How to cultivate inner peace in the era of COVID, insurrection

Now more than ever, it’s important that we develop and practice relaxation and mindfulness skills that calm our minds and bodies.

Cultivate Inner Peace

During these past two years, many have struggled to retain inner peace. The threat of COVID-19, loss of hundreds of thousands of lives, economic turmoil, school closings, political and social divisiveness, storming of the capital and impact of climate change has resulted in great upheaval in our country, and also distressed our nervous systems. As a psychologist, I’ve seen a tsunami wave of anxiety in children and adults ignited by the social, political and public health crises we’ve experienced.

While we’ve adjusted, to some degree, to the limitations imposed by the pandemic, our bodies are not so adaptive — they’re far more primitive. The sense of threat, frustration, uncertainty and continual change registers in our bodies and minds. As Dr. Van Der Kolk, a world-renowned specialist in trauma notes, “the body keeps the score.” Indeed, it does, with more irritability, increased alcohol and drug use, muscle tension, headaches, lower back pain and GI disturbances.

Now more than ever, it’s important that we develop and practice relaxation and mindfulness skills that calm our minds and bodies. I grew interested in these techniques back in the 1970s when I explored a range of approaches for what we called “stress management.” Back then, I developed a program called “Management of Stress Training” that taught corporate and government executives a wide range of relaxation skills that are still taught today. In the 1960s, an Indian spiritual leader promoted Transcendental Meditation (TM), which was popularized by the Beatles. Jon Kabat-Zinn Ph.D., a psychologist, popularized the practice of mindfulness in the late 1970s which became more widespread in the early 1990s. Today, meditation apps for our smartphones are available to help us develop greater calm through guided meditation and visualization, like Headspace, Calm and the Healthy Minds Program, to name a few.

I started meditating regularly in the early 1970s and have continued to practice meditation for the last 50 years. It requires nothing more than a commitment to devote a brief period to strengthen this skill daily. It’s helped me maintain my peace during these tumultuous times.

So, how can you get started?

Meditation made easy. Sit in a quiet place with your back straight. Start by taking three easy long breaths. Take a moment to notice how your body feels, starting from the top of your head down to your toes. Then, simply pay attention to your breath. Notice your chest rising and lowering as you breathe and the air going in and out of your nose. When you become aware that you’re thinking or following a train of thought, simply go back to watching your breath. Your attention will naturally wander, and you will go back and forth from thinking and observing your breath. Set the timer on your cell phone and start with five minutes.

Make it convenient. Finding a time that is convenient makes it easier to establish a habit. When our kids were young, I woke up a little early so I could meditate before everyone woke up. For some people, later in the day or evening is more convenient. To establish a routine, it must be easy.

Start small. Everyone has five minutes to devote to sitting still! Start with a reasonable goal of meditation several times a week. As time goes on, and you begin to enjoy this experience, you will naturally want to add time and sessions. For most of the last 50 years, I meditated for 20-30 minutes a day.

Meditation is a skill. Learning and remembering the muscle memory of relaxation takes practice, just like perfecting your tennis serve or improving your skiing ability. Be patient. Don’t evaluate your experience daily. Just keep at it.

Your body will thank you.

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

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