In stressful times what do we do?

Category : General advice, Philosophy 2nd April 2020

Inside Yoga 298 (2/4/2020)

We are living in extraordinary times: through history we have often heard these words. Meditation teachers have used this expression to highlight the need to be attentive and mindful of what is happening right now and not to let our mind wander off into future planning or past reflections, but now, today, it has more poignancy than ever. We really are living in extraordinary times with the lock-down due the coronavirus. How are coping?

With the coronavirus pandemic we are seeing huge changes (for now) in the way we live and as a result of the changes we are learning to adapt and people are coping in different ways. For many this is unsettling, stressful, and anxious times; whilst for others the experience is one of anger, frustration and restlessness. Perhaps it is boredom, not being able to do the work and hobbies we like to do. For those stuck at home most of the day it is leading to cabin fever, and it is only week two in the house!

Using the teachings of both Buddhism and Yoga, there are ways we can manage and cope with our situations.

The Buddha emphasised that everything changes, and nothing lasts forever. For example, up until just a few weeks ago, our routine was something we might have felt comfortable with, and relied upon for our own sanity, and then, suddenly it has changed. Many of us like to be in control, or rather, it is possibly safe to say, all of us like to be in control. Recent events are challenging this sense of control, because what is happening is beyond our control and we don’t like it.
How do we manage such massive changes?

Where this lesson of change helps is that it asks us, or encourages us, to meditate upon change, to reflect and understand that everything is impermanent. For some, this is not easy accept, but if with conscious reflection perhaps we can really see what we used to do has changed – in other words, on one level we know our lifestyle has been forced to change but on another level, our subconscious, we have not accepted the change and this causes the internal conflict.

Acceptance is critical to our well-being. Going with the flow of change is one way of coping and the other is to remind ourselves that whatever is happening now, however bad and difficult will also change, with a return to what we did previously (albeit with some changes). We might not go back to exactly where we left off, and maybe this is a good thing, but things will change in the future as they have just happened right now.

Holding on and not letting go
The Buddha’s teaching of impermanence is way of leading us to non-attachment: we learn through realising the truth that everything changes that we must not and cannot cling and be attached to anything. Please note: we still enjoy and love people, things and activities, as this is still possible but we learn not to be attached to them. If they stop, disappear or change we learn to accept this, perhaps we feel sadness or anger, but these emotions like everything else are impermanent – they too will pass.

When meditating and we notice unwanted thoughts and feelings, for example, about what happening in our lives today, we learn to see these thoughts and feelings as passing. Especially, if we cannot do anything about it now, why get stuck on the thoughts and feelings.

There is a saying: when we have a problem, if we cannot do anything about it why worry; and if we can do something about it, why worry?

For many of us, we are attached to the work we do, the role we perform as part of this work. Suddenly this has stopped and with it, our sense of identity has crashed down. This meditation on impermanence can help here: we reflect on things like realising that although the work was important, we are still the same person without it, we have our family, and hopefully we still have our health.

Disclaimer: This is not an easy practice to perfect, but it is effective and beneficial, as I learnt after many years meditating on this approach to life. Meditation like life itself is a work in progress, most of the time we do not know what to do or what we are doing but we manage to get through learning bits and pieces as we go, gradually improving as a person (hopefully).

Meditation is also subject to the teaching of everything being impermanent, because the quality of our meditation will change on a daily basis, but with practice the understanding of impermanence will deepen, and with it our ability to cope with the changes in our lives. With time and practice, we learn to see patterns in our behaviour and attachments, recognising them for what they are: passing experiences. We like the good times and we hate bad times, but strangely we tend to hold onto the bad stuff more readily. Learning through meditation to cast off thoughts and feelings helps us move on and cope with change.

In practical terms
When at home, which most of us are a lot at present, we can pick times to go into a quiet room or garden, if we are fortunate to have these spaces, and spend some time meditating. It can be just ten minutes, it could be half hour, but taking time to be alone with our thoughts will help. Then we meditate by focusing on our breathing, dropping all thoughts when they arise, noticing how they fly by, numerous thoughts and feelings across the period of meditation, which highlights how things do change. Notice how many thoughts, and different ones we can have in just a few minutes, we can plan the whole of our life in a few minutes. Perhaps many of us have already done this over the past week.

We can devote a meditation to reflecting on change and impermanence. Bring to mind different experiences in your life, and notice their impermanence as an event or emotion.

Besides a yoga practice of asanas (excercises) we can practice walking meditation. As we are not getting out enough do not see your garden, if you have one, or your hall or living room as being too small. All you need is a line to walk, perhaps 10ft or 20ft long, and with this practice we walk slowly and mindfully, noticing each step, each breath, and each thought – dropping thoughts as they rise, focussing on the walk. We slowly walk to end of our line, and then go back again, and repeatedly for however long we have. This is still a meditation practice but a good way of doing some exercise and perhaps getting fresh air.

Meditating while lying down has the risk of falling asleep, hence the reason why we usually sit in meditation, but we might need the sleep and rest. With these uncertain times many of us are not sleeping well. So if this is you, take some time, even ten minutes might be all you need. Lie down, and with closed eyes focus on your breathing, dropping all thoughts when they rise and distract you. Focus on the body relaxing, and even rejuvenating with this practice. This could slide into a short nap, but this could be exactly what we need. There is no need to force ourselves to keep going if the alarm bells are saying rest.

Enjoy the silence
Depending on where we live, there is a lot less noise than pre-lockdown: enjoy the silence while it lasts, whether it is noticing that with less vehicle traffic the road we live in is so much quieter or if you live near an airport, how much quieter the skies are right now. Enjoy the silence, the space it offers, notice other sounds not heard previously, for example, the sound of birdsong, a beautiful and calming sound. Notice what is around you right now and enjoy the changes because they will not last forever!

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