Preparing for the new normal

Is sitting still the best way forward?

With the Portuguese government’s new guidelines, some of us are beginning to venture out or are entertaining ideas of life beyond the borders of our homes. Yet others of us shall remain locked down for a while longer, whether out of caution, necessity, or social responsibility. Whatever your situation, be it a state of overwhelm, reticence or fear, there is a simple, ancient practice that can aid your resurfacing.

While sitting still with your eyes closed and concentrating on your inward and outward breath risks sounding like a very boring activity, once beyond the initial resistance to taking time out of your day to do it, the benefits of meditation are well-documented and perfect for preparing your re-entry to the world at large.

Traditionally considered a Buddhist practice, meditation is a non-secular exercise done by many. In today’s climate, it’s more popularly referred to in connection to mindfulness practice, that is: bringing one’s self into the present and becoming aware of what is happening in mind-body processes in order to reach a sense of equanimity, focus, awareness, and more. Enlightenment is often cited as the end purpose, yet, for many of us, simply having a few quiet minutes is reward enough.

Particularly relevant in this time are the benefits that meditation brings. Studies by Harvard Medical Review across a period of decades have presented fascinating results. In 2011, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital studied changes in the brains of people practising meditation. They discovered density in the hippocampus, the centre for learning, memory, self-awareness, compassion, and introspection, increased (a positive outcome) while density of the amygdala, responsible for our instinctive fight or flight responses, decreased, which is also positive.

Then in October 2019, further research evidenced how mindfulness meditation can be used to manage responses to fear, which is particularly relevant, given the unseen quality of the virus that put us into lockdown and keeps us in a state of caution.

For those who’ve never meditated before, there are plenty of ‘modern’ means to facilitate your practice. Apps like Headspace coach you from beginner status. But, generally, when starting out, it’s important to establish your intention: what do you hope to gain from the meditation you’ll be doing? This will influence the type of meditation you select, be it visualisation, cognitive or compassion-based, with a mantra or other. In its most essential form, meditation is observation of the breath and observing your thoughts without letting them take over your attention.

Once you’ve established your purpose and method, it’s best to establish a routine. Set aside a particular time of day and sit in a secure, comfortable space where you won’t be distracted. By starting with just five minutes a day, new practitioners can start to discover the benefits and, as you become more familiar with meditation, you can build up increments of time.

Now, be warned: no one said this simple art is easy. Your monkey-mind will leap and holler, calling for attention as you work to clear your mind and focus on being present. However, find peace in the knowledge that monkey-mind and fidgeting are part of learning to meditate. The most important elements are committing to the practice and accepting the journey as it unfolds, be that a journey back to a life after lockdown or one undertaken in the sanctuary of your home.

By Anna Loewy