called RAIN, which I found useful. Can you explain to me what this acronym means?
Yes, I use that acronym because it’s an easy way to remember if you’re caught in fear. It means to acknowledge, allow or accept, investigate, heal or nurture. [SS: You can listen to a guided meditation by RAIN here.]
First, just acknowledge, “Okay, I feel fear.” Whisper it mentally, and it will help you right away.
Then allow it. Let it be there, don’t try to run away from it, don’t try to fix it, don’t try to control it, don’t try to judge it.
Then investigate. Start entering the body and just feel where the fear is in the body. Find out what it feels and breathe with it, with a gentle quality of attention.
Then feed her. You can put your hand on your heart and offer a gentle or soothing message. You can say to the fear: “Thank you for trying to protect me; it’s okay”. Sometimes I say to myself, “It’s all right, my darling”.
I’m curious that you specify the “recognize” part; this idea that when you can name a fear, it loses some of its power over you. What is this observation of the mind that alters the activity of the brain?
When we are in “fight-freeze” mode, our limbic system has virtually taken us hostage and we lose contact with our prefrontal cortex, the most recently evolved part of our brain that deals with executive functioning and good decision making. When we give a name to what’s going on, we start to activate the prefrontal cortex. Mindfulness reconnects us with that.
“THE MOST IMPORTANT THING THAT CAN HAPPEN RIGHT NOW IN THIS PANDEMIC IS THAT WE FEEL OUR COMMUNITY – THAT WE’RE HERE TO HELP EACH OTHER THROUGH THIS.”
For more of this interview of Tara Brach, go to Our calm is contagious by Sigal Samuel
Our calm is contagious by Sigal Samuel
in Electronic journal Vox-Future Perfect
Adaptation by Jean-Pierre Deschênes, ND.A.