The pandemic has generated fear, stress, and anxiety to a degree many have never experienced in their lifetimes.
However, it has also created a unique opportunity to pause and reflect on all those things we tend to lose sight of in our normally busy, demanding lives.
California-based meditation teacher Christina Huntington has seen a huge surge in self-care practice during this time with spiked interest in her online meditation classes. Although the moment is fearful, Huntington is hopeful that if we use this moment of stillness as a time for self-reflection, we can come out the other side stronger.
Huntington has been practising meditation all her life, practically born into it with parents who were among the earliest practitioners of transcendental meditation in the US. She has seen meditation grow from a fringe practice to a mainstream lifestyle heralded by yogis and CEOs across the world. She has taught meditation at Coachella, on Oprah Winfrey’s “Adventure of Your Life” cruise and through the world’s first drop-in meditation studio, Unplug Meditation and has witnessed first hand the way in which meditation can positively transform individuals from all walks of life.
I spoke to Huntington about how humans respond to a global shutdown, how we can better manage the pandemic on a day-to-day basis, and the gifts we can take from this extraordinary moment in time.
What are some things you’ve been feeling or some experiences and observations you’ve had during this time?
The number one thing that keeps coming through to me, and this is something I keep teaching about as well, is really starting to tune in to what life is asking us to do right now—which is to slow down, get still, and be quiet.
This has never happened in the history of the world where the entire global population, all at once, was asked to stop. That is not an accident; there is divine order in that. The world has stopped so that we will stop for a moment. We have been so outwardly focussed and distracted, running around trying to be everywhere, be everything for everyone else, in these “chasing achievement” cycles that are like a hamster wheel we can never get off of.
To be honest, before the pandemic, the thing that I was dealing with the most with my students and clients was them being completely overwhelmed, anxious, and unfulfilled because they felt like they were always trying to get somewhere and they never could because whenever they did, it wasn't enough. That's because of how we had set the world up until this point; we have been so outwardly focused that we have become completely disconnected from ourselves. Now we are being asked to take a moment to get off the hamster wheel and just stay put. There is a gift for all of us here in the silence—that’s the thing that you get when you meditate—but we’ll only be able to receive that gift if we heed what we are being asked to do now, which is to stop, listen, and turn our attention inward.
What’s been happening for a lot of people is in the silence and the stillness we are actually having to confront ourselves and confront the meaning of our lives, both individually and collectively. Oftentimes, we're only able to decipher our values and true priorities when there is restriction in our lives. What happens is when everything else is stripped away—achievements, career goals, all the things that we’ve been chasing externally—then we have to sit and ask ourselves, “Who am I, without all of that external stuff? What truly matters to me?” We have to ascertain that for ourselves so that, hopefully, moving forward, we can start to create a life where we are using our precious, limited time on this planet in a way that feels meaningful.
How have you been practicing self-care yourself?
One of the things that became clear to me as soon as the pandemic happened was that I needed to make sure that I had a really, really solid routine in terms of my daily self-care practice. How I did that practically was I actually sat down and I drafted what my morning and evening self-care routine would be, and how I was going to care for my physical, emotional, and mental health throughout the day as things were coming up. I wanted to set myself up to win, meaning I could feel safe, balanced and grounded within myself and my life every day no matter what was happening in the outside world because I had my own solid system in place.
I decided that in the morning when I wake up, before reaching for my phone or allowing myself to listen to any news or go on social media, I’d start by meditating for 15 minutes and doing gentle focussed breathing to self-soothe right from the start. Then, I read either a chapter or a couple of paragraphs of a good spiritual book that I love. Then, I sit down and I journal one to three pages freehand with some tea. I make sure that I go outside for a little bit for some fresh air, nature, and sunlight. When I do that it completely alters the course of my day. It gives me such a solid foundation internally to go out and face my day.
During the day, if things start coming up or news comes in that feels overwhelming, I make sure I use a couple of calming breath techniques that I teach in my classes. A very simple one is just doubling the length of your exhale versus your inhale, which activates the parasympathetic nervous system into “rest and digest” mode. The most important thing—which came as a directive to me while I was meditating—is that I make sure to take a little time to sit outside for just five minutes—it doesn’t have to be any longer than that—and do absolutely nothing. No music, no phone, no distractions—just exist. Just watch the trees swaying in the breeze, feel the sun on my face, smell the orange blossoms in the air, enjoy the hummingbirds dancing around the garden. That has been one of the most healing, calming things to instantly course-correct and internally reset myself during the day.
My night-time routine is that I do not allow myself to go on my phone an hour before bed so that I start detaching from the fearful dialogue of the world. We have to stay informed but we also can’t make ourselves crazy. Then, again, reading just a little bit, even if it's one paragraph. Then, I do a nightly gratitude practice where I look back at the day and I take what I call “positive inventory.” So often our default mode is to look at what’s going wrong. Instead, positive inventory is looking back on your day at what’s going right, what you did well, what you’re grateful for. Lastly, I think about how I want to feel tomorrow and the experiences that I want to generate in my life the next day. That really helps in terms of staying sane and centred amongst so much uncertainty.
Both in your teaching and your personal life, how have you seen approaches to self-care change in light of the virus?
Well, suddenly self-care has become very important and people are becoming aware of how much they need to have a daily self-care practice. Once the pandemic happened, I started getting a lot more people reaching out because suddenly when they were at home, with themselves, without the distraction of all that activity, they were feeling very stressed and anxious about how to just sit in this stillness and restriction. A lot of people have come to me for a meditation practice and I’ve been working with them to develop their own personal daily routines, modelled off the same self-care prescription I created for myself.
Some people have been taking up baking, gardening, taking dance classes online, learning to play musical instruments, making art, or doing creative projects. All of those are activities that actually soothe and help self-regulate your nervous system. Any physical activity that you can do where you’re really embodying the present moment without having to be in future-thinking or achievement mode is a way to self-regulate your nervous system out of your stress response [and] into your peace response. What’s interesting is that a lot of people aren’t aware of that intellectually but they’re doing it naturally.
There seem to be two camps or impulses to coping with the pandemic. One, to disassociate and distract from the threat or tragedies. And, the other, to confront reality head-on often overwhelming ourselves with news reports and different predictions. How have you been presented with these impulses in your clients and what is your interpretation of them?
Yes, I have definitely seen people who are avoiding dealing with what’s going on completely and people who are totally obsessing about it to their own detriment. My personal opinion is that neither of these approaches are healthy because I think that one of the things that doesn't work in life is operating in extremes. A lot of the work of self-care, especially with taking on a meditation practice, is learning how to live your life in balance. Whenever we feel ourselves teetering on any sort of extremity, that actually lets us know that we’re out of balance.
When we are in total avoidance, not dealing with what’s going on, we can get ourselves into a lot of trouble because whenever we're avoiding something externally it also means that we’re avoiding something internally. Like I said before, at this time when people are being asked to sit and be still with themselves, it is an opportunity to authentically meet yourself. But, if you’re in avoidance of any kind you’re not going to be able to. You can only do that if you meet the moment bravely, which means having to confront your feelings around this moment head-on.
In terms of people who are totally obsessing, that is unhealthy and detrimental as well because what’s happening is that you’re only getting swept up in the fear narrative. Whenever we’re operating from fear, we’re literally flooding our bodies nonstop with stress hormones so it's terrible for you on every level—physical, emotional, mental, spiritual. What tends to happen is that people have anxiety, panic attacks, and breakdowns, feeling overwhelmed and hopeless. That’s a dangerous place to be. There’s a huge rise in the number of suicides that are happening and the amount of people reporting severe anxiety and depression. That's because if we’re only letting ourselves get swept up in the fear tsunami, there’s no way to get our footing in that, it puts us in a state of powerlessness.
I would say that whether you’re obsessing or avoiding, both are opposite sides of the same coin of fear. There’s a healthy balance between those two things. We do need to be informed but only to an extent. We operate in a healthy way by creating boundaries around how we interact with and engage with news, media, and the outside world. This means understanding what your trusted news sources are and then putting limits on how often you allow yourself to engage with those sources. Then you need to make sure that you check-in and ask yourself, “How does this make me feel?” so that you’re aware of what the impact is of feeding yourself those things. We’re not powerless in this situation. Even now, with all of this going around outside of us that seems so out of our control, you still have a say in the matter of how you get to feel, experience and operate through your day and your life.
What are some methods or approaches you would recommend to manage this moment?
One thing I’ve found really helpful is that I’ve given myself limits on how far into the future I’m allowed to think about or worry about. Because everything is changing so much for us and from one day to the next, we have no idea what is going to happen; it's not possible to plan for things right now in the way that we were able to before the pandemic happened. So, I gave myself the rule to only allow myself to think in terms of this day, only this week, and at the most this month if I have work responsibilities or bigger life stuff I need to plan. It takes a huge weight off of your shoulders to give yourself permission to only think about “one day at a time, one week at a time.” That is a true presence practice.
The other thing that I’ve been teaching about a lot is just to simplify. This means lightening the load of what you are carrying spiritually, physically, mentally and emotionally, instead of trying to do so much or even putting pressure on yourself to “maximise” the most of your time in quarantine right now. When we first got into quarantine, there were so many amazing offers from people that were happening, like “Get Into Your Best Shape Ever Total Body Boot Camp” and all of these intensive classes. But again, that is still so much of the “doing” energy that we’re being asked to step away from a bit. Just let yourself be more and do a little less right now. Take time to be still, be quiet. Spend some undistracted quality time with yourself, your family and with your life itself. That also means simplifying your approach to life and how you move through your day. “Simplify” is really helpful as a mantra to remember. Whenever I have to make a choice or if I’m overcomplicating things, stressing myself out or worrying too much, I just remind myself to “simplify” and it instantly helps me get a clear answer of what to do next and helps me to respond instead of react, so that I feel more peaceful. Simple is always better.
What can we take from this moment and how can we maintain the insights we’ve gained in the extraordinary “stillness” as life begins to move back to normal?
In this moment, we are being asked to look at the individual and collective structures and to examine the foundations of what we have built in our lives so far. And, we are finding the faults in them and what’s not sustainable so that we can create new systems and structures that are sustainable and more healthy and fulfilling for everyone going forward.
The ideal change that I would like to see is moving out of a world all about achievement and extreme productivity, and shifting the question “How can I achieve more?” to “How can I be of benefit?” I hope it's a permanent change that people realise they need to care for themselves but also care for one another. That’s the big thing that's coming up in terms of the pandemic. We are really waking up to the fact that we are all interconnected. Before this happened, we had gotten into this very individualistic mindset where as long as we were personally doing okay and our lives were on track, it didn’t really matter what was happening to anyone around us. It's taken this virus to realise how inextricably connected we all are on a global scale. The truth of the matter that we see now is that your life actually does depend on the life of your neighbour and we are only as strong or as healthy as the weakest, most vulnerable link in our society, so we have to make sure we are taking care of each other.
This is important in terms of self-care because, as we figure out the new systems and structures we need to put in place to care for one another, caring for ourselves is part of that process. Keeping ourselves healthy is part of our role in keeping our neighbour healthy and keeping our neighbour healthy is part of the way to keeping ourselves healthy. Then as we consider what we can do moving forward to help us all survive, we must also ask: what can we do to make us truly thrive? That’s the real question to bring to this moment of stillness and then to take meaningful action on.