Dr. Gregory Sazima (author of Practical Mindfulness) discusses the promise and risks this unusual season may bring us.
- This summer is an unusual time, involving the hope of opening and residual fears of the past year.
- People may have several different responses, such as denial, uncertainty, or excitement.
- Meditation can help, especially in attending to one’s full experience of body, heart, and mind.
Source: Pixabay, altered with Prisma
Summer 2021 is upon us… an unprecedented melange of hope, fear, opportunity, and lingering threat. Like tax cuts for supply-side economists (heh), I can make sound arguments for a meditation practice on either side of the okay!/oh no! dialectic in the summer season before us:
- Okay! Summer 2021 will be a time of opportunity, of healing, and of a clear-minded approach to the challenges of a civil society literally and figuratively re-emerging into daylight and caring connection. There’s no better time to develop and utilize our own innate capacities in awareness than this one.
- Oh No! Summer 2021 will be a time of residual viral uncertainty, persistent grievance, and a civil society literally and figuratively simmering in a dangerous tension between our shared humanity and a hunkered-down binary of opposing worldviews. There’s no better time to develop and utilize our own innate capacities in awareness than this one.
In this two-parter of a blog, let me approach the “oh, no!”, tough stuff first, around some psychological challenges I’ve been witness to lately and some mindful responses. I’ll address the brighter side in Part 2.
So, to the “oh, no!” part. The slow opening of society and easing toward a semblance of “normal” daily life would seem to be an inviting prospect. But landing that plane has for many of us been a turbulent ride. Some are uncertain of the safety of landing. Others are so intent on grounding the thing that a risky nosedive results. Still others are fighting in the back of the plane over whether there was ever a trip occurring at all.
- The uncertain ones: I’m finding a lag or overhang in coming out of the radical hibernation we’ve all had in the last year-plus. It may be a little over the top to frame it as “mass trauma” but, then again, not. Everyone had to worry about catching a silent killer, and deal with personal and general grieving over the loss of life, health and economic security. Many had to directly survive it, and still struggle with acute infections and long-haul aftereffects. “Freeze” was and is a preferred threat response. The sheer intensity and persistence of that war on our brain stems makes opening out to “peacetime” feel unfamiliar, and even foolish.
- The nose-divers: Other folks are believers in the need for past lockdown and ongoing vigilance, but are just fed up with the sense of imprisonment and loss of agency. Restlessness and irritability are natural reactions but can leak out onto unintended targets.
- The fighters: Still back in Kubler-Rossian “shock/denial” mode, some individuals have tried to persist in a “nothing to see here” stance, often rebadged as a virtue and reinforced by media entities that take advantage.
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Sitting with any of these states is a useful component of a meditation practice. It is admittedly a step beyond gaining basic facility with the holding/losing/regaining awareness of beginning breath meditation. But when some difficult stuff is intruding on or off the cushion, it can be inevitable, even necessary, to attend to it directly and intentionally as the target of observation. Breath is more or less moved to the back as “my felt experience in going back into the office” takes center stage. (Read on to see how breath gets back in the action…)
In attending to challenging states, we should humbly recognize that they are usually complex mixes of physical sensation, emotional tone, and circulating loops of thought. Our capacity to watch all that (that’s mindfulness) can also be contracted or brittle. So losses into distraction may be more likely, regardless of one’s level of practice. But a couple of structural tips can help.
- For any of the three variations on “oh, no” identified above, or a mix mastered combo, I find that a careful, deliberate inventorying of the effect in the body, heart, and head. “Me wanting this to be over yesterday” presented in mind, we can move to a few minutes of “how does that feel in the body?” then in emotional tone, and then in the mental gymnastics to observe. We can watch for how experience in each and any of these dimensions shifts with a little patient observation — as the novelty of, say, pivoting to “looking at my anger — how does it feel in my body?” softens with a couple breaths worth of attending to it, watching how it changes, ebbs and flows, plays with the thoughts and emotions that are co-occurring.
- There’s another bit of inspirational, respirational advice there. An imaginal way of sticking with this practice is a “breathing into” tactic; I explain it in more detail in my book Practical Mindfulness, but here’s the gist. Visualize the in-breath as a gathering of awareness, then visualize exhaling that awareness into the body, the “heart” of emotion, upstairs into the realm of thoughts circling. The rhythmic, see-saw of “awareness gathered up, awareness sent out to…” can often help structure the work and reduce distraction and frustration.
- A final tip: the “home base” of pure, uncomplicated breath meditation is always worth returning to when sitting with a complex moment is a struggle, when distraction is complete and derailing.
Through our own observation, we get better at knowing our blind spots and vulnerabilities, and less surprised by them. Repeated observation of similar experiences leads to less novelty, less “OMG!” Mindfulness practices can help us identify and modify patterns of our suffering, especially in this unusual season.
(Practice tips re: meditating on hope and gratitude, in Part 2.)
Sazima MD, G.(2021) Practical Mindfulness: A Physician’s No-Nonsense Guide to Meditation for Beginners. Miami, FL: Mango Publishing.
A Physician’s No-Nonsense Guide to Meditation for Beginners
Training exercises that work. Practical Mindfulness approaches mindfulness and meditation from a hands-on, how-to, irreverent perspective–appealing directly to smart readers curious about meditation. By applying Dr. Sazima’s training routines, learn to spend more time in real engagement with the world. Cultivate a deeper appreciation of experiences, from the everyday to the extraordinary, and live your life more fully, wisely, and joyfully.