Five Mindfulness-Based Practices for Difficult Times
By Rich Fernandez
There are many events taking place in the world today that challenge us severely, from the tragic and shocking news of mass shootings in the U.S., to ongoing challenges in places such as Hong Kong and Venezuela (to name only a few), to the latest report from the United Nations on the dire state of climate change.
There are also many other challenges that don’t come across our screens or manifest on a global scale but can affect us daily and deeply.
Like me, you may be struggling to understand what’s going on in our world. Like me, you may be wondering how to take action. And like me, you may hold many more questions than answers. All of this is perfectly natural, given the magnitude of suffering we are witnessing.
When I talk with my thirteen-year-old son Noah about the future he will inhabit, in addition to discussing the sadness we feel about current events, we also talk about ways to navigate difficulties and cultivate hope.
So what are some practical ways to cultivate mindfulness, compassion, and emotional intelligence that make a difference in the midst of troubled times? How to respond to tragedies of such massive proportions?
When we can find ways to settle and calm our troubled minds and hearts to begin the difficult process of engaging broadly with the issues and people that challenge us, a sense of peace and hope are more accessible.
Here are five practices to try in the midst of difficult times:
- Nurture hope with gratitude: It is more harmful than helpful to deny or suppress what’s not going well, but there is also likely much good in each of our lives. Magnifying and being grateful for all the good we experience is a first step in cultivating ongoing hope. In prayers, meditations or through exercises like journaling or having a gratitude diary, try to exercise gratitude for at least one thing, person or situation right now your life. “What you practice grows stronger,” according to psychologist and mindfulness teacher Dr. Shauna Shapiro, so practice growing hope through gratitude.
- Find peace within yourself: Peace begins when we make peace with our own thoughts, emotions and bodies. And the peace we experience in ourselves is proportional to the peace we are able to offer others and the world. Find ways to access inner peace and quietude—only then can you share it. Try one of our Mindful Breathing or Body Scan practices to start.
- Exercise kindness and compassion: The perception of threats trigger the limbic system of the brain, pushing us into survival mode—a fight or flight reaction. In this state, we see everything around us as a threat and we experience the world with a strong negativity bias. Don’t let your limbic state become a trait. Find ways to exercise empathy, kindness and compassion when you can. Try one of our Kindness and Compassion meditations.
- Cultivate equanimity: Staying mentally and emotionally balanced even in the face of great difficulty is the quality of equanimity. Whether it is through meditation, prayer, connection with community or any other activity that lends valuable perspective, cultivating equanimity will serve you and those around you well in these trying times. Try our practice for calming the mind with focused attention
- “Each one teach one:” This timeless wisdom from the African American tradition reminds us that what we each have the power to transmit peace in what we share with others. All it takes is that we connect with one person, listen deeply and share ideas.
“Peace in myself, peace in the world,” says pre-eminent peace advocate and mindfulness master Thich Nhat Hanh. We can set our intentions for peace and practice bringing peace to fruition in our lives.
In the process of cultivating inner peace, we promote peace.
Sometimes peacemaking by practicing mindfulness and compassion will feel too small—or even self-centered. In those moments, I think of words of my one of my favorite authors of all time, Alice Walker, who says, ”Look closely at the present you are constructing: it should look like the future you are dreaming.” Perhaps in these small ways and through these simple practices, exercising mindfulness and compassion can make a difference.
Rich Fernandez is the CEO of the Search Inside Yourself Leadership Institute. Rich was formerly the Head of Executive Development at Google. He received his PhD in Psychology from Columbia University and is a frequent contributor to the Harvard Business Review.
A version of this article was previously published in August of 2019.