By: Mick Neustadt, LICSW
Mindfulness is having a moment. To be sure, this ancient meditative practice – which encourages us to intentionally and thoughtfully focus on the present in order to be aware of body, thoughts and feelings without getting caught up in them – has been around for thousands of years. But 2020, with the combined forces of a global pandemic, political strife, racial violence, and lives upturned by closures of school and work, has helped pushed mindfulness even further into the consciousness of social culture in the U.S., and atop countless lists of coping strategies for people of all ages.
I came to mindfulness in 1995, as a 20-something trying to make sense of my world and the people around me. For me, mindfulness represents present-moment awareness, which includes having a sense of kindness and curiosity about ourselves and engaging in the practice of non-judgement. Through mindfulness, we can be more aware of and in touch with our inner world – both the joyful and challenging parts – and connect more deeply with the world around us, including its joys and sufferings, so that we can move toward transformation and healing.
The practice can help us navigate any kind of loss and grief, and it’s for this reason that it’s having such a groundswell of notice: While loss and grief are usually tied to very specific, personal moments, the pandemic has made loss a universal truth. Our lives have all been overturned and the very thing that usually helps get us through difficult times – being with friends and family – is not possible. For those of us sitting with another primary loss, our grief is compounded by and exacerbated by also losing our day-to-day freedoms, activities, and connections. That now-empty space, in turn, allows our mind even more time to wander, ruminate, and steep in suffering.
It’s here that mindfulness can enter, as it gives us the ability and practiced skill of being aware of those feelings, recognizing them, addressing them, and responding with care and self-compassion. By pausing, breathing, and feeling our feet on ground – whether for 15 seconds or 15 minutes – we connect more closely with ourselves as we become aware of what’s going on in our mind and body. We’re not trying to banish thoughts – we are creating space to recognize and at times examine them, give ourselves time to sit, settle, and take a step back from our busy mind. In this space, we can choose to skillfully respond rather than react.
I recommend making mindfulness a daily practice by setting a time each day, of any length, to check in with yourself and take a break from work, the flood of news, and responsibilities at home. Find moments to pause and notice without judgement the state of your body, heart and mind. If it helps, set a timer on your phone to take a set amount of time to be fully present, without distraction.
The key to developing a mindfulness practice is to add moments of mindfulness to each day by being fully present in daily activities You might think of this as bringing your mind back to the present. When you eat, just eat. Wash your hands mindfully, and walk your dog without listening to a podcast. Just be. Look at nature. Reset yourself by turning fully toward what you are doing in that moment.
If you have kids, involve them; mindfulness is uniquely suited to kids as young as three, because so much of it is about curiosity and connecting with and listening to your body. Kids are inherently curious, and so much of their rough-and-tumble play helps them naturally connect with their bodies. Additional simple practices could include encouraging them to be aware of their breath – have them lie down with a stuffed animal on their stomach and watch it rise and fall. Engage in listening practices, marked by the chime of a bell. Teach them how to stop and breathe and listen; then, when they’re upset, they’ll already have strategies for self-calming during stressful moments.
Lastly, don’t forget about the power of a group. Mindfulness practices can really stick when you have group support; it’s a new language, and as you’re navigating and learning, it’s important to share the support of others. Online or in person, sit in silence together. Be accountable to one another. Talk about your experiences. Share how you’re bringing mindfulness to your daily life. Confront the times you stopped … and commit to restarting. (You can always begin again!)
Community is stronger than world power. Apps such as Headspace and Insight Timer provided helpful guidance and guided meditations. Search for a mindfulness group in your area. Many are meeting on Zoom.
Mick Neustadt, LICSW, is a mindfulness teacher and psychotherapist, working as a psychotherapist in private practice and part-time at the American University Counseling Center and at the Wendt Center for Loss and Healing. He teaches mindfulness to people of all ages in weekly groups, workshops, schools and on retreats.