In the last couple of weeks, I’ve had the privilege of doing some online teaching with upper-level undergraduates and graduate students about just this subject; mental health in the COVID era. I’ve had some really rich dialogues with students about the challenges that they’re facing… health, isolation, educational and career disruptions… and how they have been addressing them.
In the spirit of Brooks’ solicitation of ideas about psychological health (I’m too wordy to send in his form), I thought I’d describe some of my thoughts, informed in many cases by students’ wisdom, and grounded in my long-time particular interest in the confluence of spirituality, mental health and well-being.
- Remember who you are.
It is absolutely normal to have a range of feelings in these hard times… anger, fear, sadness, boredom, agitation. It’s important to recognize and face such feelings, as long as you don’t let them run the show. Remember what really matters in your life:
- Who are you?
- What is sacred for you? What do you cherish?
- What kind of person do you aim to be? What are the values and qualities that you’d want to be expressed in your life?
Practice living according to your values even if you have uncomfortable thoughts, feelings or emotions. If you value kindness, be kind. If you value compassion, be compassionate. If you value creativity, be creative. Even if you are emotionally uncomfortable, there is power and resilience in embodying what you believe.
2. Find sacred space.
Many people find peace and comfort in the natural world. Here in Tucson in the first half of April, there is a stunning profusion of blooming flowers and sequentially-blossoming cactus, against the backdrop of majestic canyons and peaks. Your landscape might be very different, but is there not something in your world that’s beautiful in its unique way… a city park, a neighbor’s garden, a tree leafing out in the spring?
Even indoors, you can create your own sacred space. Set up a particular place with some personally-meaningful objects… a spiritual symbol, a picture of people you love, a card with brief words to remember… and pause there to affirm and experience the spirit that it fosters.
3. Cultivate relationships.
A number of the students commented that they had rekindled relationships with friends and family. It is a Godsend of our point in history that we have so many platforms on which to interact with people, visually, in real time. My experience, like that of the students, is that I have reached out to quite a few people in my life who are dear to me but with whom I don’t normally have much contact, and been gifted with many people reaching out to me in the same way. One of my hopes for this crisis is that the steady state to which we will eventually come will witness greater depth and valuing of all of the relationships we have with people we love.
4. Be grateful.
Gratitude helps us to attune to the blessings and possibilities of life. In easy times, gratefulness practices (like the now-iconic daily gratitude log) give us heightened vision to see the gifts that are all around. In hard times, gratefulness helps to transform fear and despair with the energy of hope. Even in hard times, what are the blessings and possibilities that are close at hand? You are alive. You are loved. You have the ability to love, and the ability to make all manner of choices in how you are going to react to the circumstances that come to you.
As a so-far safe and comfortable person, I do need to say that I recognize the profound suffering of so many people in this crisis. People who can’t avoid crowded living conditions. Public servants, who are out there day after day. Minority communities, such as some remote Navajo/Dine' people here in Arizona who lack the infrastructure to follow recommended health practices. But the stories that I’ve heard from so many people who have suffered more than I affirm the idea that being able to see some light in the midst of darkness can be sustaining and liberating.
5. And, follow spiritual practices that are meaningful for you.
If you are part of a religious or spiritual community, stay involved. Most spiritual communities that have regular gatherings for study or worship together seem to stream these activities online. Maybe, in fact, there is a community out there that you have wanted to check out, and now have the opportunity to do so.
Engage calming practices. Meditation, prayer, stillness… help to engender a peaceful spirit, help to focus on the present moment, and often bring us into relationship with God, or an over-arching Presence or Spirit.
Read and study. Sacred literature in your tradition, or spiritually-uplifting material from authors you admire. Our students consistently said that they had substantially reduced screen time and the compulsive checking on the ever-updated news cycle, in favor of spending time in more intentional ways. What you focus on grows, right?
Walk a labyrinth. As you may know, I have a particular interest in the labyrinth, which has been a resource and discipline for spiritual wisdom and growth for over 4000 years. You can find labyrinths near you at www.labyrinthlocator.com. They are widely available, but typically not so busy that you won’t be able to maintain appropriate social distance, assuming that your community allows you to go out.
Those are some thoughts for today. I’d encourage you to comment and share your own ideas below or, perhaps, you can respond to David Brooks! I wish you the best to be safe, be well, and perhaps find these extraordinary circumstances as an opportunity for a fresh perspective on what it is in your life that you hold most dear.