Updated: Apr 5
The World Health Organization estimates that we’re about halfway through the pandemic, but at least the worst half seems to be drawing to a close. Meanwhile, experts predict it will take seven to ten years for many individiuals’ mental health to completely heal from various traumas experienced over the past two years. And of course, now we have the war in Ukraine that is not only tragic, but which brings up a lot of fear and nervousness for much of the world’s population. That’s all in addition to economic instability, continuing political strife, and the myriad of daily stressors we all have to navigate as we deal with staff and product shortages. What I take from this is that we’re still going to be living under stressful conditions for quite a while. That makes taking our health and well-being seriously and thankfully, mental health has risen from the largely ignored to a prominent place in the general psyche.
While it’s definitely progress that governments and healthcare professionals are paying more attention to our mental well-being, we’ve all seen that we can’t necessarily rely on our institutions and systems to provide what we need, so it’s still important that we take responsibility for ourselves and learn how to heal and then maintain our own well-being. Which brings me around to the topic of self-care through mindfulness. As with all great things, once it becomes popular, it becomes commercialized, which I’ve talked about before, but my heart sank watching a commercial last week about a company that helps you improve your credit score and that described signing up for this service as a form of self-care. Practicing mindfulness is self-care, but building your credit score so you can get further in debt? I’m not so sure.
Anyway, this all converged in my mind as I was taking a class in neurodiversity in mindfulness and it was suggested that perhaps we stop using the word mindfulness itself, since it is now so associated with a trendy fad that excludes many people. I disagree. Mindfulness has been around for thousands of years and just because it’s being misused now doesn’t take away from its value. Mindfulness is an effective and legitimate method for restoring our well-being, both mentally and physically.
Having said that, there were some very profound issues that arose in the class related to inclusiveness and meditation which is typically a key component of mindfulness. How does a person in a wheelchair do a walking meditation? How does someone with ADHD sit quietly still for any type of meditation? How can someone with aphantasia, or the inability to visualize, benefit from a guided meditation? How confusing might the language used in instructions to meditate be for someone with autism?
What came to my mind was a conversation in my interview with Ora Nadrich on contemplation a few months ago. Meditation is just one type of what are considered contemplative practices and because there is such a variety, perhaps it’s worth considering contemplative practices as a whole as we figure out how to restore our minds, bodies and souls.
According to the Center for Contemplative Mind in Society, “contemplative practices quiet the mind in order to cultivate a personal capacity for deep concentration and insight.” Examples of contemplative practice include not only sitting in silence but also many forms of single-minded concentration including meditation, but also contemplative prayer…focused experiences in nature…and other contemporary physical or artistic practices.”
The root of contemplative practices is awareness, which expands inclusivity of mindfulness substantially and I believe applies to anyone. I’ve talked to many people who are neurotypical and not diagnosed with any mental condition who simply cannot stand to do a sitting meditation. I normally suggest moving meditations, like Yoga, T’ai Chi, Qigong or walking meditations. But expanding out to other contemplative practices greatly increases the options for neurodivergent people or people with physical disabilities to practice mindfulness, in addition to giving all of us some variety as we continue to strengthen our mindfulness skills.
If you have trouble with meditating due to physical discomfort, boredom, or distress over focusing on your thoughts, consider these alternatives. There is contemplative music and art, singing and chanting, journaling and even storytelling that can help you heighten your own self-awareness along with awareness of your surroundings and others. Meditation is a powerful and effective tool to increase mindfulness, but it is by no means the only way.
Consider the focus in mindfulness meditation on the breath. A very common problem now is breathing challenges due to having had or currently having some variant of Covid 19. Switching to focusing on an object instead of the breath is an easy alternative for neurotypical people, while changing to silently counting might work better for someone who is neurodivergent. The most important point here is that there is enough variety in contemplative practices that there is no reason for exclusivity. It’s more a matter of experimenting to find which practice works best for any individual.
Many of us also need alternatives when we encounter temporary health challenges. Formal yoga was out during the first year of my PMR, but gentle stretching was fine, which becomes an excellent practice to build mindfulness when paying focused attention on each movement.
Another area of contemplative practice is in religion or spiritual practices. The National Institutes of Health describes spiritual awareness as a state of being and accessible across contemplative practices. Customs, habits or rituals are often vehicles to heightened awareness and insight. When we are in a state of increased awareness, we are conscious of our thoughts and emotions and move from the reactive mind to the responsive mind. That’s mindfulness. So go to mass or keep shabbat or observe the Sabbath. Or just spend some time in prayer.
The key to building mindfulness through contemplative practice is the same as with meditation alone – consistency and repetition. Having an anchor to turn to when feeling anxious, fearful, angry or even hopeless allows us to work through the uncomfortable feelings and stress that arises from so many of the events occurring in our world today. The more mindful we become, the more resilient we become. Clearly, we’re going to have to be resilient to get through all of this.
According to the NIH, when it comes to contemplative practices, intolerance and lack of compassion may contribute to poor health and national disparities. That includes self-compassion and self-tolerance. Instead of feeling like you can’t do mindfulness the way it’s being promoted these days, take a step back and remember that you deserve well-being, regardless of your current circumstances or situation. If you can’t practice one way, try another. Be tolerant of others who may need to adapt or adjust their practices to fit their needs. Mindfulness may not be able to fix the world’s problems, but it can go a very long way in healing ourselves as well as increasing our compassion for others. Considering the state of the world, that can only be a positive.