by Nancy King Bernstein
As I write today, one son is on one side of the continent, recovering from covid-19 with his boyfriend’s family in Connecticut; the other is on the other, the temporarily adopted member of a friend’s family, sheltering in place in California. I am still quarantined at home in Westchester, with a fever still hovering around 101 after a month. Like everyone else, we’ve been knocked sideways by the pandemic and the pace and scale of the changes hitting us daily, all prospects of income have evaporated — and we have no idea how long this will all last, or how much worse things will get before they improve. “It’s hard to see over the horizon,” my cousin wrote in an email a few weeks back. I’m as freaked out as anyone. But there are a few tools that are helping me, so here goes:
First, imagine your total happiness as a circle. Half of it you can do nothing about: it’s genetic. That’s your “happiness set point.” But that’s only half the pie chart. And while you may think that external circumstances are the biggest part of how happy you feel in any moment, in fact it turns out that externals account for only 10%. That means that 40% of how you feel has to do with what you do internally—in your heart/mind—how you relate to those externals, combined with your basic nature, or personality.
Forty percent is a pretty big chunk, so we should have a lot of say in our mood. The problem here is that we’re wired to pay way more attention to bad stuff than to good—this is the negativity bias, which has evolved over hundreds of millions of years to keep us safe. With this comes the wiring and biochemistry—the stress response—that throws our system into high gear the instant we sense anxiety or trouble (even before we’re conscious of this), enabling us to get out of danger fast. The combination of these two means that we’re on high alert pretty much 24/7 these days, which is terrible both for our physical and especially our mental health.
So how do we balance the negativity bias and turn that 40% at least in the direction of joy?
Mindfulness helps: one useful definition is being aware of what’s happening around you, and also what’s happening inside you in response to that. Being aware of what’s happening inside you requires that you notice your thoughts and feelings, instead of letting your thoughts spin you around and around into the worst-case scenarios the mind can concoct—which, you may have noticed, is what they tend to do if you let them run unchecked. This leaves us feeling awful.
What to do? Try to remember, when you notice your mood tanking, to take a deep breath, and check in, to your physical surroundings and your body. Use all five senses. What can you feel, hear, see, taste and touch, right here right now? Breathe, and keep your attention focused on those physical sensations, right here. Don’t try to push the worries away or ignore the anxiety — that won’t work; it just gives them more energy. Do acknowledge the thoughts, and then just let them be — don’t fight them, don’t feed them — but keep your attention trained on what’s physical and real, right here, right now. Doing this for even a few minutes will help ground you.
Other simple ideas: if you think you’re healthy (i.e. no questionable symptoms, no recent contact with anyone whom you know is sick), you can probably help someone in quarantine. People need prescriptions picked up; people need groceries. Generosity has been extensively researched: helping other people feels awesome.
And you can practice gratitude. At least once a day, stop and come up with three things for which you are grateful. Simple stuff: the sun is out. You have food to eat. Somebody you love loves you. There’s a ton of research on this, too.
And when you practice generosity or gratitude, notice how they feel in your body. Really pay attention — marinate in it, just for a few moments, even 15-20 seconds. Because of my current circumstances, with a child on either side of the country being looked after by generous others, I probably do this five or six times a day. It’s a powerful and reliable antidote to fear and anger.
And of course if you’re feeling good enough, practice yoga! Sign up for Yoga Haven’s online classes — new ones go up daily. Pause to be grateful for the technology that makes this possible, and to Betsy and Margaret and our amazing YH teachers who are using that technology to help keep both your body and your heart-mind healthy. Notice how good you feel at the close of a class, too — marinate in that.
The studio really needs your support right now, so signing up for Yoga Haven classes will both nourish you and help make sure that the studio will be here for you when all this is over. Win, win, win.
Fear and anxiety contract us (don’t take my word for it — check your shoulders, your jaw, your belly…). Our contracted mind makes for tunnel vision (just think about those empty toilet paper shelves…people are not seeing past their fear far enough even to remember their neighbors’ needs).
When we open to what’s good in our lives—even something as simple as the feeling of air and clothing against our skin — we soften a little. Our mind and heart feel a little less cramped. That softness opens us up so that we don’t miss the beauty this world still offers up daily — and there’s plenty of that, even now. One of my teachers, Christina Feldman, says this so beautifully: “We do not have to wait for the difficult and challenging to end for joy to begin. Joy is not a denial of sorrow or an artificial contrivance but an inclination of our hearts that softens and eases the difficult.”
I’m sitting in late afternoon April sunshine now, grateful to have a deck to sit on and that yesterday’s crazy storm is past. The pandemic storm will pass, too; everything does. It’s hard out right now, but I wish you joy anyway. Be well all, and stay kind.
Nancy King Bernstein is a graduate of Tara Brach and Jack Kornfield’s Mindful Meditation Teacher Certification Program. She is a writer and editor and a 2013 graduate of Yoga Haven’s 200-hour Teacher Training.