By Iona Nixon
As Covid-19 patients have struggled for breath in hospitals across the world, and the brutal killing of George Floyd by US police officers has sparked international BLM protests under the banner of the horrifying and now famous words ‘I can’t breathe’, the struggle for air and the space to breathe has become a contested issue during our times.
So, take a deep breath. In and out. Follow the sensation and watch your thoughts pass by like a flowing river. You’re now practicing mindfulness.
For those of us who were privileged enough to be able to lock down, our lives took on a new pace of slowness. In normal student life, the opportunity for living in the present moment is seemingly swept away by the demands of life in Durham, the looming deadlines, constant socialising and preparing to launch into careers.
Now, all of us have been forced to slow down and, for some even more terrifyingly, spend time alone! Worse still, for many of us this has been an immensely distressing time. Students have been separated from family and friends, lost loved ones, faced financial problems and unspoken domestic abuse, and graduated into an apparently hostile job market. We have also come to realise that the circumstances that we have found ourselves in, while challenging, are also largely out of our control. So how do we find the space within ourselves to cope with this situation?
Simply put, mindfulness is the meditative practice of staying present with the breath and the body, watching your thoughts. To be mindful is to be aware of who you are and what you are doing in that moment. The ability to stay present in the body, aware of but not chasing your thoughts, can be a very powerful thing.
Alongside the evidence from an array of recent studies into the efficacy of mindfulness for treating illnesses such as anxiety, depression and chronic pain, the benefits of being mindful in everyday life have been, for many, profound. In conversation with Tom Hayes, a student who plans to start collaborative mindfulness sessions in Durham, he said that practicing mindfulness led him to find the philosophies of Taoism and Stoicism.
The Taoist state of Wu Wai, of ‘going with the flow’, is really complimentary to mindfulness, and Tom explained that ‘it can help you make better decisions and put you in a better state to make decisions’. Surely, at a time when we are all struggling to adjust to the ever-shifting ‘new normal’ brought upon us by the spread of Covid-19, we need to learn to accept, or perhaps even embrace, the present moment.
The benefits of mindfulness to us individually can be immense, but as a student body or more broadly as a society, we can learn a lot from a mindful approach to the ongoing crisis. At a recent Guardian Live Event, Canadian author and social activist Naomi Klein suggested that by slowing down as a society we have found the space to be more empathetic and aware of social injustice. Without distractions, we remain present when we come across troubling news stories.
Perhaps this is evident in the response of the Durham student body. In recent months, it has organised Covid-19 mutual aid groups and attempted to come to terms with, and to act upon, the endemic racism experienced by Durham students of colour, highlighted in a recent Purple Radio podcast by student Mirabelle Otouze.
Research has indicated that practicing mindfulness can increase an individual’s level of compassion, both towards themselves and others. Tom also commented that practicing mindfulness can improve your capacity to be present and listen when you are with people. It may be that a mindful approach to social injustice, being present and changing the way we relate to our feelings and those of others, enables us to be more aware of what is happening around us, and to care more when we are.
As shops, bars, and restaurants reopen and life seems to return to its previous bustle, we may stand to lose what we have learned by being locked down. Those of us who have come to mindfulness in recent months and years will know how hard it can sometimes be to be genuinely present in everyday life. But, perhaps, as we enter the so-called new normal, there is the space for us as individuals and a society to embrace and carry forward the practice and lessons of mindfulness into an uncertain future.
Image: Lesly Juarez via Unsplash