In the midst of this –
Staying connected but grounded.
I am adding one or two extra blogs at the moment in case it is helpful to reflect on what mindfulness has to offer us ‘in the midst of this’.
I noted in my last blog that we will all be facing such very different circumstances at the moment: some nightmarish and some reasonably peaceful; some struggling badly with isolation and others wanting a bit less contact. But as a principle for mindfulness engagement, ‘staying connected but grounded’ can be a good maxim for all of us and here are some thoughts on this.
Three zones of experience
At some point along a mindfulness course we will often teach that it is a good thing to become aware of what constitutes our individual ‘place of refuge’, our ‘place of challenge’ and our ‘place of overwhelm’.
Place of refuge.
Our ‘place of refuge’ is where we feel very at ease, calm and safe. It will have as much to do with outer circumstances as it has to do with inner experience. But it is possible to experience it through mindfulness practice even when outer experience is challenging or threatening to overwhelm us. ‘Wise distraction’ must always be remembered as our first call when things are very tough (if we have the choice) – turning our attention away from what is causing distress towards something which feels more nourishing and resourcing. But many mindfulness practices will also help and these will be the ones that give us a sense of stability and grounding: body scan, mindful movement, work with breath and body etc., though really it is for each of us to come to know through experience what will help us to reconnect with this place of safety and refuge – and so to know how to return to it at any time that we need to. And it is important to note that this is not running away from difficulty but is about looking after ourselves – indeed, building up a ‘bank’ of steadiness which will enable us to cope better when difficulty is here.
Place of challenge.
However, although it is really important that we know how to return to our place of refuge, this will not be a place where we will grow, discover new things or are able to show much compassion to others. So most of us would not want to be in this place all the time but would want to venture further out into our ‘place of challenge’. Again this will be different for each of us. For some it will be about choosing to read certain news items which we may normally want to avoid – in order to feel a bit more connected with what others are going through at the moment. Others, of course, are already being thrown relentlessly into and beyond their place of challenge every day and so there is no effort needed to find their place of challenge but rather the effort needed is to regularly connect with their place of refuge. In terms of news, I access my news through the BBC web-site and on the whole I tend to avoid video items as I find them so powerful but last week I deliberately watched a clip of an NHS nurse talking about her recent work shift and about how they were hardly coping but how they were struggling on. She was herself still very stressed – distressed – and it cut me through. But I was glad I watched it. On the one hand it would be no good just letting myself get overwhelmed by everything since I would probably then want to withdraw completely. But this was a really helpful way for me to connect with what is happening ‘out there’ – what many people are experiencing as their norm day by day in these times. Other days it might be wise for me not to watch such clips but on that day I felt able and it was good. It gave more weight to our NHS clapping on Thursday evenings.
So, again, managing how much I connect with what is going on will be part of it. But also the mindfulness practices ‘sounds and thoughts’, ‘being with the difficult’ and ‘befriending’ will all have elements of deliberately opening us up to and being with challenging thoughts, emotions and memories. And working with these kinds of practices will help us to connect both with what is going on ‘out there’ and with the personal stuff it brings up in us – which will, in turn, be a key part of the route both to deeper compassion and wise action.
Place of overwhelm.
But we should also always keep an eye on when we are approaching our place of overwhelm. If we start to become overwhelmed not much good really happens. Our minds become less clear, our decision making begins to get muddled, we become difficult to be with and we are not much use to others. As well as the fact that it is really unpleasant and may cause us to withdraw rather sharply form any kind of connection.
So, in general, overwhelm is to be avoided. And so it is best to see it coming and to take some sort of evasive action. And this will mean returning to the strategies which connect us with our place of refuge: ‘wise distraction’ and the ‘grounding’ mindfulness practices.
Connected but grounded.
Which brings me back to the title of this piece. We do naturally want to connect with all that is going on. We want to do all we can to support others. We want our hearts to expand with compassion. But we each need to recognise when we are close to our limits and need to pull back a bit (if it is possible in the circumstances at the time of course). So, connecting while remaining grounded is the image which helps me – as if making sure I am really well anchored to the side of the river before reaching out to help someone who is caught in the rapids. And, of course, the more work I do on my ‘grounding’ – building up resilience while in my place of refuge – the more I will be able to venture out into the place of challenge.
I very much hope you will increasingly sense this feeling of groundedness through your meditation practice even as you connect with all that is going on in these strange, unstable times.