There are many times in our lives when we come to a crossroads and we’re presented with a choice about the path ahead, if we notice it. Some crossroads are life altering and obvious – you can probably easily bring several of these to mind from your own life, such as saying “I do”, enrolling in a training or education program, taking a job offer, or starting a family. But, we’re more often faced with much subtler choice points. When we’re on autopilot or overcome with emotion, we may just forge ahead without even recognizing we have a choice. When our minds are unexamined, we may not realize the way our feeling states and mental scripts impact our decisions. Times of crisis or turmoil, such as the current pandemic, offer opportunities to reconnect with our deepest truths and to remember who we really are if we are open to it.
For many of us, the pandemic created changes that reawakened us to the value in things we once took for granted, reminded us of what matters most, and opened our eyes to certain injustices and inequities we may have overlooked. Those with adequate resources or a high level of resilience may have found ways to adjust:
- Those who lost a loved one or their livelihood came face to face with impermanence – some were able to see this as a reminder that every moment and every relationship is both precious and precarious and develop a deeper sense of appreciation for what we have.
- We couldn’t travel or visit people we care about – some found new ways to connect and discovered untapped adventures nearby.
- Many of our go to comforts and pleasures were no longer available – some found ourselves reconnecting with simple pleasures.
- Certain staples became rare – necessity birthed invention and some people began to think outside the box. Farm shares and home gardens augmented disrupted food supply chains… Sales of bidets skyrocketed…
- We saw that many were disproportionately harmed by the crisis – some expressed great sadness or outrage vowing to take action to effect change.
- We consumed less and the Earth healed a little, the waters and skies became clearer, and wildlife returned.
Certain societal expectations were interrupted and in the forced pause, we may have found an opening in which we could explore our own thoughts and feelings about “life as usual”. Many daily obligations were put on hold and it was considered acceptable not to do them. Business travel, carting kids around to school and activities, non-essential shopping, and going to the grocery store were all halted or dramatically reduced. Imperfection was more acceptable, mistakes were forgiven, and self-care was expected. Many of our usual forms of entertainment and distraction were paused and we had to spend quiet time with ourselves. For those who already had an established mindfulness practice, it offered a reliable and accessible place of refuge. Others recognized they were caught unprepared by the crisis and turned toward or returned to the practices of mindfulness as an anchor:
When the storm comes, often all you’ve got is what you’ve developed inside yourself already. It’s the emotional capital you’ve developed inside yourself as well as the interpersonal capital you’ve developed with other people. That’s all you’ve got. When the world starts to break down around you, it’s a wake-up call for a lot of people that actually all along they were really running on empty. – Rick Hanson, psychologist, senior fellow of the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley
The coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic has been a major disruptive event and such events often require us to make a paradigm shift in order to survive and thrive. Those who are stuck in the old ways of being and behaving tend to struggle to adapt in a new reality. But in some ways, every day, even every moment, is a crossroads – a choice point. How might mindfulness help us navigate this?
First of all, mindfulness helps us notice that something important is happening and trains us to intentionally direct and sustain our attention to what is most important, rather than letting it get hijacked by distractions or strong emotions. It also helps us manage our stress and self-regulate so that we might remain open to experience with curiosity, be with fear and uncertainty in a skillful way, allow things that are outside of our control to unfold without undue interference, and respond flexibility and creatively to things we can control. A mindful pause makes space for us to ask: “What is this really?” “How is it affecting me, my community, and the world?” “What do I want to stand for in the midst of this?” and “How can I best respond?”
Mindfulness also encourages us to act authentically, according to our values. In 2016, a group of Australian researchers surveyed more than 800 people about their levels of mindfulness, well-being, and “values-based action” (progress on vs. distraction from goals the matter most). Results indicated that mindfulness impacted wellbeing partly through facilitating meaningful behavioral change toward values based action. The practice helps us notice what might otherwise be missed, remain focused, minimize distraction, and approach experience more objectively when we’re working on what is most meaningful to us. It allows us to recognize and meet difficult thoughts and emotions rather than becoming caught up in them, getting stuck, or feeling paralyzed. It also allows us to remember our values and stay connected with our inner compass, even in emotionally charged situations.
As an experiment, I invite you to explore this yourself in your next meditation practice. After you’ve settled in and connected with your present moment experience, you might ask yourself the following questions and let them settle in your mindspace like a pebble tossed into a still pond, allowing any impressions to bubble up naturally:
- What have I really missed since the stay at home orders? Is there anything I once took for granted that now feels like a blessing? If so, what values do they represent? (Here is a list of values you might use as a reference)
- What, if anything, have I NOT missed since the stay at home orders? What could I continue to do without? What values do they represent?
- What have my eyes been opened to by the pandemic? Have there been any surprises or insights?
- What might I decide not to return to or what might I continue to do differently because of this experience? What will be included and what will be discarded in my new normal?
- How might these choices bring me in better alignment with my values or in deeper harmony with the world?
“This is a time for remembering what we have forgotten. Today, it is a time to remember that our lives and the Earthly experiences of everyone and everything around us are sacred. It is a time to remember that we all are a part of a jeweled web of interconnection and interdependence. We are in relation with each other and to everything around us – the Earth, the elements, the air, the whole of the environment, the seen and the Unseen… Many of us are waiting for things to return to normal from this time of fear. But for many populations, normal has always been uncertain, fearful and unsafe. Where do you stand when placed against those who experienced these circumstances as just a continuation of the Injustice and suffering that have always been a part of our lives? This time is a wake-up call to the realities of privilege, the delusion of certitude, the smoke and mirrors of permanence, and the fragility of comfort and of life itself. It is also a time when we can lean into opportunity, into possibility, and the truth that our world has changed. We can face the fact that this is most likely a dress rehearsal for the inevitable truth of our planet. It is only our ability to face what we would rather not, and to see it clearly, that will allow us to craft a new way of life imbued with dignity, courage, and joy in the midst of change. Perhaps we might find the time now to explore these essential parts of our being. Perhaps there is something essential we can learn from our circumstances today about how to affect change in a world of suffering… If we can use this time to activate the memory of the truth of our innate goodness, our capacity for compassion and kindness, what powerful beings we will be. What resilience, what strength, what clarity we can exhibit. What courage and wisdom will be available for us to lead with love.” – Amana Brembry Johnson, Meditation Teacher
Christie, A, Atkins, P, & Donald, J (2016). The Meaning and Doing of Mindfulness: The Role of Values in the Link Between Mindfulness and Well-Being. Mindfulness