When all hell is breaking loose, and the proverbial stuff is hitting the fan, do you want to have access to 20, 40, 80, or 100% of your marbles? This is the question Jon Kabat-Zinn regularly asked his MBSR participants while teaching at the UMASS Stress Reduction Clinic, saying no one ever answered that they wanted less than 100% of their resources for meeting life’s challenges and for living well in the midst of them.
It’s worth asking ourselves this question right now, as we near the 1-year mark of the pandemic that has so radically altered the shape of our lives. In these times of such loss, physical distance from family and friends, health concerns—in a word, stress—to what degree are you ‘losing your marbles’? And would you, like Jon’s participants, hope to have all of your resources and multiples intelligences at hand to best cope with current difficulties?
Mindfulness practice is a skillful way of finding and intentionally cultivating these deep inner resources right when we need them most. The good news is that these ‘marbles’ are already ours, by virtue of being human, and include such qualities of heart and mind as clarity, compassion, generosity, gratitude, patience, playfulness, resiliency and ease.
Yet, particularly in times of high stress, we can lose touch with these innate capacities, getting caught in cycles of reactivity to what we don’t like and didn’t ask for. Then, what can predominate is fear, greed, anger and blame, avoidance, withdrawal, a sense of paralysis, or feeling ‘checked out.’ Reactivity can be directed outwards, toward others, or inwards, toward ourselves, either way amplifying how hard things already are.
Though these reactions to stress are also part of our hard-wiring as humans, directly linked to the fight-flight-freeze reaction to threat, both actual and perceived, we can interrupt them on purpose, and reclaim access to the resources that allow us to respond to difficulties in ways that are both wise and kind. We can settle, stay, drop down below the agitation in the body and mind and into the stillness, quiet, and spaciousness within.
In his great poem, “Song of Myself,” Walt Whitman wrote: “I am large. I contain multitudes.” When we drop in, attending to the sensations in the body, the flow of the breath, just watching the fluctuations of the mind without being so caught up in and entrapped by them, this sense of vastness begins to open.
Writing this now, I am reminded to pause, and turn my attention inward. Right here, in the hush of falling snow, I feel things opening. Colors are dimmed, sounds muted, and the air is still, but for flakes falling gently toward the ground, and a red-tail hawk cutting through the thickness like a knife. In this space, shoulders soften, the chest expands. For a moment, nothing is lacking, there’s nowhere to go, and no need to make anything different than how it is right now.
Stress causes contraction— we brace and flinch, reflexively protecting ourselves against some real, imagined, or perceived threat. Mindfulness helps us remember that, in the largeness of who we already are, there’s space enough for it all—the chaos and the calm, the anger and the ease, heartbreak and happiness, difficulty and the awareness that can meet it and itself be undisturbed.
To find our marbles, reclaim our resiliency, and remember who we really are (always much larger than what we think), let’s practice together dropping down below our attempts to ‘figure it out’, and into the body, and the heart. Let’s find our feet, over and over again, here, in touch with the ground. Let’s feel this moment of the breath flowing in and out, at the tip of the nostrils, in the belly, throughout the body. For all of our sake, let’s keep finding the heart, the one already beating right here in the chest, and tend it with care. Mindfulness asserts that each time we sit, or walk, or act with awareness, friendliness, compassion, we are drawing on our greatest resource of all: love. It’s already here, already ours, already who we are. Let’s find it again, and let it loose in the world.