by Jenna Drennen
I think we can all agree that 2020 hasn’t quite panned out as expected. Over the past few months, I’ve often felt like the onslaught of catastrophe resembled a series of waves. Wading through the chaos, I’ve struggled to keep my head above water, and frequently felt like I was drowning in anxiety, fear, and uncertainty. As our nation confronted a global pandemic, each of us grappled with emotional, physical, and financial stresses and confronted the challenges of isolation in different ways, and with varying degrees of success. As a parent, I strove to identify methods of coping that would allow me to better guide my family through this challenging period, and offer my children tools to more effectively regulate their emotions as we navigated through the grief and disconnection.
Tackling the complex and distressing concepts surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement intensified many of our already fragile dispositions. Like many parents, I struggled to gather insight, tools, and resources to initiate a productive and age-appropriate dialogue with my children, addressing the mounting issues surrounding systemic racism and privilege deep-rooted within our society. Identifying our own privileged position within our society, while processing the frustration and sadness that this movement has brought to the forefront of our community and nation’s collective consciousness has proved to be powerfully emotional and transformative for my family.
As I’ve navigated these “waves of change” that have flooded our lives this year, I’ve challenged myself to identify and acknowledge the aspects of our “new normal” that could possibly offer my family opportunities for growth and gratitude. In doing so, I stumbled upon a realization; 2020 has been an incredibly effective crash course in mindfulness.
The concept of mindfulness is rooted in Buddhist philosophy, but is often used as a therapeutic technique, and refers to a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations. Frequently coupled with Cognitive-Behavioral therapy, mindfulness seeks to improve physical and mental health, and has proven successful in treating depression and anxiety, reducing stress, and favorably influencing the immune system. Mindfulness-based therapy is often integrated into the treatment of substance use disorders, and indicated as a valuable tool for weight management.
Developed through the practice of meditation and a focus on breath, mindfulness seeks to create a road map guiding us towards alert/focused relaxation, while highlighting the benefits of staying centered on the present moment, and accepting it without judgment. By utilizing tools that allow us to successfully shift our thoughts away from future-oriented preoccupations, a greater appreciation of the moment emerges. When practiced on a regular basis, mindfulness techniques ultimately strengthen the body’s capacity to regulate stress.
As any parent can attest, applying mindfulness techniques to my everyday life is easier said than done. I’ve always been a “planner,” and the rush to accomplish the necessary tasks and obligations of my personal and professional life often leave me feeling exhausted, stressed out, and disconnected from the present moment. On particularly busy or stressful days, staying present feels nearly impossible.
As social distancing took effect, schools closed down, and our family began to isolate, our daily routines naturally shifted as we adjusted to change. Initially, as my world shrunk smaller and smaller, my anxiety and fear seemed to grow. In attempting to regulate these emotions and confronting the fear and uncertainty that drove them, I often grasped for ways I could maintain control within a world that seemed to be spiraling out of control at alarming speed. In focusing my attention on the present moment, I understood that a degree of the panic and fear that led me to catastrophize the future may be alleviated. What I never anticipated, however, was how much easier it was to implement mindfulness into this new, slower-paced world I found myself living in.
Without the rush of getting the kids to soccer practice, play dates, or school events, I found myself getting lost once more in the flow of fully engaging in activities I once loved. I reconnected with my senses as I savored the smell of the spices as I prepared dinner, or felt the warm sun shining down on my skin as I planted herbs in the garden. Without my normal sense of urgency to accomplish tasks, I was able to pause between actions and fully engage in activities for the first time in years. In savoring these little moments I also found the time and space to more thoroughly observe and process the range of intense emotions I experienced. Viewing our slower-paced lifestyle as a gift allowed me to redefine my reality, and take some control back. Sure, there were still days when I felt terrified and overwhelmed, but the positive shift in my overall well-being was undeniable.
As the next wave of social and political unrest hit our nation, I struggled to identify the appropriate words and actions to best support the Black Lives Matter movement. Exploring avenues to educate and engage in an age-appropriate dialogue with my children proved difficult, and I found myself once again leaning heavily on mindfulness concepts. While it is often human nature to pull away from stress and discomfort, mindfulness urges us to gently lean toward difficulty. This can often seem counterintuitive, but when discomfort is met head on, it often leads us to experience less of it down the road. I do not identify as a person of color, and understand that in order to be an effective ally, I need to first fully see myself as an oppressor, and an unfairly advantaged participant in a damaged culture. This can be a difficult concept to accept or adequately convey to a child, but I also recognize how privileged they are to learn about systemic racism, rather than experience it. Although it is appealing to avoid difficult, even painful conversations with my kids right now, understanding that I have nothing to lose by having uncomfortable conversations grounds the process. As I gently lean in to difficult discussions, I remind my kids that to sit in silence and avoid the discomfort is also a refusal to give up your power as a privileged individual. Mindfully slowing down, listening, and learning, allows us to identify and understand the many facets of systemic racism, and begin to take steps and seek out resources to take productive, anti-racist action.
As the endless waves of change crash upon me, I find comfort in knowing I am equipped with my mindfulness toolbox, and prepared to face the onslaught of inevitable discomfort, uncertainty and transformation. They say “you can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf,” and 2020’s crash course in mindful living has provided me a surfboard.
Jenna lives in Firestone with her husband, two kids, and a house full of animals. She enjoys, running, gardening, and climbing mountains in her spare time.