Simple Practices for Tough Times

These have been and are tough, trying times. On an international level, need we say more than “North Korea” and “Syria”? Nationally, to name but a few things, there is the refugee/immigrant crisis, climate change, changes that make people uneasy (with good reason) about their health care coverage, threats to LGBTQI rights, and this list could go on at length. Locally, we’re impacted by everything that happens on the global and national levels, to which we can add the Muncie Public Schools situation and the FBI carrying files out of City Hall. Our own beloved community hasn’t been immune to conflict, either, with tensions evident regarding the proposal to move to two services and concerns recently lifted up by our secular humanists.

Denominationally, we’ve seen the resignation of a President and increased concern over how well we’re dealing with racism at the highest levels of staffing. Individually, too, hard times inevitably arise.

It’s vitally important to do what we can and what we feel called to do to help take care of the myriad challenges we face. It’s equally crucial to take care of ourselves in such times (as in all times). Self-care means care of ourselves as whole persons. That includes caring for that deepest core of our being, where we find and/or make meaning and value, the dimension that some people call “soul.”

Most of us don’t have the time or the flexibility in our schedules for a lengthy retreat, and many of us also don’t have the desire for that type of practice, as helpful as it has proven historically for many. I am among those who aren’t drawn to the practice of retreat. I, like many others, need simple, everyday ordinary practices that can sustain me. Even those among us for whom retreat is helpful need practices to support us in everyday life.  I’ll share several that I myself practice and recommend to others. They help me remain centered and (relatively) calm in the face of turmoil; perhaps you will find some of them helpful as well.

What can I do when my thoughts and feelings are spinning and I can’t let them go? Try this: Stop and take a few deep, conscious breaths. Check in with yourself and ask “What do I need to do right now to feel calmer, more centered, more in control or more OK with not being in control?” Take a walk, call a friend, or make a cup of tea and lose yourself in an engaging book. Mindful walking can be particularly helpful. Walk slowly, taking care to notice the small, specific details you might otherwise miss. Breathe. Walk. Notice.

Some other ideas: Play with your children, your dog or your cat. Everybody wins. Dig in the garden or flower beds, or tend to indoor plants. Dirt underneath fingernails is highly therapeutic. Inhale deeply and take in the scent of the earth, the ground of our living and being. Know that you are of the earth, that you are at home here on this planet. It will support you.

Although I’m not involved in AA, the well-known Serenity Prayer is one that reminds me there are things I cannot control, and perhaps should not try to:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Because the God-language of the original does not always speak to me, I’ve developed a couple of nontheistic variants:

May I have the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

I vow to cultivate the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.

Sometimes, I rephrase the last line to read “And especially the wisdom to know the difference,” because I often have a hard time figuring that one out!

There are several practices that, over time, can refocus our minds and hearts in a more positive direction. Most of you are probably familiar with gratitude practice in some form, because it’s been written about a lot. At the end of the day, call to mind three things for which you’re grateful. Think of them with as much detail as possible. Specifics are better. Recalling the taste and enjoyment of the roasted cauliflower you ate at dinner has more effect than simply being grateful for “a good dinner.”  Some people like to write their gratitudes in a gratitude journal.

Pausing to offer silent or spoken thanks before or after meals can enhance our experience of that meal and help us focus on what a gift wholesome food is.

We can do a similar practice with three examples of beauty each day. These don’t have to be big things. Little things count too. Engage your senses. Did you notice the wide-awake face of a small child taking in a world yet new? Hear the joyous song of a bird in the morning or tree frogs at night? Really smell the gingerbread you just baked? When we set an intention to notice and remember things like these, we become more likely to observe them. We develop the habit of seeking them out, and that enriches our life.

None of these practices involves other people, at least not directly. They are primarily about making your own life more manageable, more serene and more effective. Nonetheless, the changes they bring about in you may well be reflected in how you relate to the other people in your life. Next month, I will look at a number of practices that involve others more directly.

~Rev. Julia