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The way I see it, the mind is a landscape. Practicing yoga or meditation teaches us to explore our inner environments. Over time, we learn to negotiate the terrain: the psyche’s rolling hills and shadowy corners. We learn how to find where light dapples through the trees or recognize where the footing is precarious and we might need a hand to hold, or sturdier boots. With so little certainty in our lives right now, it’s important to have internal reinforcements when we need them. Finding this steadier ground is the work of mindfulness.
Our outer world changed dramatically in the spring of 2020; internally, we have been struggling to hang on ever since. I remember a conversation with a Buddhist friend in the early days of lockdown. “It’s like everyone is suddenly on a meditation retreat we didn’t sign up for,” she joked. And we both laughed because we needed to. Sunshine through the trees.
But a retreat is a controlled environment lovingly wrapped in quietude. Lowered voices. Serene smiles. No fretting about what’s for dinner. Somewhere: meditation bells. And, yes, retreats can also be challenging. But I’ll take caffeine- and social media–withdrawal over an unrelenting plague any day.
Finding alternate points of entry
No, the pandemic is not a retreat. For starters, nobody signed up for this. And I don’t need to re-catalogue the scope of illness, loss, death, grief, and isolation of the past two years. How the vulnerable suffered most. How the inequalities of systemic injustice were laid bare. No need to recount the mental health statistics either, except to say that (based on my personal and unscientific findings) 100 percent of us have been 100 percent not OK at some point in recent months.
Still, there’s a grain of truth in my Buddhist friend’s quip. Without the ability to escape ourselves—to move about freely and maintain the daily routines that previously allowed us to cope with reality (and sometimes avoid it)—many of us were forced inward. Perhaps this is why so many people are now considering major life changes. In matters large and small, individual and societal, we are reckoning with and remapping ways we have been moving through the world—ways that no longer work.
The process of reentry has been far from linear. And it’s been galling at times. Still, an arduous journey shouldn’t suggest that mindfulness doesn’t work or that we’re doing it wrong—two common misconceptions. It means the terrain is tough, and we are human. So, what can we humans do? How can we find steady ground when that ground keeps falling out from under our feet?
In Ayurveda, the system of health care that evolved alongside yoga, it’s said that our bodies are composed of all the same elements that make up our planet: earth, air, fire, water, and space. Simply acknowledging each one can invoke balance. It reminds us that we are the ground. The job of our practice—whatever it may look like today, however imperfect or brief or surrounded by Lego or laundry—is not to alter life but to offer a gentler way to stand within it.
A meditation on the elements
I created the following meditation because, throughout this long, pandemic period of loss, it’s a regenerative and powerful act to observe what remains. My hope is that at a time when so much is uncertain, we can still cultivate a sense of inner refuge, that a moment’s reprieve might give us the reinforcements we need to keep going. Begin by taking a few deep breaths to gather your attention. You may sit, recline, or even walk mindfully. Once you feel ready, allow your awareness to land on each of the five elements in turn.
- Earth: Feel your bones—the source of the structure and solidity of your body—connect to the ground on which you sit or stand. Feel your spine lengthen.
- Air: Notice your breath moving in and out. Feel the temperature and quality of the air on your skin.
- Fire: Observe your body’s warmth. You might consider your “metabolic fire”—are you hungry? What is it that you crave? Notice how quickly that thought arises and fades, like a weather system moving across your inner landscape.
- Water: You might consider how your body is mostly water. Imagine the fluidity of your blood. Perhaps think about how you owe roughly every other breath you take to the ocean, no matter where you may live.
- Space: Remember the spaciousness you contain. Experience the volume in your rib cage expanding as you breathe. Consider the emptiness in your nostrils and between your fingers and toes. Let your awareness open like a field.
As you meditate, you can repeat an affirming mantra for each element. You might think: I am earth, I am air, I am fire, I am water, I am space. Or expand the affirmation: I contain, I carry, or I hold. If you like, you can follow the yoga tradition and repeat the Sanskrit mantra that simply says, “I am”—So Hum. Because you are.
Rebecca Pacheco is an award-winning blogger and the author of Still Life: The Myths and Magic of Mindful Living. In Still Life, Pacheco deconstructs common misperceptions about meditation—that it’s a cure-all, that it’s blissful, that it’s easy. But her no-nonsense perspective offers a mindful pathway to a life lived fully.
Pacheco has been teaching yoga and meditation for more than 20 years. You can connect with her @omgal.
From Spring 2022