Dr Martin Luther King, Jr.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Watching the protests on the news carried me back in time to my protest days in the 70s and the inspiration I gained from Martin Luther King. His teaching, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that” is so relevant for these heartbreaking times.

In times of extreme stress, we feel lost and do not know what to do. Although counter-intuitive, when under such pressure is when we need to practice compassion for self and others. Breathing sustains life, but we feel threatened by a killer virus lurking in the air, and the fear of suffocation by those tasked with protecting us. Take a deep breath.

Now is the time to care for self and others. Doing so, we will not fall victim to the anger and violence that hatred spews.

Now is the time to remember we are all human beings doing the best we can, and that includes you and me. As Nelson Mandela so beautifully explained, “No one is born hating another.”  In the memory of George Floyd, we cannot allow hatred and fear to drive our actions. We cannot allow ourselves to be reduced to the kind of cruel behavior that killed him. Instead, we can practice opening open our hearts by welcoming others without labeling or judging.

Oddly enough, it is not a matter of looking for goodness. Goodness can be a judgment that drives our anxiety up when we don’t find it. An alternative is to focus on the question, “what will do no harm?” In stressful situations, that is not an easy task. Yet, as horrific as the killing of George Floyd is, we can honor his life by taking up the challenge to generate solutions instead of more anxiety and fear. We need to look for ways to help, not harm. The problem is that solutions are found by working with those we label as different from us.

As a young war protestor in the early ’70s serving in student government, I got to know many in law enforcement who were truly good people. Several student groups backed by national organizations organized a large rally at our university. I was surprised to learn that many campus security officers feared the potential for violence, as were many of the students. As a student government representative, I helped campus security negotiate a deal with local and state police. If the protestors stayed on campus property and marched on only half of the public street next to the campus, the police would let the event proceed. After negotiating with protest organizers, the march was allowed to continue.

The time was the 70’s, the place was the South, and I was a short white woman 20 years of age. That meant I was just a girl. Yet, I was the one who organized some young men in student government and a few in the criminal justice department who had plans to go into law enforcement. We spaced ourselves out and walked down the centerline of the street as the marching occurred. We yelled at, pleaded with, and pulled on protestors to keep them on the ‘campus’ side. When police officers saw something that caused them to want to approach the protestors, we held up our hands with a firm, “Wait!” and then handled the matter for them. Despite being surrounded by hundreds of people, I remember the march as a lonely one. I and the few men I had gathered to help, walked alone. We walked in an open expanse of the street between protestors who held signs and shouted words of anger on one side and police officers lined up with batons in hand, guns on hips, and hints of fear in their eyes.

As the march ended, dusk had arrived, and student protestors were walking back to their quarters to celebrate getting their speeches in the press. The police began strolling back to cars and vans. Having thanked my crew of march organizers, I turned to walk back to the dorm. Suddenly I found myself surrounded by the head of campus security and several local police officers. Looking up into the faces of these tall and big men, the campus security officer said to me, “Miss, these men would like to speak with you.” All I could think was, “Oh no. What now?” One of the officers stepped out in front of the others, took his cap off, and put in under his arm. As he stated in a firm voice, “Thank you.” the other officers began nodding their heads at me as well. I was truly touched. 

After telling them I was glad I could help, I added a comment about how together we had made sure no one was hurt. Everyone broke into big smiles. During that brief moment, no one was a girl, no one was a cop, and no one was campus security. Instead, we all were grateful human beings happy that we had done no harm.

We all can contribute to peace by not adding to the anger and hatred. Each of us can take responsibility for sharing compassion, and being responsible means being able to respond. We can use a few moments to play with a grandchild, send loving-kindness to all involved in a problematic situation, share a card or take a break from the news to enjoy the sunshine on our face. We all can respond with an open heart. We can reduce our anxiety by shifting our focus to doing no harm. Then might even enjoy a moment by engaging in a random act of kindness on an unsuspecting stranger.    

Anxiety is a heightened mental or emotional state of stress resulting from challenging conditions. However, events themselves are not intrinsically stressful. The same set of circumstances that produce smiles in some people generate fear and anxiety in others.  Anxiety and stress are caused by how we react to events.

Such diverse responses can be seen on the faces of those on a roller coaster as it descends into a deep dive.  The same is true for an invitation to attend a public reception of five hundred people. Some respond with an attitude of, “How wonderful! I will meet so many new people.” Others respond with, “How horrible! There is no way I’m going to get lost in such a crowd.” One person is excited while the other is stressed or anxious to the point of sweating just thinking about the event.  Both responses are reactions to a mental story, not the event. 

We often respond to events by generating anxiety. Unhelpful responses to stress take many forms. We may use intellectual analysis to dream up “what-if” situations. Projecting our fears based on what someone said is another typical response. Or, we may paint a story onto some common condition in our lives. Then we dwell in the emotions and anxiety about responding or dealing with the story we generated. 

Anxiety can be so disturbing it will disrupt daily routines and work habits. When stress is intense, methods that work best are often those not dependent upon more mental assessment or analysis. Dr. Pat Ogden developed such methods by combining somatic therapy techniques with attachment theory and cognitive applications. She founded the Sensorimotor Psychotherapy Institute in 1981 to teach sensorimotor therapy. Adapted from Dr. Ogden’s principles of walking meditation, I share with my clients walking mindfully. 

When stress boils over into anxiety, it is possible to walk away.  Even in an intense work setting, a short walk done mindfully can provide a bit of relief. 

Mindful walking requires the mind to focus on all that is happening while walking. It demands walking with the body instead of all the blah, blah, blah. Although all the anxiety may not disappear, the intensity of it will lessen by forcing the thought processes to drop down into the body.  Sense everything around you, a foot touching the ground, a leg swinging out, hearing the sound of a door closing, a car horn. By placing attention on the sensation, one cannot stay fixated on feelings of anxiety nor past events that cause stress.

When anxiety starts the foot pumping or fingers tapping on the table, it is time to get up and use the simple instructions below. If at work it might be a walk to the water cooler or a break room.  If at home, it might be a walk around the block. If waiting for an appointment, it can be a short walk down and back in the hallway. Use the instructions below to take a mini-vacation from stress and anxiety.  

MINDFUL WALKING TIPS

Prepare to walk: 

  • Stand with shoulders back and head up. 
  • Look outward and lower the gaze. 
  • Breathe in and out, SLOWLY.
  • Align with gravity.
  • Distribute weight over both feet and relax. 
  • Bend knees slightly.

Walk at your own pace mindfully: 

  • Pick up one foot and stretch out the leg in front slightly. 
  • Place heel down and feel the heel touch the ground.
  • Continue shifting weight onto the foot by putting toes on the ground. 
  • Stand fully on the one foot, letting back heel start to rise.
  • Bring back leg forward and place heel down on the ground.
  • Continue walking with a relaxed gaze.
  • As thoughts arise, return focus to walking.

As you walk, notice sensations in the body. Notice where you are placing your weight? What do you feel when you walk? (internally and externally) What do you see, smell, or hear? Do you feel air moving on your skin from a fan or the wind?  Is there warmth on your face? As thoughts or emotions arise, notice the idea or feeling and then think, “I am walking.” Breathe in, breathe out. Focus on the movement and sensations of your body. And, if a sensation is pleasing, remember to smile. The sun won’t mind.

  • By Carol O’Dowd, MPA, M.Div., MI, RP 

 

Even when the world seems dark and fear grabs at your gut, it is possible to find peace of mind. Feeling overwhelmed and filled with anxiety, we focus on the loud and demonstrative voices of fear and anger. Doing so we do not hear the whispering of compassion flowing in life. What we often miss is that Life does not tell us, instead it asks us, ‘Where do you want to place your attention?”

Morita Therapy asks us to be conscious about placing attention. We can place our attention on our difficulties and sing the blame song, “he done me wrong”. Another option is to shift our attention. It can be done with the simple practice of accepting. Oddly enough, accepting in the midst of difficult circumstances is possible. When we feel our hands are tied, sometimes accepting is the only thing to do. Accepting is not about giving up. Accepting is more about assessing what is happening. After accepting what is occurring or what feelings and emotions are raging, then we make a decision as to what to do about it. Part of managing depression involves expanding our view and taking actions that include caring for self.

So often, traveling with my counseling clients through the fears from abuse or the anxiety from illness, loss of job, or death of loved ones, we discover strength. We explore ways to see events with a lens that focuses on lessons learned. We let go of projections others place upon us. We find ways to drop the never-ending tape of Could’a, Should’a, Would’a. One of those ways is to practice listening with heart-mind to what is. What is includes all the causes and conditions that made it possible for us to be in the moment. Shifting our focus is a technique for quieting busy minds, even in the midst of chaos. An effective way to shift our focus is to be active. We do not have to define ourselves by our pain and suffering. We can get up and engage with the world. That can be as simple as washing dishes, fixing a cup of tea, or taking a walk. During such activities, we focus on the sensations of our body. Placing awareness on the soap suds on our hands, or the warmth of a tea bag, the aroma of flowers or the wind upon our face we setting aside ruminations of what could have been and clinging to the past. We can experience, if only for a moment peace.

Opening up to life creates the space for letting in happiness, if only during the instance we wipe a tabletop or pet a smiling dog or cat. Pain and suffering exist. Yet, with life constantly flowing, we do not have to let them define who we are. With an open heart and mind, we can place our attention with full awareness. Doing so leads us to peace, even when in the midst of chaos.

  –  Carol

Carol O’Dowd, MPA, MDIV, MI, RP
Prajna Healing Arts
720-244-2299

How often do we find ourselves dwelling on past events or mistakes we’ve made? The use of the term dwelling indicates that this is where we reside. When reflections become ruminations that carry us out of the room, it feels like that is where we are living. We get so caught up in our thoughts we start contemplating how others label us. Why? Well, we know so well how we judge ourselves, we pretend we know what others are thinking. We get so caught up in our own thoughts and assessments and what-if scenarios, we forget where we are. Sometimes we are so caught up in thinking we don’t see the room or landscape in which we are sitting.

So how do we wake up to where we are when residing in a dwelling that keeps us behind a closed door? The simple answer is to start doing. Do anything that engages the body. Ideally, if you can run, attend an aerobics class or go outside for a walk, you will quickly leave the dwelling of sadness, anxiety or doom for sunshine. However, any activity that transfers the mental treadmill of “woulda-coulda-shoulda” will work. It can be something as simple as cleaning or working on a puzzle. Any activity where you use your hands and can notice different sensations will give you a break from your dwelling. After feeling and seeing that the dust cloth is full of dirt, take it outside and shake it. Notice the dust flying in the air and the new feel of the cloth after it is shaken out. Another option is washing dishes or clothes. Notice the feel, the smells of soaps as well as the odors from clothes or leftovers. Listen to the sounds created while cleaning. Get into your activity by noticing how your body is engaged in the tasks.

Having taught mindfulness and reflections practices for more than 15 years, I have coached many on how to leave the dwellings of obsession, anxiety, sorrow, and perfectionism. If you want to learn more about doing and engaging fully with life, give me a call.

  –  Carol