How Meditation Can Help You Stay Connected During Social Distancing
By Steven Cohen
These are really crazy times. There is a need to physically distance ourselves from others to avoid the spread of a virus that traveled in an unknown web of human interactions around the world in months. Recommendations about what to do change by the hour, but ultimately, many of us are quarantined in our own houses. At the same time, we need each other for emotional support and to avoid isolation. We want to be there for our family, friends, customers, colleagues, and the organizations with which we work. We want to stay connected.
A daily meditation practice can assist you in becoming more aware of your emotions so they don’t take over your mind. By looking in, you develop the mindset to stay connected to your relationships, yourself, and to something beyond yourself.
What Happens in Your Mind
Most of us let our negative emotional states linger longer than necessary. As the Buddha said, “you will not be punished for your anger; you will be punished by your anger.” Upon becoming angry or fearful, we customarily tend to “attach” to our thoughts or emotions and replay them over and over again. Each initial emotional “thought” (thought with energy) is actually quite brief, but we just keep rerunning the loop every time we relive the situation in our mind. These days, each time we watch the news or see a new COVID-19 update pop up on our phone, we replay the fear loop.
Fear is a natural human response to a threat - real or perceived. Fear of getting sick or having a loved one get sick creates a very intense physical reaction. It can be very disorienting and disquieting. We cannot stop or control the emotion of fear from arising, nor do we want to, as fear can be useful at times, causing us to take actions that are beneficial and protective.
Meditation is the practice of being in the present moment, with full attention, and without judgment. Try an emotion mindfulness practice by setting an intention before meditation practice to observe your emotions closely (just like you customarily do with your thoughts), with your full attention and without self-judgment or analysis. Then pay close attention to any arising emotion of fear (the high energy thought) as it arises – listen to it – observe it – just like we observe our thoughts during meditation. During emotion mindfulness meditations, we bring the emotion we observe into the front of our minds, from our subconscious into our focused consciousness. We acknowledge or express the emotion instead of attempting to suppress it. If you observe fear, look closely at that fear. Sit with the fear. Observe where it is coming from, observe how it feels in your body. With practice, that energy of the fear emotion may start to dissipate.
What you practice during meditation, you bring into all aspects of your life. During the course of your day, when you observe the fear arise, take notice, try to take a pause, and take a few deep breaths. This can often work well to help dissipate the energy of the fear response, and return oneself to a “quieter” mind.
Fear can be isolating, particularly if what you are fearful of is the spread of a virus from others. With a calmer mind, you may decide what action to take, or you may decide to simply let it go and move on day-to-day without the burden, weight or “energy” of the fear. You can release the isolating impact of the fear and reach out to connect with others.
Creating the Mindset for Relationships with Others
Loving-kindness meditation is a method for developing compassion that opens us up to be in relationship with others. Loving-kindness meditation subtly and indirectly reinforces the humanity of all people by wishing all people well. While the practice comes from the Buddhist tradition (as do most meditation practices practiced in the West), it can be adapted and practiced by anyone, regardless of religious affiliation.
Loving-kindness meditation generally consists of a four-stanza saying or mantra. The practice always begins with developing a loving acceptance of yourself. The practice itself is designed to overcome feelings of self-doubt or isolation. Direct benevolent feelings toward yourself. You will develop acceptance, compassion, goodwill, and loving-kindness towards others. While the focus is on you and your reaction to other people, it may create a change in your action that can alter the other person’s reaction. By sending out into the universe your best wishes without any expectation of receipt or response, you actually feel more love and more kindness (in essence, more goodwill) toward others.
There are many loving-kindness sayings, blessings, prayers, and mantras. The following is based on a loving-kindness meditation offered by well-known author and meditation teacher Sylvia Boorstein. This adaptation fulfills me physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. It doesn’t matter which loving-kindness variation you choose (and there are many). I encourage you to use the version you prefer, or to develop your own.
May [I/name of person] be protected and safe.
May [I/they] feel joyous and pleased.
May [my/their] mind be receptive to wisdom.
May [my/their] life unfold smoothly with ease.
Start by using the pronoun “I” and repeating the blessings four times using that pronoun, preferably out loud. Then focus on a loved one such as a family member, teacher, mentor, or very close friend. Recite the blessings using that person’s name. Then wait as the idea for the next loved one pops into your mind, substituting the general pronoun with the name that you call this person. Now, move on to show appreciation for those in your life with whom you have significant contact, but to whom you feel neutrally. You wouldn’t mind feeling more warmly towards these people, but you don’t yet fully “click” with them. Next, focus on a person toward whom you feel unease or hostility. Try to state the loving-kindness refrain with the same vehemence and focus that you used for the people you named earlier. You may wish to repeat the verse for that person more than once until you begin to feel more compassion toward that individual. We always end our loving kindness practice with a verse addressed to everyone
Although this exercise appears benign, you will be amazed at the warmth, openness, compassion, and, yes, even loving-kindness, you feel afterwards. You may be surprised by which names surface into your consciousness in which categories. Over time, this exercise may even dissipate built-up emotions you have toward the difficult people in your life (after many practice sessions). You may be amazed that you perceive others differently once your lens is clearer, and you may notice how many of their attitudes and actions really have nothing to do with you personally. It’s an exercise you must experience to appreciate its impact.
Creating Connection With a Capital C
Meditation practice can facilitate expanding your sense of who you are, beyond your fears and self-judgment, by helping you recognize your fears and judgment. It is not the events of our lives that tend to make us happy or sad or joyous or angry or scared, but rather our reaction to those events. Meditation allows us to find stillness within the chaos. Once we recognize that the challenges and circumstances we face are just part of life – and accept that what will be, will be – we can use the perspective gained through meditation and greater mindfulness in our daily lives with a deeper connection to life. This acceptance that develops through meditation practice allows us to move beyond the details of the source of our circumstances and follow our inner wisdom to navigate through these circumstances regardless of our understanding of the source of that wisdom.
There is a great expression often attributed to self-help guru Wayne Dyer, “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” If you look at the world through a lens of fear, you will live in a very scary world. If you live every day through your lens of stress, you will be impatient and short-tempered. However, if through daily meditation, you can more often look at the world through your lens of creating a connected community of relationships, you will have more and better relationships. If you express gratitude daily, you will discover more people and things for which you are grateful. If you are vulnerable and willing to take risks, you will realize growth.
The COVID-19 virus spread is separating us physically, scaring us emotionally, taking over our thoughts and clouding our spirits. Now, more than ever, we need to ramp up, or keep up, our daily meditation practice. A little quiet isolation every day can be a good thing and a tool to both deal with your fear and stay connected.
Steven Cohen is co-founder and the Chair of Meditation4Leadership and an active partner, practice area manager and office manager at a large international law firm. Steve also facilitates workshops on meditation and leadership and is author of Leading from Within: A Guide to Maximizing Your Effectiveness Through Meditation, which links 13 key leadership traits with associated meditations.