Meditation in the time of coronavirus

Dina Al-Mahdy, Saturday 22 Aug 2020

Meditation has been gaining popularity worldwide, with more and more people seeking new techniques to combat stress and uncertainty since the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic

illustration: Fathi

The world as we know it has become busier, louder, and more stressful in the age of Covid-19. That is why many people are looking for ways to escape the everyday hustle and bustle and looking to meditation to help to find inner peace during these unsettling times.

It is not easy to define the term meditation due not only to its multiple levels of meaning, but also to the numerous cultures and religious teachings that it can involve. While meditation dates back to ancient times with in some cases ties to religious beliefs, it is still part and parcel of many of the world’s different cultures owing to the serenity, peace, and calmness it can involve. But meditation has less to do with faith and more to do with mindfulness: it targets alleviating stress, developing awareness, directing attention, clearing the mind, and achieving emotional stability and inner peace.

Amid the stress due to the spread of coronavirus, there are few better ways to end it than by practicing meditation, and there are various techniques that can give you the opposite experience of serenity and peace. As people become more anxious as they self-quarantine at home, many psychologists and yoga and meditation instructors all over the world recommend meditation, a practice that has been proven to alleviate stress, depression, and insomnia, as a way to cope.

“Meditation enables you to explore yourself. One gets to dig deeper into his/her true self in an attempt to understand better what would make one’s life happier and more serene. Practising meditation clears the head and shifts the focus onto the present moment by training the individual to breathe deeply and slowly while being more conscious of the senses,” says Maisara Salah, an Egyptian meditation instructor, life artist, and writer.  

Meditation, of course, cannot resolve the financial issues caused by the coronavirus, but it can help to relieve stress and relax the mind, giving room for personal readjustment and better decision-making in the face of the pandemic. “The point is to empower oneself through thinking positive thoughts and believing in possibility, which will hopefully lead to a much happier and more fulfilling life that brings genuine joy every single day,” Salah adds.

Reem Mohamed, an artist, started meditating two years ago. “Picking up the practice of meditation has definitely made me a much happier person. Because meditation focuses on continually pulling yourself back to the present, I’ve become much more able to experience the moment instead of getting lost in thoughts of the past or worries about the future. Meditation has been the tool that connected me to myself and made me self-aware enough to know what’s right for me,” she said.

Meditation was first practised in ancient times, when various religious traditions used it as a means of exploring and enlightening oneself. Hinduism, for instance, witnessed the earliest practice of meditation: a collection of ancient wall arts from the Indian subcontinent shows people with half-open eyes sitting in meditative positions. In the 19th century, meditation traditions were passed on from Asia to other cultures, which started implementing its techniques in non-spiritual contexts for purposes such as healthcare, psychotherapy, and business.

TYPES OF MEDITATION: There are many popular types of meditation that are tailored to appeal to different tastes. Each requires certain skills and mindsets. Although there is no right or wrong way to meditate, it is important to find one that best meets an individual’s needs and personality.

One of the most famous in the West is mindfulness. Its techniques, which stem from Buddhist teachings, help to control the emotions, relieve stress, enhance resilience, develop creativity, and encourage positivity in all aspects of life.

Mindfulness meditation is about becoming more conscious not only of what is going on in the present, but also the ideas crossing one’s mind without judging them or giving much thought to them. This practice enables one to realise and focus on patterns that occur with a high level of awareness. It is also useful in directing attention to an object or to one’s breathing while monitoring ideas, emotions, and/or bodily sensations.

Rania Shoukri, an Egyptian psychotherapist, says that mindfulness can be helpful in psychotherapy. “Mindfulness meditation helps patients to choose what they want to do with their thoughts, without having to identify themselves with them. This can happen by distancing themselves from fearful or unwanted thoughts and emotions in the past or the future and by consciously choosing to stay in the present moment. It helps many patients alleviate a lot of the mental distresses coming from their inner world and cope with current adversities that can distract their focus during meditation,” she said.

A subtype of mindfulness meditation is creative mindfulness. Those who have experienced getting caught up in practising art are often unaware of time passing as they are doing it. Since creative activities such as painting, drawing, writing, and photography are naturally mindful, they make one stay focused and absorbed in a way that is similar to meditation.

“This type of meditation trains the brain to develop positive thinking by avoiding bad habits that block creativity, namely negative self-talk, criticism, self-doubt, and perfectionism. So, if you have no meditation experience, or find it hard to calm your mind or sit still and meditate, then creative activities are a wonderful way to enhance your capacity for innovation, concentration, inner peace, and calm,” Salah said.

For those who aspire to develop focus to better manage their lives, focused meditation can be the solution as it involves concentrating with all the senses, whether by focusing on something within the body like breathing, or by making use of an external factor such as watching the flame of a candle, listening to the vibrant hollow tone of an Asian gong, or directing attention to nature’s white noise — the sound of the sea, wind, or rain, for example. For this reason, focused meditation is prescribed for people with sleeping difficulties such as insomnia.

Mantra meditation can be practised on a daily basis while sitting with the eyes closed in a comfortable position in an attempt to experience a deeper level of awareness and stay in tune with the environment. It involves the repetitive production of a word, phrase, or combination of sounds in a voice that can be low or high in order to clear the head. One famous meditation sound is “om”.

Dynamic meditation makes many people think of yoga, and it may include walking through the woods, gardening, or other gentle forms of motion. Movement meditation is good for people who find peace in action and prefer to let their minds wander. Yoga meditation, by contrast, is a workout that combines the mind and body. It has ancient Indian origins and is part of ancient philosophical traditions that were later disseminated to other cultures and religious practices. In an attempt to clear the mind and encourage flexibility, a large number of yoga styles, including specific postures and breathing exercises, necessitate establishing balance, avoiding distractions, and focusing on the present.

Guided meditation involves a trained practitioner or teacher giving detailed instructions that enable participants to visualise relaxing situations or mental images to experience calmness and tranquility. The trainer also explains how the mind operates while meditating and how participants can implement such practices into their everyday lives.

Metta meditation, or loving-kindness meditation, is a practice that involves sending feelings of amity, warmth, benevolence, and best wishes to oneself and others. To do this, one sits comfortably in a relaxed position, breathes deeply, and repeats a few words or phrases at a slow pace such as “may I be safe.” Afterwards, one directs those words and feelings to relatives, friends, neighbours and the rest of humanity worldwide, including people whom participants have difficulty with.

Spiritual meditation is common to a number of religions, as it comprises a spiritual dimension. Meditators consciously approach God to grant them serenity, healing, forgiveness, and peace. Spiritual meditation is widely practised among Sufis in Islam, for example, as it strengthens the sacred bond between a person and God and gives insight into the heart and soul.

Sufi meditation is a spiritual journey of contemplation, perception, affection, and absolution. The meditator’s heart becomes filled with the love of his or her creator. Moreover, Sufi meditation takes various forms, such as breathing, gazing, walking, or whirling, to name a few.

BENEFITS OF MEDITATION: Meditating has a wide range of benefits, some of which are to reduce anxiety, release negative energy, relieve pain, decrease depression, develop peace, boost self-confidence, and improve well-being, in addition to overcoming insomnia, improving personal and professional relationships, and developing patience, tolerance and acceptance.

Hanaa Fathi, an Egyptian doctor, talked about how meditation changed her life. “Meditation has impacted every single aspect of my life in a positive way. I can’t think of anyone who wouldn’t find benefits in meditating. Now, instead of running away with my thoughts or over analysing them, I am able to notice them and consider why I might be having them. It has helped me in learning who I am. Being connected with my thoughts and emotions makes it easier to recognise what I’m struggling with and what brings me joy. A 10-minute ritual can change the rest of your day, especially during these unsettling times,” she said.

According to a study by Harvard University in the US, mindfulness is capable of altering depressed individuals’ brains. Another study by Delhi University in India posits that practising meditation and mindfulness for eight weeks can alleviate stress, enhance attention span, lower blood pressure, improve depressive symptoms, reduce cortisol levels, improve emotional well-being, and treat inflammation and hypertension. The findings of both studies, along with others, are concrete proof that meditation is advantageous. It enables individuals to enjoy the present, end overthinking, strengthen immunity, develop energy levels, and stabilise blood flow.

“Since I’ve begun meditating, I’ve consistently had a significantly easier time falling asleep. Before, it wasn’t unusual for me to spend upwards of two hours trying to fall asleep each night. Now, it typically takes 20 minutes or less. Because meditation has taught me how to notice when my mind has wandered, acknowledge the thought, and let it go, I can do this over and over as I’m falling asleep, instead of letting my mind run off with thought it encounters,” Mohamed said.

During the hard times of the present pandemic, as millions of people are struggling to quarantine or social-distance to stay safe, there can be a risk of mood changes and a loss of interest in life. Despite the extra free time that has resulted from the lockdowns instituted to control the spread of the coronavirus, for many people relaxation has become a real challenge.

Salah said that it was normal to feel this way: people’s lives have been disturbed by the chaos the virus has caused, which has led to their shifting their routines, sometimes losing contact with friends and facing extra unoccupied time. The mind can become trapped in the past or future, he said.

Mindful meditation can help by placing a person in the present moment in order to deal with reality instead of falling prey to a depressing atmosphere. “It is difficult to be mindful at such times, but it is not impossible,” he explained. But time is a gift, and it is important to seize the chance to adjust one’s intentions, organise ideas, and think carefully about life goals. Mindfulness is doable everywhere with or without the help of smart devices. Not only does it mitigate fear and doubt, but it also boosts immunity as well.

Amira Shawki, a pranayama yoga instructor, recommends a few simple exercises that can be done at home. To meditate, sit comfortably and quietly and breathe in deeply through the mouth. It is okay to start with short intervals of time, as these will soon develop into longer ones. Take deep breaths in and long, slow breaths out, both from the nose. During the breathing in, the stomach extends outwards, and vice-versa, allowing any thoughts to “walk out like clouds in the sky”.

Sit in the silence of the mind and body for as long as you can. Every morning, wake up with a smile and open a new eye to the outer world, where all colours are accepted and dealt with.

NEW TECHNIQUES: There are millions of meditation practitioners using countless techniques around the globe. Nigel Sampson, a healer, argues that every person has “to practise a little more kindness, awareness, and compassion”, which can be done through meditation.

Sampson proposes a few simple steps to do so. First, breathe deeply and slowly for a time every day to relax the nervous system; second, spend time in nature, listening to the birds, touching water, or bonding with the earth until it becomes part and parcel of one’s being; third, move the body by shaking the hands and legs for a few minutes in the morning and before sleeping to unburden oneself and to set the body free from sorrow, anxiety, solitude, and depression; fourth, practise visualisation to open up sensations, get rid of fear, and imagine a pleasant atmosphere that can improve the mood and relax the brain.

Diana Winston, director of the UCLA Mindful Awareness Research Center’s mindfulness education in the US, proposes a number of meditation techniques for individuals. One significant mindfulness technique is STOP: stop your anxiety from growing bigger by pausing to experience a mindful moment; take a deep breath and focus on the now instead of the future; observe what is going on inside your body in terms of pain, irritability, or discomfort; and proceed with more self-consciousness by doing something that makes you happy such as contacting a friend or going for a walk.

In a similar vein, the Buddhist teacher and author Ethan Nichtern has put forward a set of creative meditation and mindfulness techniques. The first is to practise mindful breathing to develop compassion for person in grief or pain, which allows you to process the suffering that is taking place around you while breathing deeply and consciously. The second is to go on a mindful walk, as while a fast walk can be good for physical exercise, a slow one can calm the mind and allow fresh air into the lungs. The third is to utilise the meditation resources and applications that are available online for free and can help with the stress and fear that the pandemic has caused.

These offer daily meditation sessions along with breathing exercises presented by experienced meditation teachers worldwide. Some of them are Headspace, Calm, Ten Percent Happier, Sleep Stories and Insight Timer.  

“The Calm and Sleep Stories apps have meditations for sleep. Sleep stories are basically bedtime stories for adults. Listening to a narrator telling stories about the birds of Yosemite or what it’s like star-gazing in the Bahamas easily lulls my mind to sleep. These apps help me to relax and unwind my mind and body to quickly fall into a deep sleep,” Mohamed said.

A renowned meditation technique was developed by Wim Hof, a Dutch athlete who broke a world record for swimming under ice. The WHM (Wim Hof Method) is a meditation method that combines frequent exposure to the cold with specific breathing techniques. The three constituents of his method are cold therapy, conscious breathing, and commitment.

Exposure to cold water burns fat, enhances sleep, improves mood, and reduces inflammation. Conscious breathing is a detox practice that ameliorates energy levels, rebalances the nervous system, and strengthens the immune system. As for commitment, determination, perseverance, and a strong will are needed to step out of one’s comfort zone and master meditation.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 20 August, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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