Quieting Pandemic Panic: A Mindfulness Exercise

As we collectively experience the prolonged pandemic emergency due to the spread of the coronavirus, and as we make our way through a new norm of social distancing and practicing shelter-in-place (or staying home), it’s important to find different ways of managing the excessive worry and fear that is hitting all of us very hard. It’s hit us hard in so many profound ways, from literally disrupting our daily routines and losing some of our freedoms, to worrying about our lives and the lives of loved ones, to losing our jobs and businesses, and to the frightening possibility of complete economic collapse, etc. We are floating in unprecedented, unchartered waters, never seen or experienced before.

This pandemic has upended our world as we know it. It has also kicked us out of our comfort zone. But we don’t need to live like exiles from that very comfort zone that we know so well. Via mindfulness, we can instead create a new comfort zone. But not a comfort zone based on immediate results or conceptual needs. And not a comfort zone based on surface thinking, or on future-based projections, which is what’s causing people the most distress right now, and I of course understand why. I, too, am feeling the same way.

This would be creating a new comfort zone just based on the present. Right NOW. This minute. I know that sounds over-simplified, but here’s an opportunity for us to look at this adversity as an agent of change — an opportunity to alter our day-to-day moments and to establish being more present. Which subsequently leads to a calmer state of mind. 

So the first thing to do is to sit in a quiet place (if your situation allows) and try to relax your muscles by letting the muscles of your body sag and droop into your skeletal system. In other words, don’t tense your body, and don’t try to hold up any part of your body. Just melt or sink into wherever you are sitting.   

Then, be mindfully aware that you are breathing. And while you are focusing on your breathing, try to become aware of yourself. Again, not your ego self, not your conceptual self, and not your projections about the future. Your thinking is simply an impediment here. This is the practice of you getting in touch with your deeper self.

As you focus on your breathing try to remember that you are also going to notice sensory perceptions. Pay attention to the sounds that you hear. Do you hear street noises? Do you hear the wind blowing against trees? Do you hear birds chirping? Also, can you smell anything? Freshly cut grass? Someone’s home cooking? If your eyes are open what are you seeing? What are you noticing? Then, pay attention to what your body feels at the moment, too. Is it tense, is it relaxed? Can you feel your back and bottom against the chair or the couch that you’re sitting on. Can you feel the floor under your feet? Be an observer and simply notice.

By focusing on all these things in the present, you can get underneath the fearful thoughts of worry and fear even if for a moment. It’s hard to believe, but being present in this moment to what is here in the now has evidence-based value in calming the central nervous system. It is the key element in the achievement of emotional self-regulation.

Imagine a vast of ocean during a severe storm. Hurricane-like winds are blowing, gigantic waves are crashing all around. The ocean surface rises and falls with fierce unpredictability. Yet, regardless of the condition of the surface of the ocean, if we dip below and go underneath the surface, it is calm and peaceful. 

Your surface thoughts right now are the same: Tumultuous, scary, unpredictable. They are naturally in turmoil because of our current fears of how long this pandemic emergency will last. So, practicing being in the PRESENT is again like slipping underneath the ocean of your frightened thoughts and accessing the quiet of your mind.

This is what it is to be in the PRESENT and if it’s for five minutes or ten minutes of your day it will help. Try to use this precious time to awaken a different level of consciousness within you. This is where the rubber meets the road. This is where we learn to develop a different way of relating to the storm of our negative thoughts. This difficult time in our lives is the perfect time to practice this.

So, the next time you are in a state of panic about anything related to this pandemic emergency, take five minutes and pull back. Just remember that temporarily, you are simply too attached to desperately wanting answers above the surface — the kinds of answers that don’t exist right now. Above the surface thinking will cause you suffering.

But as spiritual teacher Eckhart Tolle tells us, “We are not our thoughts.” He also says, “Life isn’t as serious as the mind makes it out to be.” So come back to the present moment by focusing on your breathing, focusing on your sensory perceptions, focusing on your body. We can all learn to alter our consciousness.

There’s a famous parable that is reflective of this process. Whenever I read it, it soothes me and calms my fears. 

A woman is running from tigers. She runs and runs and the tigers are getting closer and closer. When she comes to the edge of a cliff, she sees some vines there, so she climbs down and holds onto the vines. Looking down, she sees that there are tigers below her as well. She then notices that a mouse is gnawing away at the vine to which she’s clinging. She also sees a beautiful bunch of strawberries close to her, growing out of a clump of grass. She looks up and she looks down. She looks at the mouse. Then she takes a strawberry, puts it in her mouth, and enjoys it thoroughly. 

Tigers above, tigers below. This is the predicament we are always in. Each moment is just what it is. It might be the only moment of our life, it might be the only strawberry we’ll ever eat. We could get depressed and worried about it, or we can accept the value of this very moment.

So the parable is obvious, the woman, despite the notion that she is perhaps close to death by falling off the cliff or being eaten by tigers, still reaches for the strawberry and mindfully enjoys it. But she has NOT forgotten about her current predicament. She may very well be at death’s door. Yet she remains present for the one moment of eating the strawberry.

The point being that, the tigers in our lives will never stop coming. We are always in this type of predicament, except of course in varying degrees. So we MUST find moments to stop and recognize that the tigers chasing us are simply our fearful thoughts and our negative projections about the future. And for many they can also represent our negative reflections about the past, too.

If we pause and reorient ourselves each time we feel panicked, it will become easier to dip beneath the surface and calm our minds.

I wish you all the best of luck getting through this pandemic emergency.

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