Source: Sumanley xulx/Pixabay
The year-plus of my preparing these essays on practical ways to use and teach mindfulness tactics could not really be called a normal time by any stretch of the imagination. The atmosphere has been stressful, with political, climactic, and especially viral "weather" in the forecast almost every day. Especially in light of the persistence of the pandemic and its wave after wave of suffering and uncertainty, many of my blog posts have addressed using meditation to tolerate and adapt to the COVID era's bigger-picture impacts on our lives, work, and relationships.
Funny, then (well, "peculiar" is more apt), that I've not considered discussing the use of awareness practices to more specifically aid in managing the experience of COVID, dealing with the suffering, fear, and aftermath on an individual, personal level. In retrospect, that's been a missed opportunity. Perhaps a little tone deaf, really, even if I could offer the worn adage, "write about what you know," as a lame alibi.
Well, now I know firsthand.
After artfully dodging the villainous virus and its waves of mutated progeny for over two years and coaching patients about good preventive care, I recently caught it myself. (Thank you, hacking maskless dude sitting next to me on United flight 59.)
The burden of having COVID
I'm grateful for avoiding the earlier, more lethal flavors. Omicron BA.5, while much more contagious, is clearly less likely to result in hospitalizations, let alone ICU admissions, intubation, and lethality. Even the unvaccinated holdouts have a lifeline in some treatments to limit the acute damage. But catching the crud still has its intense moments of experience to adapt to. There are these, for instance:
- Direct physical suffering. This latest edition is most commonly a quick onset of sore throat, bad body aches and myalgias, and, for many, bone-rattling "rigors" of fevers and sweats. For me, it was a night and a next day of those pleasantries, plus a weird case of everything-that's-ever-been-injured-now-screams-howdy (past broken toes, a missing gallbladder, my neckful of hardware from bone cancer surgeries and radiation—I speculate it's due to an especially cranked-up inflammatory response to the virus). Past that, it's been an unpredictable fatigue, like a short-circuiting board blinking and then knocking out the power to mind and body with little warning.
- Cognitive fog. Overall blahs and loss of energy don't fully explain the bizarre troubles in thinking that can occur with COVID. There are word-finding difficulties ("you know, that thing... the thing, you know, the watchamacallit..."). Even Mensa-level minds are reduced to writing everything down. Steps and sequences in action get fuzzy and disordered—often called "executive functioning loss," which sounds like Jon Hamm forgetting his skinny tie at the ad presentation for a new cigarette brand.
- Mystery returns of the above. Many folks apparently on the mend often get a blast of the recent past, in part or whole, out of the blue. I'm four weeks out, so I took a careful, slightly more vigorous walk two days ago to restart the engines. Today, a meltdown in mid-therapy practice this morning necessitated some postponements... and a nap (followed by guilt-induced tapping away here, the modern Calvinist that I am).
- The fretful future. The looming risk of persistent or recurrent problems—weakened immunity, amped-up inflammation, recurrent bouts of fatigue, and brain fog—are well known, if not well understood. "What's coming down the pike" uncertainty bubbles up around potential suffering and lost effectiveness.
The physical, the mental, the surprising, the uncertain—it's all stuff to sit with. Any and all of it is fair game for practice. But, why? Why sit in this stuff? Why even suggest trying mindfulness to patients in the middle of the goo?
While it may seem like a stretch, these extraordinary moments, moments of discomfort, are potentially really useful times to sit and practice mindfulness—for some therapeutic and also some diagnostic or learning purposes. With any practice in basic meditation under one's belt (no "let's start to meditate" in mid-crud, please!), the calming benefit of sitting (or lying down) and resting, just watching it, refocusing as needed to stop yourself from getting lost in risks and troubles, can be a familiar home base in the midst of the discomfort.
The "spin," usually anxious, that we may generate can calm a bit as we identify rather than just get swamped in it. The learning can come from observation of the suffering.
It's flowing (and harder to watch then) but also ebbing at times. That observation of ebb and flow can build some understanding of how we ache and then recover.
How to practice mindfulness when you have COVID
Some options will follow, but let me first reinforce that self-care and self-compassion are first and foremost. If you feel too rotten to sit traditionally, then try short periods of practice while lying down or slowly walking. And if you feel too rotten to meditate, then don't!
- In the midst of "peak Omicron" (hacking, chills and sweats, aches), try no complexity. If you can breathe without difficulty, watch your breath, moving out to bodily experience at the bottom of each breath (here's a podcast I did on that, and this traditional "3-point" practice is covered in more detail in my book, Practical Mindfulness). If the breath is short or rattled by coughing, well, check your oximeter, but otherwise, focus on another mindful physical target, be it the heartbeat or "this body at rest."
- Here's another shout-out to stay with the body as a mindful anchor in some shape or form: The mind can be pudding during and often after the first flare. My brief sitting with "thoughts and feelings in the midst of rigors" was a silly proposition. Backing it down to the physical state was a more reliable target. Sit and watch instead.
- Tuning into the emotional tone present, just watching for the judgment that arises. OK, I don't know if hacking dude was my vector, or if it was having my mask down in a market a few days before, or whatever. We go looking for villains, sometimes in the mirror, when suffering overcomes us. That's human, but we also have an opportunity to soften that, understand how it operates in each of us.
- Lastly—maybe it should be firstly—is sitting with self-compassion. Not some syrupy glaze of self-pity, but "ouch, this hurts, and it's not a state I want or deserve," with no further spin on the whys and wherefores, is a graceful and loving perch in which to sit in this difficult moment.
OK, I need a nap.