As the world grapples with the fast-moving spread of the coronavirus, many of us may be out of our normal routines. Maybe we’re trying to answer email with kids at home; maybe we’re worried about loved ones or our own financial wellbeing in this uncertain time.
For many, the uncertainty is causing real anxiety. Julie Brefczynski-Lewis, an assistant research professor at West Virginia University, says one way to cope is with something called compassion meditation. While many of us are practicing social distancing to help slow the spread of the virus, tapping into our compassion for others may help manage coronavirus-related anxiety.
West Virginia Public Broadcasting reporter Brittany Patterson spoke with Brefczynski-Lewis about how thinking of others during this time can help us all feel less alone. Here is an excerpt from their conversation, which was recorded over Zoom.
***Editor’s Note: The following has been edited for clarity and length.
BP: What is compassion meditation?
JBL: Compassion meditation is part of mindfulness, but it takes it a step further and does an imaginative exercise where you purposefully cultivate a positive feeling of compassion. It can be for yourself; it can be for others. There’s different types of compassion meditation, but they often follow a step-by-step sequence. So, starting with someone you really care about, and you know, just thinking of them makes you smile, and wishing them happiness and wishing them joy and [the] easing of their suffering. And from there, you can step to other people or maybe yourself if you have trouble having compassion for yourself.
BP: Tell us about the role this can play in a time like we’re facing right now where things seem really uncertain and fluid?
JBL:My recommendation when I was asked about it earlier by WVU is based on my own experience of also being stressed. What happens for me when I’m stressed is I sometimes get a sense of claustrophobic anxiety, or I just start to spin a little bit. In neuroimaging, you can actually see a network of self-rumination start to fire up. And compassion is sort of like a little escape from that circuit. So, we did a study on long-term meditating monks who are really good at doing this meditation, and found that they were activating pro-social areas. So, our brains are wired to be social. And this is a pretty weird time because we’re wired to be social and we’re all kind of isolated. But if we think about the fact that all those other people are out there, and they’re all kind of trying to make it work and trying to, you know, get around their own anxiety. And, ‘oh I wish them well’ then you start to activate that pro-social network, even when you’re home isolating.
BP: It’s like we’re all anxious together.
JBL: We’re all anxious together, exactly. And that’s actually … there’s some solidarity in that. The posts that I often see on social media that I think are quite uplifting are related to that. They say ‘hey, we’re all in this together. We’re all going to do our best to help others if we can.’ Those types of things are very uplifting and why? It’s because we can think of other people and that takes the emphasis off our own little claustrophobic misery.
BP: Are there techniques that could help us be more mindful and do they take a lot of time?
JBL: No, and that’s the beauty. If you’re in a moment where you’re just noticing, you know, a tree branch, a leaf, a, you know, a reflection in a pool of water — all those little things take the mind off our anxiety and place it on something that can be quite beautiful. That’s often used, for example, in mindfulness-based cognitive therapy. You realize, you think, ‘Oh, I’m just anxious all day long. I’m just depressed all day long.’ Well, you know, there are moments where you might see something beautiful and you if become a little bit aware and remind yourself … maybe even on your computer screen … you could put a little reminder that comes up on your phone to say, ‘hey, breathe.’
And then when you breathe, you look around and you use your senses. ‘Hey, you know, I smell dinner cooking that smells really good.’ Or, ‘I see a little bird perched there on the tree and I can’t believe it’s spring.’
If you just notice how beautiful something is, go into that a little bit. And then imagine sharing that with others. So if you want to turn that into a compassion meditation, you could just imagine ‘may all enjoy the beauty of the beautiful bird outside.’ Or ‘may all enjoy the beauty of a child’s smile or whatever funny video.’
BP: I imagine a lot of us are feeling a lot of anxiety. We’re in situations that are new and changing. What advice would you offer to people as they try to navigate staying calm and taking care of their mental health during this time?
JBL: Over and over, I would just say be gentle with yourself. If you did this practice and then all of a sudden you find yourself angry or uptight or anxious or stressed throughout the day and you feel at any point the word ‘should’ come up, please be gentle. Because all of us are struggling and that’s going to happen. You’re going to feel stressed.
This article was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.