Much has been said about the power of present-moment mindfulness, but this wisdom bears repeating in these hard times. We are hard-wired for threat, and the COVID-19 pandemic is arguably the biggest threat of our lifetime. The current status of the pandemic is ever-shifting, and even as even the hardest-hit areas on the planet see some glimmers of hope, we still don’t know how or when this story will end.
The Future Hasn’t Been Written.
Yet this simple truth remains: We don’t control the future, no matter how much worrying or planning we do. As professional boxer, Mike Tyson, once famously said, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” Yep, make a plan, but for sure be prepared for reality to change it. Especially in these periods of uncertainty and change. And even a punch in the mouth, while unpleasant, is not the end of the world. Similarly, just because the pandemic has changed things does not in and of itself have to lead to catastrophic outcomes. While our minds may want to take us there, our ideas about the future in times like this are often not helpful ones.
If you find yourself getting caught up in worry loops about worst-case scenarios or what-ifs, challenge yourself to write a variety of forward-focused scripts that end well or neutrally, as a way of reminding yourself that the future is fluid and unpredictable.
The Power of the Present Moment.
Great boxers learn how to shoulder the shock of a punch in the mouth, accept the pain, and get back as quickly as possible to the job right in front of them, taking things one punch at a time. They know that the only moment they can directly impact is the one on offer right now, and focusing on that is the best way to avoid the next left hook.
This ability — to focus and refocus back on the present moment — has multiple benefits outside the boxing ring. It can help you feel better and promotes better mental health. Relative to ruminating over a worst-case future, or fuming over the injustice of having to home-school children, the simple fact is that the present moment is often just a nicer place to be.
Research suggests that practicing present-moment focus makes you happier, too. Harvard psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert used smartphone technology to track people’s thoughts, emotions, and actions in real-time. Two findings of note stand out. (1.) We spend almost half our waking moments not in the present. (2.) We are significantly more likely to be happy when our minds are in the present. The title of their article, “A Wandering Mind Is an Unhappy Mind,” sums it up. This is not to say that there aren’t legitimate reasons to think about the past or future. Just that we are so often doing so unmindfully, which can unintentionally increase our unhappiness.
How do these ideas translate into these stressful times? It could mean developing a daily practice of cultivating your present moment awareness, where the goal is simply to notice what’s happening around you. Our senses are our gateways to the present. Your eyes see, your ears hear, you experience body sensations, all of which can be anchors to the here and now, with the only effort required of you being that of appreciative observation. Of course our minds — thought machines that they are — seem to be designed explicitly to hook our attention away from the present moment. So the practice is one of refocusing, over and over again, to the present.
This kind of practice can be done in as little as a minute (although longer periods tend to amplify the positive effects) and can be a useful pause between other activities to settle the mind.
For the busy working-from-home-parent or stressed front-line provider, even adding this extra activity might seem unrealistic. Consider, however, those activities you already do that could be done with more mindful attention. We call this piggy-backing. Tooth-brushing, showering, eating all are already happening, but perhaps without much conscious awareness. The best kind of attention is laced with an attitude of friendly curiosity. What does the experience of these activities feel like? People often respond that with this kind of mindset, their “small e” enjoyment of these activities increases.
Another variation on this theme for busy people is in our transitions from one activity to another. No matter how busy you are, you still have to walk to the bathroom several times a day. Or if you are still working outside the home, you invariably have to walk from your car to your office. Can you engage all your senses in those transitional activities? Maybe slow down a touch and pay friendly attention to the sensations of walking, hearing, and seeing. Meditation teacher Jeff Warren talks about cultivating the ability to notice the “reward flavour” inherent in even the simplest and most mundane moments. See what even subtle whiffs of enjoyment you notice.
The end game here is that our present moments are often nicer, being present for them makes us happier, and can even enrich our relationships if we allow for mindful listening and considering the impact of our responses on others.