By Kate Spina
During this COVID-19 pandemic, or any crisis, our body and mind may revert to survival mode, focused solely on staying alive, and struggle to find equilibrium.
There are many Buddhist practices we can use as coping tools, but in survival mode they sometimes feel hard to access. With the early teachings of the Buddha being so vast they can feel overwhelming or difficult to navigate. So I will highlight three practices that can be applied in practical ways to help manage stress during this, or any, crisis.
The Four Elements
The first foundation of mindfulness explores ways to connect to the felt experience of being in a human body. Many of us are introduced to meditation through the breath, but that is simply one object of attention mentioned in this teaching.
The four elements are another way to connect with our present moment experience. Earth, water, air and fire can all be found both internally and externally. We see this elements inside ourselves, but also in the natural world, which can engender a sense of universality and spaciousness. In moments of crisis when we are so internally focused on our own safety, it can be helpful to broaden our view, and this practice can help with that.
This is an exploration that can be done in formal meditation practice or woven in throughout your day. Each element hold different properties. Here is a rundown of the elements, their defining qualities, and the places in the body they are most easily found:
Earth solidity, density/lightness bones, teeth, nails
Water liquidity, cohesion saliva, sweat, muscles
Air movement breath, digestion
Fire temperature skin temperature
If you’re contemplating these elements as a meditation practice, spend time tracking each element through the body. Starting at the feet, and scanning the way up through the body, connect with all of the experiences of earth element. Bones, teeth and nails are some obvious places to connect with the felt experience of solidity and density.
Noticing when your attention strays from the body and elements, and bringing it back without judgement. Once you’ve reached the top of the scalp, scan down the body finding water, then back up witnessing air, and back down with fire. This practice an be as long or as short as you have time for.
If you’re contemplating the elements throughout your day, you may pick moments throughout your day where you stop and witness different elements in the body. Or you may notice an element in your environment, maybe water in a fountain, or the earth element of a tree, and pick that moment to feel that element within yourself.
However you choose to connect with the elements, the hope is that it will enhance your connection with the natural world. As this practice helps broaden perspective it also allows us to depersonalize some of our experience.
Equanimity is one of the four qualities of heart we can cultivate. All of these divine abodes (metta: kindness, karuna: compassion, muditia: appreciative joy, and upekkha: equanimity) are said to help us stay safe amidst fearful circumstances. They are all wonderful qualities to cultivate and I am choosing to focus on equanimity because the need for it has come up in many conversations I have had recently. These practices are taught in different ways, so know that this is just one way of working to help cultivate equanimity.
Equanimity is the balancing factor of the other three brahmaviharas. It is the quality of heart that balances the movement of the heart with wisdom. Equanimity allows us to care, while also owning the limits of that care. With wisdom we understand that we cannot change things just by caring about them. It is not detachment, because our heart is still engaged. We learn to take wise action when appropriate, and we let go of attachment to outcomes.
This Pali word upekkha, while often translated as equanimity, has a more literal translation of “to look out over.” So one way to cultivate this feeling of equanimity, is to visualize looking out over something. Imagining ourselves on a mountain, the top of a building, on the coast or overlooking a valley. When we look out over we get a broad perspective. We can love and care about what we see, but we are at a distance so we cannot influence what is happening below.
We can engage with this visualization practice in a formal way, in a meditation posture with eyes closed. We may find an image or photograph that invokes this feeling within us, or we may draw or paint it. Or, if possible, we may go to a place where we are “looking out over” and meditate on this quality of equanimity in that space. The hope is to find a way to embody or understand this feeling of equanimity so that when we are faced with a situation where we need to call on equanimity you are familiar with the feeling.
Piti (Joy) Cultivation
In a time of crisis it can feel difficult to cultivate joy. Our attention can be so pulled into anxiety and despair and it can feel almost “wrong” to want to be in a place of joy. Our human body survival system has a negativity bias and our mind hangs on to the memories of threats and negative experiences to keep us safe, letting go of the positive experiences more quickly. In a crisis this can be even more amplified. So we actually need to actively cultivate positive emotions to keep ourselves balanced.
Joy is one of the awakening factors and one tool the Buddha suggested to cultivate the feeling of joy is a reflection practice. We turn our attention toward our memories and recall times when we were generous or ethical. As we contemplate these good qualities we often begin to feel more lightness and joy within us. It helps loosen the hold of the unwholesome mind states, and we can make space for wisdom and peace.
It may be small acts of generosity or kindness; smiling at a neighbor, leaving a tip for a barista, or it may be something bigger. The important part is to honor our own goodness and see how it makes us feel.
In the awakening factors, joy leads to tranquility, which is a lovely quality to connect with during moments of struggle. So the joy is helpful on its own, and if it leads to peace that is a lovely bonus.
These are just three tools that can be used to help balance the nervous system during this time of such instability and stress. My hope is that you try these practices on, make them your own, and use them to help you find slivers of peace.
Kate Spina, LCSW, is a meditation teacher based in Los Angeles. She is committed to filling a gap in Early Buddhist meditation offerings, which have often been passed down through patriarchal lineage, and do not always take feminist and 21st century perspectives into account. Kate hosts a weekly podcast: Toward Light: Practical Buddhism for the Modern World.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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