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Healthy Minds in Practice: Compassion in Challenging Times

Photo courtesy nadia_bormotova via iStock

During this challenging time, we are asked to stay at home if possible, and maintain physical distance. This can lead to feelings of loneliness or isolation - or even fear. But, compassion puts us in touch with a tremendous source of inner strength and resilience. This 12-minute practice taps our potential to care, even when we are physically distanced from others.


Guided Practice: Compassion in Challenging Times

Led by Cortland Dahl

Hi, this is Cortland Dahl with the Healthy Minds Program. These are times of tremendous fear and uncertainty. I went out today for the first time in a week to get some groceries, and I found myself feeling fear around people I normally wouldn’t find threatening. I walked by a family and found myself wondering if I was breathing contaminated air. And when I went to check out, I didn’t want the grocery store clerk to touch my credit card or handle my food, even though I knew she was just doing her job. In this practice we’ll learn how to stay connected with other people even when we need to physically keep our distance. 

Take a moment now to check in with yourself. What do you need right now? How are you feeling? Whatever you’re feeling is perfectly fine and it’s your to feel. Just notice. 

Now find a comfortable posture and close your eyes if you like. Take a few slow, calming breaths and feel the air as it moves in and out of your body. 

Next, form a compassionate motivation for doing this practice. Something that speaks to your core values and deeper motivations, as well as those of the people and communities that support and care for you. You might think to yourself, “The world is suffering right now. I’m doing this practice to help everyone, myself included, find the strength to get through this challenging time.” 

Great. Take a moment now to reflect on this situation we’re all in. What’s been on your mind as you experience everything that’s happening in the world with the crisis we’re facing? What thoughts and feelings are coming up in response to everything we’re dealing with? 

See if you can notice the deeper motivations that underlie these reactions. We’re all feeling more fearful these days. We’re all more anxious. But beneath it all, there’s always the profoundly human desire to be safe and healthy. See if you can notice your ever-present desires to avoid hardship, illness, and suffering. 

This desire to be free from suffering, and to be healthy and safe, is the very root of compassion. What you’re feeling is self-compassion. All these fearful thoughts, all the stress and anxiety, it’s all rooted in compassion. There’s something incredibly powerful here. See if you can bring that compassionate motivation into focus. Notice how it’s here, even right now, in the fact that you’re doing this practice.

Now let’s find some words for this compassionate motivation. Find a phrase that captures the compassion you have for yourself and repeat it slowly in your mind. It could be something like, “May I be healthy and safe. May I be healthy and safe.” Find something that works for you and repeat it over and over in your mind like a mantra. 

Feel the profound strength and resilience that’s emerging within you. Your mind and body have been dealing with challenges your entire life. Keep repeating your phrase to stay connected to your strength and resilience and to your own compassionate motivation. To the ever present truth that you don’t want to suffer, or cause the suffering of others.

Now let’s widen the circle. Bring to mind someone you care about. It could be a friend, a parent or child. Someone who naturally brings out your caring impulse. Take a moment to think of someone.

Imagine they’re actually here with you. You might even imagine giving them a warm handshake or a hug. Or expressing how much you care about them. Whatever helps you feel a sense of warmth and connection to them.

Great. Next, notice how they too are facing the challenge of this pandemic. They might be worried and anxious, just like you. And just like you, they want to be healthy and safe. They don’t want to suffer, or cause others to suffer. Notice how you share this compassionate motivation.

Now return to the phrase you used earlier, or come up with a new one, but this time, focus on them. Continue to imagine they’re here with you. Feel the connection you much you care for one another, and repeat the phrase in your mind. “May you be healthy and safe. May you be healthy and safe.” Or whatever phrase works for you. 

Let’s widen the circle even further. Bring other people to mind. Maybe people you don’t know very well. People who work in the stores where you shop, or people you might pass on the street. Even people in far away places that you might never know or meet. Bring random people to mind and extend your compassion to them. Keep repeating your phrase, “May you be healthy and safe. May you be healthy and safe.” 

Just like you, these people are probably anxious and worried. And just like you, they don’t want to experience hardship. They don’t want to suffer, or want other people to suffer. At the same time, they are incredibly strong and resilient - again - just like you. Keep repeating the phrase as you extend compassion to all these people.

Now drop all the barriers and extend compassion to the entire world. “May we all be healthy and safe. May we all be healthy and safe.” Extend compassion in all directions, to all people, everywhere. Feel the strength and resilience. Feel the common wish we all have to be free from suffering. 

For the last few moments, let go of the phrase and give yourself a moment to simply be. There’s nothing you need to do now. Just rest. 

Compassion is incredibly healing. With time, this practice can put you in touch with a tremendous reservoir of inner strength and resilience. You can keep practicing this as you go about your day. Just bring your  phrase to mind and extend your care to whoever you’re with, and anyone who enters your mind. Let compassion guide you through this challenging time.

Awareness. Connection. Insight. Purpose. We consider these to be four ingredients of a healthy mind. You can train yourself to improve these skills, just like you can develop any habit. This audio practice is provided by Healthy Minds Innovations (HMI), an external, affiliated nonprofit dedicated to supporting the mission of the Center for Healthy Minds. Want more practices? Try the Healthy Minds Program App.

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