Mindfulness in the time of the Virus

21st April 2020

I’d like to share some thoughts around my experience of mindfulness and the evolution of this across the last few years. This is a personal story, but I hope some of it may help in providing guidance to others, on how to approach living with a more mindful attitude.

I am fairly new to this game. It was only in the summer of 2018, at 50+ years, and after I had suffered a very close and painful bereavement, that I felt I desperately needed something to assist, both with the grieving process and to help me to live in a way that would feel bearable.

Two years later, I meditate most days. I have completed a distance learning course with The Mindfulness Network, attended both secular and Buddhist retreats and visited Buddhist temples in cities around the world.

The crux of my message is, to take the time to be kind to ourselves. We all take time to look after our bodies – how we exercise, how we look and what we eat; but (as we know from all the statistics around mental health) little time is spent looking after our minds. For me, that’s all mindfulness is. We get to mindfulnessthrough meditation and this is a really simple way for us to look after our minds and ourselves, better. And of course, this subject is so relevant right now. With so much negative noise in the world (and in our heads) techniques in this area are the perfect tonic for these tricky times.

Mindfulness – being aware of what you are doing while you are doing it (e.g. breathing, washing your hands, brushing your teeth) and not thinking about the past or future, also has a chemical benefit for the body, as it releases serotonin ‘the happy drug’ into the system.

Detractors may suggest that this represents a way of avoiding reality. I would suggest the opposite is true. The real reality is about who we essentially are – how we feel now in the present moment. This is how we feel when divorced from an email deluge, Netflix bingeing or what is currently trending on social media. Meditation is a gateway, through which we can access this mindful reality and turn down the noise in our heads.

Having said the above, I see the challenges we are facing and how these may make being mindful more difficult. While we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to reassess our approach to living, it may be that stressful circumstances make it hard to achieve at this time.
In response to this challenge, I would say that positive changes can be made if the approach is right. My suggestion (and what worked for me) is to take things very gradually to begin with. Start very small, e.g. a short meditation every day if you can, and build from there.

Another obstacle, to making this part of your life, is finding the time and making space in your schedule. My trick was to meditate on the train going into work. Although that’s a pretty noisy space, I found it worked just fine once I got into the rhythm. In our lockdown world, many of us have more time on our hands, so the trick is to find a slot in the day that works for you.

So, what would I recommend? Which mindfulness channels have been helpful to me and which would I suggest taking a look at?

  • Headspace (One million users worldwide) – is a great place to start. The founder, is the inspirational Andy Puddicombe, ex-Buddhist monk and main voice of the brand. The short introductory meditations are the ideal place to start and the accompanying explanatory animations provide invaluable guidance. I downloaded the app back in 2016 (thank you Alice Darby) but didn’t look at it next until my bereavement in 2018. Finding it again at that point, was transformative for me.
  • Street Wisdom – Provide creative ‘walkshops’, with a mission to bring inspiration to every street on earth. The Street Wisdom gang provided me with an introduction to mindfulness in 2012 and inspired me to do a TED Talk on the subject : How Street Wisdom Changed My Life. Whilst we are stuck at home they have created a set of exercises to suit – Street Wisdom Comes Home
  • A number of mindfulness bodies are offering services online and free. As result it is now much easier to access their services than it was previously. Some examples of these are The MindfulnessNetwork, Gaia House and the London Buddhist Centre. The LBC is running really enjoyable morning meditations, next week, at 8.15am and 8.30 am BST. For beginners and those who have been doing it a while. A great way to start the day.
  • Finally, I love the meditations, mindfulness excercises and retreats offered by Just Breathe. Their app provides a 20-minute meditation with musical accompaniment. A great option if you feel that sitting in silence might prove tricky.

As I write this, it looks like the lockdown may be shortly lifted, in part, in the UK and is happening in other countries too. To be clear, I feel that a mindful approach can help now and it can also assist us in an uncertain future.

This uncertain future will put our lives more outside of our personal control. This is important to understand, because frustration and stress often arises from events that are not to our liking and that we cannot control. Mindfulness can help with this. It exposes us to ‘our experience’ (how we are feeling now), softens feelings of frustration and helps us live in a more aware and relaxed fashion. It also ,on a personal note, helps greatly with sleeping. I find that meditation breathing techniques are a sure-fire way of getting to sleep quickly and comfortably.

There can also be benefits in terms of how we ‘think’ and this can impact on our professional and personal lives. When we think about where we have our best ideas, we notice that these happen in seemingly unusual places, for example – in the bath, in the shower, going for a run, or swimming in the sea. There is a reason for this. These are times when we are more aware of the present and less distracted by past and future events. As we are focusing on our current experience our minds become clearer, less cluttered and it is into the gaps that ideas flow. Mindfulness is like this but on steroids. It engenders a freshness in the way we think and approach problems and creative challenges. This was nicely highlighted by Dr Danny Penman in his book Mindfulness for Creativity: Adapt, create and thrive in a frantic world.

Finally, I’d like to share a ‘letter to myself’, that I wrote at the end of a retreat in February this year. It went down as a stream of consciousness and I shared it, with a great deal of trepidation, amongst the group at the end of the weekend. I include it here as a summary of the benefits that mindfulness can bring.

Well Done, Well Done. It’s not indulgent. 

Look at where you are, what you have done. How you fit in and why it doesn’t matter.

How you can be still and quiet. How you feel it is the best thing ever. 
You can do it, and you used to think that it was impossible. 

You said it had to change; something good had to come from the terrible. You’re starting to do that, to feel it. You need to learn to hold it and carry it. 

Whatever the past, there is no profit, for anyone, of living there.
Look around, move forward and lift up.

Nick Hammond. 21 April 2020. In memory of my son, Rory Elliot Hammond, who would have been 22 years old today.