Finding Grounding During COVID-19

“A lot of us within the civic tech community are tired and overloaded with information, some are feeling burned out, a lot of people are stress cleaning, anxious and unsure,” Lorin Camargo, the Communications Manager of the Code for All global network, recently wrote. Some days it might feel like our sense of responsibility to leverage resources, networks, and ingenuity to help us make it out of a global pandemic falls all on your shoulders. Are your shoulders as tense as mine right about now?

Civic Hall is going on its ninth week of working from home this week. As hard as that is to believe, managing the stir-crazies is only one of many realities that we’re all trying to balance. Whether you’re finding yourself suddenly playing “teacher” to your school-aged kids, learning what it means to take care of elder family members from afar, or putting in even more working hours to take on Covid-19, it can sometimes feel impossible to balance everything.

How do I know I’m out of balance? The tension in my neck, shoulders, and chest becomes noticeable as my mind shoots from one thought to the next to the next, making none of them clear but all of them too loud. It feels like my feet aren’t even on the ground, rather they’re racing from one thing to the next, accumulating more tension. My work output is no longer about being critically thoughtful, but simply for the sake of checking a box to complete something. 

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese monk and spiritual leader, calls this “forgetfulness.” He says, “most people are…not really there a lot of the time. Their mind is caught in their worries, their fears, their anger, and their regrets, and they are not mindful of being there. That state of being is called forgetfulness—you are there but you are not there.” In a global pandemic where very legitimate fears, anxieties, worries, and uncertainties can easily consume us, this can’t be more true. I might be washing dishes but my mind is reminding me to check in on my 93-year old grandma’s health, catch up on more disheartening news, drop off those masks my neighbor asked for, and 13 other things. 

In more intense cases, the weekly rollercoaster of living, working, maintaining connection, and staying up to date with news through Covid-19 has meant my sympathetic nervous system runs on overdrive (fueling my chaotic, messy moments) and I need to engage my parasympathetic nervous system more to find balance

Sigal Samuel of Vox recently interviewed Tara Brach, a well-known Buddhist and meditation teacher. Brach describes mindfulness meditation as “paying attention, purposefully and non-judgmentally, to your experience in the present moment.” This can be done formally, while “sitting quietly and noticing what’s going on.” Or it can be done casually, like when I water my plants, clean the apartment, or wash the dishes. There are actually many opportunities in our daily lives to practice mindfulness if we understand it as simply, “noticing what’s going on.”

I try to formally sit every other day or so, for 10-15 minutes at a time. I use the Insight timer app for my meditation timer. It’s free for most features and most guided meditations. I’m also trying out Plum Village’s new app, and I’ve heard amazing things about Liberate, an app created by and for people of color

There are so many meditation apps out there. If you’re getting hung up on which app to choose, I would say: Any app with a basic timer will do. Just commit to sitting at some point during the day.

With news being what it is, it’s even more tempting to fall into our negativity bias. Brach says, “We get very fixated on threats and often overlook goodness and beauty. So [there] needs to be an intentional practice to celebrate goodness.” Indeed there’s so much research out there demonstrating how the practice of gratitude “helps people feel more positive emotions, relish good experiences, improve their health, deal with adversity, and build strong relationships” I love Brach’s idea of having gratitude buddies, with whom you can send a note naming three things you’re grateful for each day. 

Today, you’re my gratitude buddy. I’m grateful for:

  1. My sunlit studio, in which I’m able to sprout arugula seeds in just three days!
  2. The neighbor who draped a huge flag of a heart that caught my eye during our 7pm clap. It made me smile.
  3. My dear friends Cameron and Weishin, for joining me in a nourishing 20-minute virtual meditation, which led to a delicious night’s sleep.

What about you?

Speaking of buddies, Cameron also gifted me with the term accountabilibuddies. It’s exactly what it sounds like: Buddies who hold you accountable for things. You can have accountabilibuddies for many things: exercising, mental wellness, creativity, financial wellbeing, etc. Creating pods (credit for this term is due to the transformative justice movement) of accountabilibuddies helps ensure that I commit to what I say I’ll do, or remove the barriers to get me there. These are especially helpful when every day is more or less blending together and staying on track of anything feels extra difficult. 

When breathing meditation doesn’t do the trick, there are other things I’ll try. Walking meditation can be so soothing because it’s grounded (sorry) in the idea that walking isn’t just about getting somewhere but about slowing down enough to connect to the ground, the earth, and your breath. In the speed of New York City, practicing this can be crazy-making! But at home in quarantine, why not give it a 5-minute spin (so to speak) and see how you feel? Here’s some quick instruction: With socks on or bare foot, walk across your living room at one-fifth or one-tenth of the speed you normally might, and notice the bottoms of your feet connecting to the ground with each step.

During breakfast, I try to practice mindful eating. It’s such a rich way to start my day: Slowing down my pace and thinking more deeply about where my food came from helps bridge a connection to the food I’m eating, which is usually not possible in a rushed meal (let alone a rushed day!) A fellow practitioner reflected to me about mindful eating, “when I slowed down enough to notice my chewing, I realized how much work my tongue is doing to move and smash the food around in there!” The things you notice just by slowing down and paying attention, amirite? 

When practicing alone isn’t enough and I crave community, I have found this compilation built by Tricycle magazine really helpful. It compiles all the community sits-turned-virtual gatherings in the country and sorts them by date and time. If this seems intimidating (it is a lot to sift through) you could also visit one of the following communities based in NYC (maybe choosing one close to you so it’s convenient to pay them a visit once things open back up):

  • NY Insight Meditation in the Chelsea neighborhood (5 blocks away from Civic Hall) has many affinity groups based on identities or interests
  • Brooklyn Zen Center offers daily morning and evening virtual  meditations.
  • Mindful Harlem hosts regular meditation sessions on saturday mornings and wednesday evenings.
  • MINKA, a wellness / mindfulness center in Brooklyn, has a full calendar of events, including meditation but a lot more.
  • Wake Up is a mindfulness community intended for “young people” 18-35 years old. There is an NYC chapter.

Bonus: East Bay Meditation Center in Oakland is one of my favorite spaces (not only because it’s in my beloved East Bay) because they ground all of work in a social justice, racially-inclusive lens. 

Some of my favorite teachers are the ones whose intersectional identities help them embody and teach mindfulness meditation in a greater context of social good, civic action, and collective liberation. They include Marisela Gomez, Kaira Jewel Lingo, La Sarmiento, Larry Yang, Rev. angel Kyodo williams, Lama Rod Owens, Kosen Greg Snyder, and Sebene Selassie.     

The more I practice meditation, mindfulness, and general mental wellness, the more I learn that these practices of working with and stabilizing the mind are actually entirely connected to the body. And when it comes to body / movement practices, Interplay is one of my favorites. Interplay is a movement practice based in affirmation and looking for goodness, from which it believes that the connection of mind, body, and spirit helps us find inner wisdom. In practice, it looked like this: In an auditorium where a sweet song played, all of us were asked to simply walk around. A few minutes later we were asked to glide. Then, why not skip? Hell, let’s dance! 

In the beginning, the seriousness of adults was visible in the not-letting-my-guard-down way we moved. People were self-conscious and made minimal eye contact. Fifteen minutes in, most guards fell away and folks were playfully bumping into each other, laughing, waving our arms and bringing all our sillies into the room! If you had or have young kids, you probably understand that there’s meditation in play. Play relaxes the body, and in doing so, relaxes the mind. If you’re trying it for the first time, you might start with this yoga / cardio workout, where about midway through there’s a transition that’s very much like Interplay.

Another cool practice is qigong. I remember growing up in Hong Kong, whenever I would fall asleep next to my mom, she’d rest her hand over mine and when she started practicing qigong, her hand and body would quiver, sending vibrations to lull me to sleep. She also regularly practiced tai chi, both of which are Chinese movement practices that help restore a body’s circulation and balance. Weishin now starts everyday with this qigong routine by Master Li Junfeng

Some days it can feel counterintuitive to understand just how much is being asked of us all the while being asked not to go anywhere. It’s counterintuitive because while physically staying put, our minds and bodies are constantly straining and reacting to information in this new normal. So I always come back to Thich Nhat Hanh, who reminds us that “the opposite of forgetfulness is mindfulness. Mindfulness is when you are truly there, mind and body together.”  

And I want to remind you that mindfulness is possible at any moment. In these times, more than possible, maybe it’s necessary.