Every moment of the day—indeed, every moment throughout one’s life—offers an opportunity to be relaxed and responsive or to suffer unnecessarily.
Two days before Covid 19 was declared a pandemic, I had a virtual session (as the coachee) with a fellow coach. The stock market had crashed the night prior, and the impact of the virus was starting to build in the Western Hemisphere. As I had just begun paying attention to the “viral” media, I felt an urge to become current and started binge reading news articles to catch up.
I was a mess. My thoughts were chaotic and dark, and I spent fifteen minutes unloading them in a tangled offering to my coach. I was ruminating on the outcome of my investments, stressing about the survival of my tourism business, and worrying that my plans for building a coaching practice were all to naught. And, I was full of fear of the virus itself and how it may impact my loved ones.
The longer I spoke the higher my anxiety bubbled up, and I finally came to a stop when I felt like I was running out of breath. After a moment, my coach asked me a very powerful question.
“What is happening for you right now?”
I paused to consider the answer and suddenly burst into laughter. At that instant, and in the minutes prior, while all that darkness was pouring out, I was lying in my hammock. The birds were singing, the sun was shining, and there was a light fresh breeze in the air. My dog was sunning herself on the deck.
I described the scene and along with that my revelation: ”Right here, right now, everything is fine”.
In fact, it was more than just fine. I was living in a small beach community in Nicaragua which at that time had no recorded cases. I had nature literally at my doorstep, a comfortable place to live, food in my fridge, and the knowledge that my loved ones were in good health. Life was good and my lungs were healthy, but yet moments before I had been literally gasping for air.
When my coach and I talked through what was blocking me from staying in the “right here, right now” I joked with her that I was off my meds. I’m typically a regular meditator but in compulsively feeding my sensationalist appetite with multiple sources of media and editorial speculation, I had neglected to nourish myself by avoiding a major component in helping me maintain balance.
Choosing Presence Over Fear
Fear is not real. The only place that fear can exist is in our thoughts of the future. It is a product of our imagination, causing us to fear things that do not at present and may not ever exist. That is near insanity. Do not misunderstand me, danger is very real but fear is a choice.
This was illustrated for me by my moment on the hammock, experiencing anxiety and fear over events that had not yet come to pass. Though the topics I was worrying about were potential dangers, and certainly many challenges have arisen for me since that day, at that moment none of it was part of my current reality. These threats only existed as portents in my thoughts, and by allowing them to live there I almost missed out on the beauty that was around me. Since then, my life has changed in a way that I would not have predicted. Had I known the hammock would be so soon a memory I may have appreciated that moment a little more.
Meditation is the most powerful tool in my toolkit for connecting me to the present. By closing my eyes, focussing on my breath and tuning into myself, I am able to rise above the din of overthinking. I still have thoughts , sometimes many, but in meditation I’m able to observe them as passing ideas rather than fixed realities. Some associate meditation with a trancelike state but for me it actually heightens the awareness of my surroundings and therefore links me to the moment. I may observe bird song in the air, my neighbours voice faintly rising and falling, or the hum of the refrigerator in the other room. I notice these on the same level as I notice my thoughts. I don’t travel into the past or future with these sounds, I just arrive at an acceptance that they are there. And when my mind does attempt to reach backwards or pull forward in time, and it does, this also comes into my awareness and I remind myself that it is not my current truth.
Fear and Our Health
Beyond the benefits of present moment awareness meditation can also help us to improve our health. Reacting fearfully to outside stress will put us into a “fight or flight” response, creating a range of reactions from elevated heart rate, accelerated and shallow breathing, muscle tension, profuse sweating and stomach upset. This serves us if we are threatened in the immediate moment with a physical danger, preparing our bodies to either fight or flee the threat. Everything in our body is working together to keep us alive in the face of the imminent crisis in this current moment. However, outside of this at times necessary physiological response, consistently reacting this way can actually significantly damage our health by ravaging our immune systems. For over a decade researchers studied medical students for the effects of stress and found that even the simple anxiety of a three day exam resulted in lowering their immunities, affecting their natural killer cells (which fight viral infections among other things) and significantly reducing their gamma interferon and weakening their T-Cells. Since then there have been scores of studies on stress and health showing the different ways long term or chronic stress can wreak havoc on the immune system.
Meditation, by creating a more relaxed physical state of being, can be an antidote to stress. When practicing meditation, one may experience deeper and more measured breathing, a slower heart rate, and lower blood pressure. Meditation can quiet the mind; help repair the nervous system and increase inner strength. Studies have shown that by dampening activity in the amygdala, and increasing its connection to the prefrontal cortex, meditation helps us be less reactive to stress and also assists in bouncing back from stressful experiences.
The Choice of Meditation
Convinced in the power of meditation but feeling unsure how to start? I began meditating a year and a half ago, at the age of 47, having never done so previously. My first experiences were in guided group meditations but there are many virtual (and free) guided meditations and guides to meditation available. Some suggestions follow at the end of this article.
Barely three weeks after the coaching session that started this article, I’m back in Canada. I had to close my business, move out of my place of residence, and travel with my dog with only days of planning. As a recent traveller I’m currently on quarantine and, like many, trying to navigate a reality that feels completely foreign. But whenever I get overwhelmed (and I do, often) I think back to that moment in my hammock, where my “right now” was paradise and only my own mind prevented me from seeing that. And then I meditate.
- Vanessa Pattison, my meditation teacher in Nicaragua, is holding a twice-weekly meditation. These meditations are typically mantra-based and are held every Tuesday and Thursday at 9:45 AM EST. Her zoom link is https://us04web.zoom.us/j/537413623
- Sarah McLean, the founder of the McLean Meditation Institute, is hosting free Meditations for Difficult Times. These are held four times daily. The zoom link is https://zoom.us/j/9282040067 and more information is available at https://mcleanmeditation.com/retreats/
- For those preferring a scientific approach to meditation, Sam Harris may resonate –https://samharris.org/how-to-meditate/
- Some lovely guided meditation apps that you can download on your cellphone – Calm, Headspace, and Stop, Breathe, Think. While some of the meditations on these apps are available for free, you’ll have to subscribe to access the others.
- However, they each have a ton of freely available resources on YouTube:
i. Calm – https://www.youtube.com/user/calmdotcom
ii. Headspace – https://www.youtube.com/user/Getsomeheadspace/videos
iii. Stop, Breathe, Think – https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCkB9zEEqnP9kMIf5VChd99Q/videos