Whether we are giving or receiving care, we come face-to-face with time’s elasticity–how it seems to speed up and slow down depending on changing circumstances and our emotional reactions to them. Since we tend to navigate the world using a narrative form of attention by default, we find ourselves spinning lots of stories while we wait–stories influenced by hope, fear, and the soft, dull ache of vulnerability.
Mindfulness practice offers an alternative form of attention, that when cultivated over time, can transform our relationship to the challenges we're facing. These attentional fitness strategies and skills support the ability to drop our personal narratives in order to directly experience the passing moments of our lives through our senses, thoughts, and emotions.
There isn't one exercise that fits every person and situation. It’s important to explore several options over time to find the ones that fit our personalities, situations, and specific needs.
Here are some options to play with when you encounter the inevitable waiting challenges related to giving or receiving care.
What does it feel like to temporarily stop for a moment in the middle of a task or activity? Simply stop every now and then to notice what it feels like to be alive.
Your eyes can be open or closed. You could be standing, sitting, or lying down.
You might become aware of your breath or sounds around you. You might explore physical or emotional sensations in the body.
You might even notice the urge to resume the activity. Practice simply allowing whatever you notice to be just as it is. This can be a surprisingly powerful habit to cultivate.
Try to detect these two distinct pleasant sensations related to breathing: the pleasure of oxygen filling your lungs as you inhale naturally and the relaxation that occurs naturally in the body as you exhale. Savor anything pleasant that you notice.
Physical discomfort, emotions, and thoughts might compete for your attention. This is normal. Try to become so absorbed by your exploration of breathing that these other activities begin to recede to the background. They don’t need to go away completely. They just are not getting the bulk of your attention. When you realize that you have lost contact with the experience of breathing, gently steer your attention back to it.
If the focus of a particular mindfulness meditation is on the body, then we try to let thoughts and feelings operate in the background. But we can cross train our attentional skills by turning these distractions into the focus of another exercise. This can be fascinating to try when you find yourself in worry loops.
When we worry, we are absorbed in stories about of the difficulties we are currently experiencing. When thoughts and feelings become the focus of an attention-building exercise, we actually try to watch the various parts working together to create the internal movie.
Try to observe the activity of mental images, verbal thoughts, and sensations in the body that include emotional qualities. Pick one component to notice at a time and try to track it for just a few seconds before picking another one to observe.
This is challenging, but it gets easier with consistent practice. Think of it as trying to take apart a puzzle. Let the exploration be driven by curiosity. How are my worries constructed?
You’re not trying to understand the meaning of the story when you're practicing mindfulness. You’re only trying to break it down to see what the story consists of and observe how the story mechanism works.
When we remember events from the past, they will consist of some combination of mental images, verbal thoughts, and emotional reactions. The same is true for fantasies or worst-case scenarios we construct in an effort to predict the future.
You might even notice how emotional discomfort and intensity can drive more words and images. The words and images can also provoke more emotions.
Observing the interplay between these elements can provide valuable insights into the vicious cycle of worry. Greater familiarity with thinking and feeling can erode their gripping power–that goading pressure that convince us that we have an obligation to imagine a variety of possible outcomes as a way to avoid unpleasant ones.
When you are experiencing an unpleasant emotion, spend some time becoming intimately acquainted with its physicality. Where is it located? What is its shape? Can you detect any specific flavors (anger, fear, sadness, embarrassment, etc.)? How would you rate the intensity on a scale from zero to ten?
Your mind will want to jump in to try to help push away any confusion or discomfort your are feeling in your body. What happens if you express appreciation to your mind for this impulse, but instead try to spend some time simply getting acquainted with its composition? Just noticing it like you might observe undesired weather.
Being sad feels like this. Being afraid feels like this. Having a broken heart feels like this. Not being sure what to do feels like this.
Do any of the aspects change as you explore them or do they all remain stable? If you notice that they are changing at all, see if you suspend the problem-solving impulse temporarily to allow their physical movement to massage and comfort you instead. This can be a significant skill to hone.
There are times when comfort and compassion are extremely difficult to find–especially when we at are our most vulnerable. The reasons for this are complicated, but significantly driven by the imperfections of humans and organizations–even those with the best intentions.
When your immediate environment seems to be in short supply of emotional warmth, see if you can dig beneath the surface of your situation to uncover it.
For example, if you are alone in a hospital room, take an inventory of every object you can spot and consider the humanity behind it.
Start with any gifts and cards from loved ones. Mine these well wishes for your physical comfort and wholeness. In their absence, imagine the unexpressed greetings from people who care about you.
Then move onto the objects filling the room, pausing at each one to consider the human impulses behind their creation and presence: the bed you are resting in, medicine, modified devices, monitors, lights, buzzers, blankets, pillows, windows, even the television. Take your time.
Human beings you will never meet worked together over decades to create and improve the design of each of these elements. Each contribution was part of a larger collaborative effort–stretching back into the past and continuing on into the future–to decrease human suffering.
You are now experiencing the future they were unable to predict with precision. You are the intended beneficiary who they will never know directly, but the reduction of your discomfort was at the heart of their work all along. Can you try to feel this?
At some point, it may no longer make sense to wait for a perfect version of the world that will be able to accommodate all of your needs. With a bit of effort, though, it is possible to feel like you are swimming in care—indirect and impersonal, yet real and warm and profound.
If you are unable to form a connection with the staff on a specific shift, can you zoom out and consider that of all the occupations in the world, each person consciously decided to enter a field that is meant to help other humans in need. Our motivations and moods fluctuate, but there are many ways to earn a living that are not about trying to help people get or feel better.
Caregivers navigate a sea of responsibilities and frustrations. Consider giving them the gift of the kind of understanding you need instead of getting locked into the trap of trying to micromanage their world from your compromised position. Write notes of appreciation to the ones who manage to bring comfort in spite of the odds. Wait to write the notes of complaint until you are feeling better in case the urgency vanishes along with your discomfort.