"It's Okay to Feel This": Meditation and Mindfulness in Uncertain Times
By Elisabeth Bailey, RN, DNP
My path to mediation was a fairly well-worn one - I was suffering. My father had passed away and while grieving this loss, I was challenged by my work as a Psychiatric/Mental Health Nurse Practitioner at a clinic called The Trauma Center in Boston, MA, USA. As the name implies, this clinic serves people who have experienced complex and chronic trauma. The work was meaningful, frequently inspiring, and just as frequently exhausting. I found myself perched on the edge of my seat in sessions with my patients – hearing them, but only half-listening as I wracked my brain to come up with something smart and helpful to say. "How about this medication?" "How about this dose?" "Have you tried this?" I wanted to alleviate their suffering - and the discomfort I felt when their stories reminded me of my own losses or fears. I wanted the magic bullet, the solution, but I was coming up short again and again.
I see parallels between my uncomfortable perch in these individual sessions and our collective position on the edge of our seats in this new world of COVID-19. We half-listen to news reports. We scan for the answer, the game-changing vaccine, the app that will streamline contact tracing, the right epidemiological model that will assure us of where we are going in all of this. We want to know – and we want to shove away the terrible discomfort of not knowing, of sitting in the anxiety of uncertainty for ourselves, our families, our patients, and the world. Of course, the answers to these questions matter and people are doing phenomenal work bringing us closer to meaningful answers every day. But in the meantime – and perhaps always – we have to sit with uncertainty and discomfort.
In a similar swirl of personal and professional discomfort, I began my meditation practice in earnest in 2017 after reading Dan Harris's wonderful book, Ten Percent Happier: Meditation for Fidgety Skeptics. I stumbled upon this book after a patient said to me, "I think this meditation makes me feel five percent better – not much, but after being depressed for forty years, I'll take any improvement I can get." The idea of a ten percent boost from a non-pharmacologic practice like meditation intrigued me and I decided to try it out for myself. For me, meditation very quickly became an essential part of my personal and professional practice. I found that incorporating brief moments of meditation and mindfulness into my work shifted my relationships with patients quite dramatically. Instead of waiting to talk, I was more able to listen. Over time I was able to quiet my own chatter (at least some of the time), acknowledge discomfort when it arose without trying to shove it away, and – by developing this more attuned presence – offer better help to my patients, even if that help was simply creating space to fully acknowledge their experience. As a nurse, the idea of relational practice has always been theoretically meaningful to me but once I started to incorporate mindfulness into my work, the true value of connection and authentic presence seemed to come alive.
I find myself reflecting on my meditation practice – and the value of mindful practices in general – nearly every day in these pandemic times. With shocking speed, COVID-19 has fundamentally changed the way we communicate, comfort, and nurse. We are all in the uncomfortable position of not knowing. I could certainly call upon the growing body of evidence that supports the positive effects of meditation and mindfulness practices on nurses’ wel-lbeing (Guillaumie, Boiral, & Champagne, 2017; Ponte & Koppel, 2015), but since this blog post offers a more personal reflection, I will close by sharing how I am using mindfulness in this moment of global uncertainty.
In my current meditation practice, I come back each day to two brief quotes from renowned meditation teacher, Joseph Goldstein. "It's okay to feel this" and "simply begin again." When I feel overwhelmed, sad, grateful, happy, angry, bored, helpless – any of the myriad emotions this pandemic brings – I pause and remind myself, "whatever it is, it's okay to feel this." Emotions are part of life - this moment of uncertainty will surface many that are uncomfortable…and all of them are valid. When I am feeling Zoom-ed out, frustrated with myself for a too sharp response to one of my kids or my partner, or uncertain about how to help, I take a few deep breaths and remember with each moment I can begin again. Every single moment is an opportunity for both acceptance of what is and hope. And if you can’t find acceptance or hope in the present moment, you can try again with the next breath.
For me, the practice of acknowledging reality, uncertainty, and possibility through meditation has been a way to care for myself and create space to care for others during these challenging times.
Note: While feelings of anxiety and discomfort are natural when facing stressors that are beyond our control, these emotions can become distressing and/or impairing for some. If you need help coping with this experience, you are not alone. There are many programs and resources available to you, you can find information about a few trusted resources here on the NNPBC website: Resources to Support Nurses’ Mental Health During COVID-19.
Guillaumie, L., Boiral, O., & Champagne, J. (2017). A mixed-methods systematic review of the effects of mindfulness on nurses. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 73(5), 1017‐1034.
Ponte P.R., & Koppel, P. (2015). Cultivating mindfulness to enhance nursing practice. American Journal of Nursing, 115(6), 48‐55.