How to cultivate a ‘big mind’ to deal with everyday stresses

Meditation, yoga, tai chi, mindfulness, prayer and breathing practices can help you find inner peace.

We are living through hard times — a COVID-19 surge after a brief letup, a deeply divided nation and spreading wildfires in the west.

With summer coming to a close, schools are finally opening for in-person classes. But as COVID infections increase in our state, we’re fearful of what may happen as schools open. We are living with a high degree of uncertainty, unpredictability and anxiety.

And then, we struggle with the more ordinary challenges of every day, from the minor to the major and everything in-between.

Last week, my 18-month-old grandson decided that he doesn’t want to take a nap or go to sleep without having his back rubbed until he nods off. His parents are at their wits’ end. My older brother learned that he has coronary artery disease. My 80-year-old friend may have a breast cancer reoccurrence. And my friend Sam learned that his job may be disappearing.

Our minds and bodies react to these challenges. Imagine throwing a rock into a small pond on a windless, sunny day. When the water is still, the pond reflects everything around it — the sky, the trees and the flowers.

When the rock hits the surface, there’s a big splash and sound. Waves quickly spread out across the pond, bouncing against the shores. Now the rough water is opaque. Depending on the size of the rock and the body of water, these ripples can last a long time.

Our minds are like this small pond, registering the magnitude of the stressor. Our bodies, responding to the disturbance in our mind, cause ripples in our muscles, heart and our breath. These physical and mental waves disrupt our inner peace.

And now imagine throwing the same stone into the Puget Sound. There is still a splash where the rock hits the water. But then the shock is absorbed by the vast breadth and depth of this large body of water, and is only registered for a brief moment before it returns to its previous state.

In our lives, both big and small rocks are thrown into our ponds every day. Sometimes they are small, like pebbles, and represent minor frustrations and disappointments. Other times, like in my brother’s situation, they are large and make a big splash with rolling waves.

It is helpful to cultivate a “big mind” that can absorb these stresses and strains in our lives without causing undue waves that upset our bodies and our minds.

Notice how your mind and body reacts to the rocks that are thrown into your pond. What happens to your muscles, your heart, your breath? What thoughts fly through your mind? Where does your mind go when you experience frustration, disappointment, fear or anger? Do you find yourself at the bottom of a rabbit hole of negative thinking? Or are you able to let your thoughts and feelings go? This self-awareness can help you find ways to settle your mind.

Establish a practice which helps you nurture a “big mind.” This is a little different than applying first aid when your mind is disturbed, like taking a walk, exercise, listening to music, prayer or deep breathing — all very useful antidotes to daily distress. But it’s also important to establish practices that cultivate a big mind, one that can more easily absorb the stresses and strains of life as it unfolds. This ultimately prevents the waves from spreading. Meditation, yoga, tai chi, mindfulness exercises, martial arts, prayer and breathing practices can slowly but surely help you find greater inner peace.

We can’t control what happens to us, but we can learn how to keep our peace.

Paul Schoenfeld is a clinical psychologist at The Everett Clinic. His Family Talk blog can be found at www.everettclinic.com/health-wellness-library.html.

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