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How can mindfulness help me now?

Since the shelter-in-place began we’ve heard a lot more about mindfulness in mainstream media. It’s being suggested on websites, videos, and posts as one way to support us through the pandemic, and a good self-care practice to adopt.

But how is it helpful? And why should we think about building mindfulness into our daily life when we already have so much going on? We posed this question to Zen Caregiving Project’s Executive Director, Roy Remer, and here’s what he had to say. 

Can we start at the beginning? What is mindfulness? 

A definition of mindfulness I like is: paying attention to the present moment, on purpose and without judgment. Let’s break that down.

  • Paying attention to the present moment: often our minds are not really tracking what is happening right here, right now. Many of us get stuck thinking about past events and what we have done or should have done. Or we are jumping ahead to the future – what’s next on our to-do list, what we hope will happen, or what we are worried might happen. The practice of mindfulness helps us keep our attention on what is happening in the present moment. For instance, when we are washing our hands, instead of rushing through to get it done, we can work on really being there with the activity, feeling the sensations of water on the skin, listening to the sounds of the water, observing the suds from the hand soap. It doesn’t mean it takes any longer but it is an opportunity to return to the present moment experience,  and you will probably find more pleasure in the activity.
  • On purpose: By this I mean, noticing when the mind gets distracted. Distraction is natural – it happens to all of us, all the time. Even the most experienced meditators will find that their minds wander as that is what minds do. But the point here is to notice when this happens. The noticing allows an opportunity to bring our distracted attention back to the present. 
  • Without judgment: As it is human to become distracted, we should also be kind to ourselves when we notice we have once again become distracted. We congratulate ourselves on noticing our mind has wandered and gently return to the present moment. This process of noticing distraction and coming back to the present is a lifelong process – which is why it is called mindfulness practice – we need never stop working on it! Though, over time it does get easier. 

How does mindfulness help us in our daily life?

  1. Mindfulness helps settle the mind. A calm mind allows us to respond thoughtfully rather than react immediately to an event or thought.  When our mind is calm it can help calm those around us. I am sure we have all experienced being with someone who is very anxious or agitated and how that can leave us feeling unsettled too. It is also true one person’s calmness may have a calming effect on others. 
  1. Mindfulness helps to focus attention. We all know that multi-tasking is tiring, and often not productive. Mindfulness helps us to focus our attention on one thing at a time, reducing fatigue. It also reduces human error as we are a lot less likely to make mistakes if we have all our attention on the task at hand. As a caregiver, this reduction in error is particularly important. 
  1. Mindfulness increases awareness of the present moment. Many of us spend a lot of time dwelling on negative thoughts about past events that we can’t change and worrying about future events that haven’t happened yet. Mindfulness helps to interrupt those looping thoughts and helps us see the difference between our thoughts and what is actually happening right now. 

Being more aware of our present moment experience also helps with self-care. We notice sooner when we feel tired, or are having an emotional experience, and make sure we stop and look after ourselves.  

How can mindfulness help me in difficult situations?

Having a mindfulness practice allows us to stay calm in challenging situations. It also helps build our resilience by supporting our ability to bounce back from difficult circumstances. When we are paying attention, we can see when we add something extra that does not help a situation. Negative or harmful thinking for instance. There is a difficult situation, and then there is the way we meet a difficult situation. We can stop, take a few breaths, and see what is in front of us clearly. Mindfulness builds a capacity to be with discomfort.

But what if I don’t have a lot of time for mindfulness?

The more you practice, the greater the benefit. The good news is you don’t have to spend hours meditating to get benefits. Meditation helps a lot. Though, even integrating a little bit of mindfulness into your daily routine is helpful in building the skills I mentioned above. And you may just find that instead of being another thing on your “to-do list”, mindfulness becomes something that you just do naturally, or even something you want to do! Start out with small, easy mindfulness activities. 

How do I find out more? 

There is lots of information online about mindfulness and we also run a course called Foundations of Mindful Caregiving, that explores how to integrate mindfulness in caregiving and the related areas of compassion, loss, and self-care. The next series begins on 4th June – see our website for more details.

A Line of Disappearances: Grief and Helplessness During Shelter in Place

By Alistair Shanks

We are living in a time of disappearances. For the most part, we have been stripped of our distractions, our busyness, our schedules, and plans as we shelter in place. We are being forced to reorder our activities, our needs, our lives.

We are in a state of continual waiting,  a perpetual state of uncertainty. Like a dream, we are at the mercy of an alien, inimical force, invisible and unpredictable. The world has come to a standstill. Construction sites are silent, cranes still, businesses dark, the streets empty.

We are grieving the loss of normalcy, a sense of safety and order; everything has been upended. Nothing is normal. Leaving home feels risky, a trip to the grocery store dangerous. People have lost jobs, businesses, livelihoods. People are dying alone in isolated units surrounded not by family and loved ones but by medical teams clad in protective gear.

While also grieving the loss of a sense of connection to others — friends, families, our broader social networks, work colleagues — new opportunities arise to connect in different ways, to offer small kindnesses. There are the friendly smiles and knowing nods as I pass masked people on the street, the greetings of strangers who would normally go by unnoticed. A woman offers a bottle of hand sanitizer to a homeless man outside a Safeway. Many people recognize that we are in this together, that we are all struggling to adjust to this new normal.

Our separation has only made more obvious our dependence on one another, our interconnection. We breathe the same air, share the same sidewalks and streets, depend on invisible supply chains to provide our food, our medications, our consumer goods. We are interdependent in every way, a fact that is easily lost in the daily tumult of overbooked lives.

In the midst of this pandemic, the cycles of life go on unperturbed. It is still spring and trees and flowers continue to bloom, only to disappear in their own time. The days become longer. In the absence of human activity, nature offers signs of reasserting itself: wild boar on the streets of Barcelona, mountain goats taking over a town in Wales, whales in Mediterranean shipping lanes, baby turtles in Brazil surviving in higher numbers due to deserted beaches.

And there is the fear, the vulnerability. We are all vulnerable, for once unable to distance ourselves from the world’s tragedies. It is no longer just an image of suffering on our TV screen. It is here and we are not in control, our lives moving in an arc out to the horizon, a line of disappearances. This is not necessarily a bad thing.

I often point out to our volunteers that a lot of what we do as we sit with those suffering near the end of life is to also sit with our own sense of helplessness. We are simply witnesses to the pain and struggles of our fellow human beings. Our volunteers learn to be with discomfort, with uncertainty, helplessness, the unknown. In many cases, it is all we can do and it is no small thing. I have seen the impact of a single steady, mindful presence transform a room.

What can we do with our helplessness? In this time of upheaval, we have been shorn of our assumptions, our certainties. In our helplessness the only sane, rational response, as ever, is love. Maybe our task is, as the poet David Whyte writes, “To love and to witness love in the face of possible loss, and to find the mystery of love’s promise in the shadow of that loss.”

We all need self-care in times like this. Zen Caregiving Project volunteers are trained to practice self-compassion, to acknowledge doubts and difficulties, and hold them with tenderness and care. As Jack Kornfield has said, “In this moment we can sit quietly, take a deep breath, and acknowledge our fear and apprehension, our uncertainty and helplessness…and hold all these feelings with a compassionate heart.”

We can embrace our interdependence. We can turn to the person next to us and ask, “What is your experience? What is it like for you? How are you doing?”

And listen.
Listen deeply.

Webinar on Mindful Self-Care for Professional Caregivers

This is a recording of our Mindful Self-Care for Professional Caregivers presented on April 8, 2020 by Roy Remer.

In this free, online session for professional caregivers, Roy shares mindfulness-based tools to reduce stress and increase resilience and discusses ways to easily integrate these approaches into daily life.

The live online session was offered to support professional caregivers while they support so many others.

Enjoy!

Online Resources During Shelter in Place

We’ve curated a list of resources to help you keep busy and maintain your peace of mind while the shelter in place order stands. Below are helpful links related to music, mindfulness, education, exercise, art, and nature. If you have resources to add, feel free to add them under our social media post for these resources.

Music

Livestream from the Metropolitan Opera – Free livestream of Met Operas
https://www.metopera.org/season/radio/free-live-audio-streams/

Livestream classical music concerts – List of concerts https://www.wkar.org/post/list-live-streaming-concerts#stream/0

Mindfulness

Headspace App – Mindfulness Meditation app
https://www.headspace.com/covid-19

Self-retreat – Resources from Spirit rock teachers
https://jackkornfield.com/creating-a-home-retreat-finding-freedom-wherever-you-are-free-half-day-retreat-included/

Sunday Sangha – A sangha run by Will Kabat-Zinn that is usually held in Berkeley every Sunday evening. It has gone online, and this week (March 16th) Will is running daily meditation sessions at 7am for anyone to join.
https://sundaysangha.net/

San Francisco Zen Center – Access San Francisco Zen Center Online Learning wherever you are, anytime.
https://www.sfzc.org/online-programs

Tricycle: The Buddhist Review – A series of live-stream meditations to help ease anxiety amid our social-distancing efforts.
https://tricycle.org/trikedaily/online-meditation/

Marin Sangha – Marin Sangha is a mindfulness meditation group in Marin County that puts special emphasis on living the dharma in daily life. All Sunday meetings start at 6:00pm PST.
http://marinsangha.org/

Insight Timer – Many free meditations, can connect to others meditating at same time for sense of community online
https://insighttimer.com/

Education

Online courses – Free online courses from Ivy League schools: business, social science, programming, Art & Design, Math
https://www.classcentral.com/collection/ivy-league-moocs

Exercise

Peloton – Yoga, strength training, at-home workouts free for 90 days
https://www.onepeloton.com/digital/checkout/digital-90d

Yoga with Adrienne – Yoga for all levels + meditation, always free
https://www.youtube.com/user/yogawithadriene

Eckhart Yoga – A range of different yoga classes (some paid for but lots free)
https://www.ekhartyoga.com/home

Art

Art museum virtual tours – Best on a laptop or computer, 12 tours of some of the world’s most famous art museums
https://www.travelandleisure.com/attractions/museums-galleries/museums-with-virtual-tours

More museum tours! – Virtually tour world-class museums from home
https://artsandculture.google.com/partner?ck_subscriber_id=748761443

Eastern European Movies with English Subtitles – Free streaming foreign films
https://easterneuropeanmovies.com/

Nederlands Dance Theater – Free streaming contemporary ballet
https://www.ndt.nl/en/actiepaginas/ndtv.html

Nature

Georgia Aquarium – Webcams at the Georgia Aquarium
https://www.georgiaaquarium.org/webcam/ocean-voyager/

Gardens Around the World – Virtually tour famous gardens around the world from home
https://artsandculture.google.com/search/streetview?q=garden&ck_subscriber_id=748761443

Kids

Mo Willems “Lunch Doodles” – Children’s author teaches drawing on YouTube
https://www.boredpanda.com/free-online-lunch-doodles-sessions-for-kids-mo-willems/

Caregiver Resources

Caring Across Generations – Sessions sharing mindfulness-based tools and approaches to help you manage stress and anxiety and build your emotional resilience and self-care.
https://www.facebook.com/caringacrossgenerations/

UCSF School of Medicine – Coping with Dementia Care During the Coronavirus Pandemic webinar series
https://meded.ucsf.edu/events/coping-dementia-care-during-coronavirus-pandemic-family-caregiver-webinar-series

Zen Caregiving Project – Four sessions sharing mindfulness-based techniques that you can integrate into daily life, to help reduce distress and increase self-care.
https://zencaregiving.org/events/?category=community-events#localmenu

Family Caregiver Alliance – Family caregiver webinars are for family members, partners, and friends caring for a loved one living with a chronic or disabling health condition.
https://www.caregiver.org/pilotIntegration/indexPersistent.html?uri=%2Ffca-webinars

Let’s ReImagine – Each Daily Dose of Togetherness includes a reflection from a guest speaker and a chance to connect in small groups with your digital neighbors from around the world.
https://letsreimagine.org/virtual-events/schedule

Volunteers and the Impact of Coronavirus

By Alistair Shanks

Driving down the winding roadways of the Laguna Honda campus, the first indication that something is amiss is the signs. Laminated signs affixed to A-shaped, folding barricades declare in bold yellow letters against a black background: “BY ORDER OF THE SF HEALTH OFFICER NO VISITORS ARE PERMITTED ON CAMPUS.”

With 780 beds, Laguna Honda Hospital is one of the largest skilled nursing facilities in the country. Our residents are the most at-risk segment of the population for the potentially dire consequences of COVID-19. They are largely elderly with a variety of chronic health conditions. Zen Caregiving Project volunteers serve patients near the end of life with terminal and chronic conditions and designated for comfort care on the Palliative Care Ward, S3. Some have families; many do not. Some have been estranged from family for years, even decades, and are without any social support network whatsoever.

Our volunteers received notice on March 2nd that all non-essential personnel would be barred from the campus. A few days later, families were also prohibited from visiting. In light of the threat posed by COVID-19, it was a necessary and timely intervention. But it has also left residents stranded and more alone. To fill that gap, volunteers have been sending cards and even reaching out via email to some residents. It is a small gesture, but one that will let them know they are not forgotten.

Over time, the volunteers who serve on S3 develop deep and intimate bonds with residents who live there. We are witnesses to their struggles and suffering as well as their joy and wisdom. The open secret about sitting with death and dying and approaching suffering with an undefended heart is that the residents become our teachers. As much as we give to them in the form of time and attention and love, we get back from them many times over in love, appreciation, and insight. This may be unspoken, or it can be explicit.

During a visit with a resident in his room, one volunteer revealed to him that he was a retired ophthalmologist. The resident, an elderly Filipino man, said this:
“Eyes are a mystery.”
“How so?” asked the volunteer.
“You can’t understand eyes until you know what they’ve seen.”

It seems that we are about to see more than we bargained for. Our certainties have been pierced. There are no guarantees. We can only meet this moment with open hearts. I feel myself teetering between a sense of unreality and the relentless reality of it all. And I am grateful for the love and privilege that I do have: a strong community of colleagues and caregivers, a devoted partner, being able to work from home.

Outside it is spring, and trees are blooming all over the city, plum and magnolia. The days are becoming longer, stretching into the evening, a whisper of promise. There is a sense of what Pico Iyer refers to as “radiance and melancholy.” The world is quiet. Almost everything feels frozen in time. There is a stillness, an air of expectancy, a collective breath holding as we wait for the wave to hit, an eerie pregnancy to this moment. It is almost time for the cherry blossoms.

NOTE: On Tuesday, March 31st it was announced that ten staff members of Laguna Honda Hospital and two patients had tested positive for the coronavirus. About 160 staff and 60 residents have been tested for the virus.