Mindfulness in an Emergency

When the streets are burning, pandemic is spreading, and ecology is crumbling, what do we do with our mindfulness practice? Practice the Three R’s of Mindfulness to rise to the moment: Regulation, Resilience, Realization.

Photo by Heather Mount on Unsplash

When the streets are burning, pandemic is spreading, and ecology is crumbling, what do we do with our mindfulness practice? In an emergency many of us go to rage, some of us shrink into depression, others, like myself, fall into anxiety and fear. I use the Three R’s of Mindfulness as a tool to be able to rise to the moment of an emergency, without crumbling and without unconsciously harming. The first R is Regulation, with which we need to begin in order to find our center in the storm. Then we can step up to Resilience, where we meet the current situation from as balanced and heart-centered a space as possible. Finally, we can get to Realization, where we witness the larger systems at work that are truly causing the pain in our world and work with love, courage, and insight to transform what can be healed in ourselves and what is around us.

Three R’s of Mindfulness

1. Regulation

As the pandemic began spreading through the California Bay Area, much in the same way fires had scorched hillsides only miles from our house the previous fall, I noticed my mindful demeanor tested. One of the main reasons I began practicing when I was in my teens was because I used to get panic attacks and the embodied breathing I learned helped me weather these profoundly uncomfortable inner storms. Since the initial calming and regulating experiences, my journey of mindfulness deepened into more revelatory and spiritual dimensions. But with this pandemic, I once again found myself tight of breath, not a pleasant experience when you are terrified you may get a lung virus, and using those old down-regulating breath techniques.

No longer an anxious teen, now I am a father and a mindfulness educator. And if I’m dysregulated it’s as if the captain of the ship is panicking and the passengers are not going to feel very safe. My role now isn’t just to settle my own nervous system but to help my family system and school systems. I’m no longer looking outside for help, I’m being asked for it, and in times like this we need to be the leaders we are looking for.

Regulation is what I began with as a teenager and what I needed to go back to when the pandemic began. This is what many of us need to focus on at the moment for stress reduction and emotional balance. Regulation tracks with Maslow’s first two hierarchies of needs. We need our physiological and safety needs met before we think more about things like self-actualization. The stress of what is happening exacerbates difficulties in relationships as well as our health and emotions. We also have seen the disproportionate pain afflicting those who already are the least privileged. For most of us, when we are in an emergency we aren’t thinking very philosophically about the situation, which is appropriate. We need to make sure we have food to feed our family, money to pay rent, and, of course, toilet paper.

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Many regulation practices are aimed at up-regulating or down-regulating our energy so that we can find an optimal zone of operation. Even without this pandemic we often need to begin here for students and adults with chronic stress and personal and collective trauma. Mindfulness is a profound practice for identifying when we are dysregulated and utilizing the tools to bring ourselves back into equilibrium.

It’s important to state that we are not trying to get rid of anger, sadness, or anxiety. All of these feelings are important and often justified. Anger, sadness, and fear in the face of police brutality are the appropriate responses. But breathing first and regulating our systems, listening to the wisdom of the emotions, will then allow us to respond with much greater clarity and effectiveness. Let’s try a regulation practice right now.

Regulation Practice

Scan through your body and identify any hotspots of stress, tension, or difficult emotions. Then on a long sweeping in-breath get a sense of breathing all that stress into the pit of your stomach. Hold the breath there for five seconds, then on a long exhale breath everything down into the earth.  Keep breathing this way for at least a few minutes and then sweep through the body again to notice if there is any change in the body. Often there can be a significant calming of tension. For kids, we call this the vacuum cleaner breath and we imagine there is a vacuum in the belly that is sucking up all the tension in the body and then emptying it out on the exhale.

2. Resilience

Once I was able to find my emotional center and bring my body back to a calm enough state, then I was able to extend outward to those struggling more than I from the pandemic and from systemic oppression. Mindfulness is not just about being calm and happy, it’s about opening our awareness wide and seeing clearly. We may need to shut out the suffering of the world at moments in order to regulate, but once we have found our balance we can resiliently extend ourselves to feel the broken heart of the world and listen to how we are called to respond. If you truly open your heart you cannot help but see the suffering of others as your own suffering, as an interconnected struggle for healing.

It is vital right now to ask what healing work in the world is calling us, but with that question, we must explore what inner work is called for. It’s imperative that we continually come back to our regulation because if we extend ourselves out into the world without being as rooted in safety and support as possible then we burn out or act out. With resilience, we can enter into difficult conversations and actions without getting as triggered, or at least we can be aware of the triggers so they don’t knock us off our balance beam. Protesting and speaking truth to power is profoundly important right now, but when we go to the street or spew onto twitter without checking into our own bodies and hearts, then we can easily inflict the same unconscious rage and closed-mindedness that we are upset about in the first place. Our mindfulness practice first helps us to identify when we have been taken over by fear and anger, and hopefully, we are able to embrace those feelings with awareness and care, giving ourselves enough space to navigate from clarity.

There is so much pain and injustice that is being starkly revealed on a global scale and when we are grounded in resilience we can march with courage and integrity. This takes the perpetual inner work of regulating and then noticing when we are being pulled off our center. Again, anger, sadness, and fear are all important feelings. They hold information we can utilize in how we engage with healing in the world. But if we are run by these feelings, rather than listening to the wisdom they have to show us, then we are as lost as those we are engaging. This necessitates the mindfulness of witnessing all the parts of our selves, not being caught in every feeling and thought we have, and being open to many perspectives. Even if you profoundly disagree with someone, with true resilience you can engage with them from your maturity. Every human being at their core wants love and safety, even if they are very lost and causing great harm. Often, in debates, we are all triggered and acting from our scared or angry child selves. With resilience, you can be the adult in the room, which is so refreshing and powerful when someone can hold that brave and nuanced stance in our habitually immature social landscape. This gives us a steady strength to embody the qualities of love and wisdom we are asking for in the world.

Resilience Practice

You could begin with a few vacuum breaths to find your regulation. Then let your breath be natural. Notice if it is long or short, tight or relaxed. No need to change anything, just be fully aware of the breath as it is. Once you have found a sense of calm centeredness you can begin to scan through the body again asking yourself the question, “Are there any feelings or thoughts that are stopping me from being fully present right now?” See if you notice any stress or difficult feelings, and if you notice any, bring your breath right into that area with care. Notice if any thoughts or feelings are grabbing you and see if you can take a little space to welcome all of yourself with interest and care.

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3. Realization

There are many realizations to be had at this moment. The pandemic and protests in our streets force us to look at the world in a newly interdependent way. The reason that many extreme sports athletes love flipping around in the air, right on the verge of death, is that the experience can elicit what is very similar to an awakened meditative state. Here there are no superfluous thoughts and there is a crystalline, present moment awareness that feels awesome. Emergencies can do this to us, where all of a sudden we see the education system on the verge of collapse and there is an opportunity to think completely out of the box about how we can transform. Emergency comes from the root word emerge, to arise or come to light. We pray in an emergency such as the one that rises in the wake of George Floyd’s murder that more people will wake up to the need for systemic change and basic human dignity. We already are seeing the seeds of transformation in law enforcement ushered in by protests and generations of civil rights warriors. We hope that the global pandemic will open people’s eyes to our interconnectedness and to the preciousness of life. We hope that the ecological emergency awakens an understanding of our utter dependence on nature, that we are nature, and of our daily impact on the world that feeds us.

The spiritual awakenings and understanding of larger systems are necessary if we wish to live in peace on this precious planet. But we can’t just jump straight to realization. Spiritual practice without embodiment and relationality is called spiritual bypassing. We don’t want to use our mindfulness as a way to escape from the struggles in our world or to simply blame others who we think are less evolved. We want to be regulated in our bodies and minds, resilient in our relating to the community and world we live in, and then to open to a greater worldview and spiritual vision so we can be leaders with integrity and wisdom in a world that badly needs us.

Realization Practice

As a realization practice you can begin by taking some vacuum cleaner breaths and then scanning your body to see if there are any parts that need to be welcomed and settled. If you can find your regulated resilience then allow your awareness to open wide. Recognize all the sounds, sights, smells, and sensations around you. Breathing in, you can bring your awareness of all those suffering around the world, feeling our interconnected global heart. Then with each exhale see if you can lovingly commit yourself to offering back to nature and all those who are suffering everywhere. Breathing in, experience your interconnection with all people and all things and breathing out, commit yourself to your regulation, your resilience, and your realization.

Daniel Rechtschaffen, Marriage and Family Therapist, is the author of The Way of Mindful Education and The Mindful Education Workbook. He is the co-founder and senior advisor of Transformative Educational Leadership. Daniel offers keynote speeches and mindfulness trainings at conferences, schools, communities, and businesses, such as University of Wisconsin Madison, Google, Esalen Institute, and schools around the globe. He is the founding director of Mindful Education, a mindfulness and social emotional learning platform for educators. Learn more here

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