How meditation helps me cope with COVID-19

Now, more than ever, I have called upon my meditation practice to help me through each day. Every morning, whether I’m headed to the hospital or self-isolating at home, I find my way to my meditation pillow for 30 minutes. This is a very stressful time for a physician. There is no question that I love my job, and I thrive in stressful environments. However, these times are unprecedented. No doctor has trained for this. But my mindfulness practice has guided me through the stressful hospital days and has helped me navigate the challenges with dignity, grace, and compassion.

I remember when I first started meditating; I was living in NYC, 9/11 had just occurred and I felt stressed about everything. I could hardly sit still for even 5 minutes. But regardless of how hard it was (and it was hard!), I would practice every day. Even for just 5 minutes. Eventually, I started to notice the benefits — I was no longer ruled by my concerns about the future or dwelling in the past — I felt more present in my daily life, and consequently, more free.

My meditation practice really took flight during med school. I was filled with so many feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. How could I ever have the knowledge and healing instinct that seemed to come so easily to my mentors? But when I committed to the practice, I found it inside me — that sense of knowing… the confidence and self-love that it took to believe I could be all the things I set out to be. It motivated me to study harder and work longer hours. It took years of practice, and some days are harder than others. But it’s in those moments, I know I must go back to my practice. In moments of doubt and fear, I sit– to stay grounded and centered. In times of discomfort I call upon meditation for comfort and guidance — and it has never failed me. In these times of the

COVID-19 pandemic, I practice meditation daily. And without it, I would be a very different person. Who knows, I may have let the stress get to me. But because of the support of meditation, I know myself better, and I can summon the courage needed to take on these difficulties ahead, and step up to the plate the way my patients need me. You can too.

Silent Retreat-ing

I’ve just come out of a weekend-long silent meditation retreat, and I yearn now for more silence. There is something about silence that is relieving. You don’t have to worry if you are likeable, or if what you said to the person next to you was the right/wrong thing. There is no awkward silence because silence is the norm. It is amazing and agonizing all at once. The journey is bone-shaking and uncomfortable. At times you feel elated, other times, you yearn to be stimulated and distracted. It’s a constant battle of confronting every feeling, thought and emotion you have with dynamic awareness.

 

Time can go slow when you are meditating. This retreat was held at a mission centered around a beautiful old cathedral in the hills of Southern California’s city of Oceanside. The bells of the church would tell our time, ringing every 15 minutes; one for ¼ past the hour, two for half hour, and three for 45 past, and 4 times plus the number of hours to tell us the time on the hour. Sometimes, when the bell would ring, I would be surprised and disappointed that time had passed so slowly. Other times, I would hear the church bells and wish I had more time because I was just then settling into a sense of stillness. And then it was gone. We would sit, then walk, sit again, then walk again. The day was broken up by silent meals where I would try to break the habit of shoveling food in my mouth to move on to my next task, and mindfully taste every bite. Then we would sit and walk again. Occasionally, our teacher, Matthew Brensilver, would share wisdom through dharma talks. And they resonated. Sleep was speckled with intense dreams and deep, catatonic rest. All of it in an attempt to surrender.

 

At times, we retreat to seek refuge in the suffering that is inherent in every life, even among the most fortunate. There is courage in the willingness to look within and evolve. It is just about mustering the courage. Sit-walk-sit-walk-sit-walk. Isn’t that what we are doing in our daily lives? But in the case of retreat, maybe living in that life just a little more mindfully.

 

Paying attention

In our busy, modern lives, we have to rely on our innate automated system more and more each day. From our instincts when we get behind the wheel of a car, to our muscle memory when we unlock our phones, the efficiency of our autonomic nervous system is integral to our daily survival. On average, our hearts beat 70 times per minute. In that same 60-second period, we blink between 10 and 15 times, swallow once, and take up to 20 breaths. Our hearts beat. Our lungs breathe. Our bodies keep us alive.

 

And most of us barely notice. We just take it all for granted. So much of the world operates without us ever thinking about it. We just expect it to work out in our favor… and most of the time it does. We worry about the future and think about the past. But we hardly ever focus on the present; about what is right in front of us. And in doing this, we so often miss what is right in front of us. We take what’s good and easy and working for granted. Until it’s no longer good and easy and working for us… until we sprain our ankle and can no longer walk, until we get a cold and can no longer breathe, until we have a stroke and can no longer use our dominant hand. It’s normal. It’s part of being human.

 

But we can do better. I know we can. We can do better for us and for those around us. Because there are tiny, beautiful gifts we are given every day. The breath. The heart beat. The grace.  It is up to us to appreciate them to the fullest while we can. In this one precious life, what can you notice to bring you more present; whether the breath, the heart, the perspective? Where can you be more present and more aware of the miracle of all the systems it takes to keep you alive? This life. This, that which we, just by the sheer act of paying attention, can be more present and connected to. This life.

This is water

There is a story of these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” They nod politely, and the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and asks “What the hell is water?”

These two fish, so innocent and unknowing merely show ya that the obvious, most important realities are often the ones that are hardest to see, and as a result, we miss simply paying attention to what is going on right in front of us and inside us. This very esoteric idea of being present is constantly bombarding us, but what it means really is learning how to think and learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think. It means being conscious and aware enough to choose what you pay attention to and to choose how you construct meaning from experience. So today, I encourage you to make the choice to be here and present in the exact space you are in right now.  Knowing that the choice is yours.  And whatever it is that you are feeling whether it is with fear or inadequacy or joy and elation; it is your job to be present with it.  Be here now.

Meditation and Cancer Therapy

The outward benefits of yoga seem almost too obvious when we begin to practice: strength, focus, peace of mind, balance… if you’ve practiced, you’ve felt it too. As we begin to peel away the layers, we may also discover other unexpected and invaluable benefits such as the way in which we relate to ourselves. The term that my meditation teacher uses is “making friends with yourself”; it is the process of letting go of that recurrent voice inside that tells you that you have to be something different than you are, when in fact, you are already all that you need to be. It is about accessing your true self, and it is the ease that you build in a yoga practice that molds the key.

 

In this manner, yoga heals. I regularly teach Yoga for Cancer Recovery workshops and my students cannot sing enough praises about how yoga has healed their body, mind, and souls. For a cancer survivor, nothing feels better than to proactively participate in promoting her own good health. What is most exciting to me is that my recovery classes actually encourage the students to do less, and I incorporate this concept by starting each class with meditation. The whole practice, meditation combined with yoga, is about waking up. In our modern lives, we are programmed to think that we will be happier if we do more and accomplish more. I am personally guilty of the same mindset, and it seems radical to break this paradigm. Not that I am denouncing productivity – it is important to realize and pursue our goals. A meditation practice may actually help us achieve our goals by understanding that there is nothing we can do that will make us healthier or happier than something we’ll find is already inside us. This concept, which seems so enigmatic and unattainable at first, is actually something that we can wake up to while in our practice and learn to meet in each moment as it arises. There is nothing mystical or religious about it. In fact, it is the most pragmatic principle that exists. Our practice simply asks us to be ourselves. When we accept and make friends with our true selves, our goals become within reach because we truly understand our potential. The hard work of uncovering that true self is up to you.

 

So now that you are convinced a meditation practice can be part of your yoga practice, how do you begin? Start by committing yourself to 5 minutes a day for a week. Then build up to 10 minutes the following week, 15 minutes the following, and finally 20 minutes in your fourth week. Be patient with yourself. No one is able to run a marathon without training, and your brain is the most difficult part of your body to train. Start by sitting up straight. Some people like to have an icon to focus upon, their eyes closed, or their eyes slightly open. I am for all of the above – choose the method that works for you. Find a comfortable seat in a chair, on a block, or cushion, or the good old floor will do just fine. The reason we sit up straight is that we believe that there is something dignified about our practice, that it serves us as much as we submit to it too. While practicing, own it and commit to it. Fight the urge to get off your cushion or mat to check your phone or jot down that item on your to do list that you miraculously remembered while “clearing your mind”. This practice teaches us that there is no thought so brilliant that you must hold onto it. In this manner, you begin to forgive, let go, and create ease in both your body and mind.   Remember, start in baby steps, but really engage in it. Consider it your mind’s commitment to train for the Iron Man-Brain. You’ll find the training will pay off as you begin to meet each moment as it arises, let go in challenging situations, and find the best in yourself.