Living for nearly a year in the throes of a global pandemic peppered with civil unrest, national division, and global economic uncertainty has left most of us feeling overwhelmed and powerless to do much in response. Hungry for a sunnier outlook, I tapped the collective wisdom of three mindfulness masters, who generously shared their practical advice for successfully navigating these uncertain times—from peeling ourselves off the ceiling to meaningfully influencing our environments.
“It’s actually a radical act to become still right now,” says Mindful Mornings Miami radio host and The Mindful Entrepreneur founder, Suzanne Jewell. With a keen understanding of the biology and community connection underlying meditation, Jewell expertly lays out the science of stillness and the tremendous opportunities it offers each of us today.
“Most of us are in a hyper vigilant, triggered state right now,” she shares. “The mind secretes thoughts like the mouth secretes saliva, generating nearly 90,000 thoughts per day. Half of our lives are naturally spent with distracted minds, a million miles from our bodies, thinking about last night’s argument, the grocery list, and tomorrow’s soccer commitment. Add to that the flood of pandemic news and digital media, and our nervous systems have never been here before.”
A former global television executive responsible for programming launches across 47 countries, she knows a thing or two about managing chaos. Jewell says its more—not less attention we should afford our sources of stress to become still. “While it may seem counterintuitive, by leaning into what we’re all facing, our overwrought nervous systems have the opportunity to move energy away so our mind can get still. Mindfulness is actually about getting more present to the body, allowing it to teach you to manage what happens in the mind, and recognizing and regulating the thoughts, emotions and feelings that originate from that.”
She says the biological impact of that presence is striking. “No different than an athlete training their muscles, there is physical evidence when you train the attention of your mind. In an MRI or EEG, a brain trained for decades in meditation reveals several benefits: A smaller amygdala – or fear center in the temporal lobe of the brain, a larger prefrontal cortex with healthier grey matter - responsible for focus and processing information, and longer telomeres – responsible for preventing DNA damage and a direct indicator of the lifespan of the cells within your body.”
Speaking to meditation’s capacity to powerfully transform our stressful experiences and influence the outcomes across every aspect of our lives, she adds, “Bliss is a horrible teacher. Compassion arises through your own strife, and it’s in the sorrow that we grow. Discovering through a regular practice that your pain and grief are not just yours—but the pain and grief of simply being human, is a rich gift indeed. Recognizing that human experience skips no one, and that my suffering is also your suffering is what connects us all—and the frame that changes everything.
Jewell says stillness has the power to wield meaningful change not just in your own life, but throughout the world. “By practicing with intention, we see ourselves more clearly, we soften our hearts, expand our window of tolerance, and begin to actually see one another. Whether or not you agree with another person’s ideologies, you’re able to recognize their pain. And when we meet at our shared pain points - we can heal our wounds together. I believe that if every eight-year-old learned to meditate, we could conceivably end ancient practices like war in a single generation.”
London-based, Mindfulness Coaching founder Kate Greenslade has been busy during the pandemic counseling individuals on Zoom, coaching teams online, and soothing stressed-out souls on social media. A seasoned leader of group wellness workshops, international retreats, and tailored programs for individuals, she shows the common lay person how to transcend discrete events and completely transform their circumstances. Seem impossible? She’ll tell you it’s not all that complicated.
It’s not easy, but it’s simple,” Greenslade reports. “A common misconception around meditation is that it’s sitting cross legged in a cave for hours. When folks understand what it really is, and how it can help—they’re usually hooked. At the highest level, meditation is the practical added element that allows you to move forward and make meaningful changes. Beyond other wisdom traditions and philosophies, it’s an arsenal of practical exercises, techniques and tools that is totally bespoke to you, and can be instantly leveraged to create what you need in exactly the moment you need it.”
Highlighting a regular meditation practice’s natural bias toward immediate self-empowerment, she adds, “It brings another level of being into the present that takes you from inertia to action. It is not backward facing.” At this moment in history, where so many of us regularly find ourselves paralyzed like deer in headlights by the disturbing news developments of the hour—it’s an enticing invitation out.
Laying out an abridged version of immediate response to stressful situations, Greenslade reiterates that while the tenets of practice are simple – they are not easy. “A lot of the tools and techniques are fairly simple concepts, but practicing them doesn’t mean you automatically get it, and say, right – I’m done.’ It really comes down to two things: connecting with your breath, and committing to engage in the three basic tenets of meditation: becoming aware, keeping present with the breath, and with compassion—allowing the moment to be just as it is.”
Underscoring the power of connecting with the breath as the first response to stress, she explains, “Not only is our breath the one thing we can always anchor ourselves to, in order to break the spiral of thoughts that are making us feel awful—it’s literally a way to regulate our nervous system. What’s interesting is that breathing is an autonomic system that we can also control. Our breathing pattern is the literal manifestation of our emotions. Think of the breath as a boat, and the sea it sits on as your emotions. Shallow, fast breathing is like a choppy sea revealing stress and pensiveness. You can immediately regulate this sea of emotion and your physical responses by levelling the boat with deep, conscious breathing— returning to a calm state of equilibrium to effectively cope with life.”
The range of meaningful change that Greenslade reports individuals can achieve through a regular meditation practice is considerable. “Personal relationships can be substantially influenced by a meditation practice—from letting go of past resentments and assumptions of how others see you, to reconnecting with family members, and feeling more connected to your teams at work. Intrapersonally, it can inspire a wellspring of change—from no longer feeling guilty about spending time on yourself and your passions, to feeling good about who you are, and having a more peaceful relationship with your mind. Perhaps most meaningful in these times, however, is the fundamental change of recognizing that the stress and anxiety we’re all experiencing right now will most certainly pass—as everything is in constant, ever-changing flow."
Turns out that taking charge of your mind and emotions also has the capacity to meaningfully change medical outcomes. Following a freqently observed reduction in the ear-ringing experience of tinnitus among her clients, Greenslade is currently engaged in a medical study examining the impact of mindfulness on post-surgical outcomes. She explains, “The impact of leveraging meditation to support post-operative care is especially compelling, and we’re exploring the depth of the role that meditation can play in how the body deals with trauma and copes with pain. Recovering in a calm state versus and anxious state could be a definitive game changer, because it eliminates resistance: When you fight and struggle with things—you suffer, but as soon as you drop the struggle—the suffering stops.”
Calm is Your Superpower author and Alive in the Fire yoga blogger, Rachel Koontz offers a powerful perspective on finding stillness, rooted in dynamic energy. “With so many things in our daily routines changing overnight, and so many unknowns over the past year—energetically speaking, we’re all shifting faster than usual,” she reflects. “As uncomfortable and gritty as that has been for each of us individually and as a community, it also offers us the chance to examine what we want to focus on, how we choose to let the daily news impact our lives, and how we want to live.
A yogi, master-level reiki practitioner, and aspiring ultramarathoner, Koontz is a potent energy source in her right, who gives props to both seated and moving meditation practices. “There are so many different paths to stillness,” she offers. “There really almost has to be, because we’re all so different.”
Addressing the fears of those hesitant to begin a mindfulness meditation practice, she acknowledges, “A common misconception is that you have to get there through a certain, specialized technique. Meditation and yoga can seem serious because they’re spiritual. Some people assume if they don’t sit for a whole hour in complete silence—it’s no good. I say, explore what works for you and allow yourself some fun in the process. If you find yourself in a yoga class, all pretzeled up in a weird pose, you quickly realize it’s not that serious. If it doesn’t resonate with you, just laugh – and find something that does. Even five minutes spent observing your breath can be a great start.”
With a nod to her own range of athletic pursuits, she validates the clear merits of a moving practice like yoga or running as a primer to stillness, but adds, “It’s only when you’re moving slowly enough to pay attention that you’re able to see the tools you’ve had at your disposal the entire time. It’s incredibly empowering, because once you’re looking, you’ll find exactly what you need for healing.” Short of heading out the door to run an ultramarathon, or launching into a contortionist yoga sequence, she offers a simple, three-step approach to find stillness in triggering moments, by bringing it back to the physical.
“First, notice: It all begins with awareness. When we’re triggered and upset by something, our response generally doesn’t mirror our rising cortisol levels. Our fight or flight response triggered by the latest Covid news is the stuff reserved for imminent bear attacks. The threat is not in your living room, it’s on the news. Notice your posture, your breathing pattern, and address your most critical needs in the moment. Are you hungry, thirsty, hot or cold? Change what you can.”
“Next, adapt: With an awareness of your trigger, work to shift your perspective. Get outside and look up. Physically see the size of your world beyond your thoughts. If you’re inside, sit with your back to the wall to feel grounded. Try alternate nostril breathing.”
“Third, reflect: Following that adaptation, reflect on what happened, how you responded, and write your observations down on paper. Over time, these three steps help slow your reaction to unfolding events, cultivate more compassion and a greater capacity for understanding, and increase acceptance of the present moment as it appears.”
For a deeper dive into a mindfulness practice of your own, be sure to check out Suzanne Jewell’s radio show, Mindful Mornings Miami and her Mindful Entrepreneur resources, London-based, founder Kate Greenslade’s Mindfulness Coaching workshops, retreats, virtual one-on-one meditation sessions, and social media content, and Rachel Koontz’s book, Calm is Your Superpower and Alive in the Fire blog.
May these sage nuggets of wisdom help each of you find moments of beautiful quiet in the chaos, and empower you to meaningfully influence your experience in the weeks and months ahead.
Until next time, namaste. -Noelle