April 13, 2020
So how’s it going in your home these days? It’s a loaded question, I know. Each time someone texts me, “How are you?” I’m not sure if I should lie or spend the next 15 minutes tapping out the ups and downs I’ve been experiencing since Corona Virus waged war on Massachusetts. For example, working from home is spectacularly convenient (while the kids are sleeping). There’s lots of time to bake (when we can get flour in the grocery store). Spending time with my partner is delightful (so long as he’s not chewing gum because the smacking and sucking sounds literally give me nightmares).
I imagine most families are experiencing something similar. If you’re one of the lucky ones, you are sheltered in place with people you like—or better yet love. You’re co-working with friendly roommates, playing cards with your significant other, or making Shrinky Dinks with your kids. Aside from the occasional zinger, conversations are easy and you feel pretty darn grateful.
There are other shelter-in-place scenarios, though. Ones that aren’t so delightful. You may be living with people who constantly push your buttons, finding strife at the unavoidable intersections of neat freaks and slobs, republicans and democrats, vegans and omnivores, boomers and millennials. An unsolicited opinion, a critical observation, heck even an uncontained sneeze can set off an explosion of arguments, making you feel tight and trapped and honestly kind of crazy.
As cabin fever oppresses and patience wears thin, odds are very likely that each member of your home team will lose their cool a time or two… or ten. Sometimes it’s you. Sometimes it’s them. Everyone gets an at-bat. The trick is recognizing when you’ve lost it and taking a few mindful steps toward sanity.
This article is broken into two sections: one for when you’re being the bigger weenie, and one for when they’re being the bigger weenie. Hopefully these few mindfulness-inspired communication tools will help you survive Covid lockdown, or what one of my colleagues brilliantly calls “The Great Unpleasant.”
Dr. Bob Stahl teaches mindfulness at UMASS Center for Mindfulness. (He was actually my Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction teacher back in 2010.) One of his many teachings includes three letters that, if applied appropriately, will change your life forever: SAR (Stress, Awareness, Reaction). Typically, when we experience stress, we react to it kneejerk-style. The reaction could be helpful or harmful, depending on your mood, your mindset, or your past experience. Bringing awareness to body, speech, and mind mitigates the negative effects of stress and sets us up for a more pleasant future. Let’s play out a few scenarios based on an easily relatable driving drama.
You’re cut off in highway traffic (S), jam the breaks (R), then holler profanities out the window (R). Cortisol, the stress hormone, floods your body for a minute and a half (R). You tailgate the driver until you reach your exit, which is about 10 minutes, then arrive at your destination and complain about the driver to a friend (S). Your friend shares your disdain and joins you in cursing bad drivers (R).
Being cut off is the stressful stimulant. A helpful reaction is stopping quickly. A harmful reaction is cussing at the driver ahead of you. Cortisol, your body’s physiological reaction to stress, lasts in your body for about 90 seconds. After that minute and a half passes, your body is physically free of the stress, but your mind chooses to continue producing stress hormone by stalking and complaining, creating additional damage to the body and mind. Notice there is no mention of awareness in this scenario.
Let’s reimagine. This time, you get cut off (S) and jam the breaks (R). Cortisol releases and your heart beats hard (R). You white-knuckle the steering wheel, feeling angry (R). You beep the horn a little too long as you speed past the offender, then drive the next two miles still feeling a little angry (S). You arrive at your destination, noticing (A) you’re still gripping the wheel (R). You realize (A) your head hurts a little (R). You intentionally decide not to share your experience with others (r).
In this scenario, just enough awareness engages to notice that your body is responding violently to stress and it doesn’t feel good. By the end of the scenario, you intentionally protect yourself from more reactive behavior. The lowercase “r” in this story stands for response. By noticing the effects of your kneejerk reactions, you choose to stop the violence, move forward with composure, and stop that cortisol from flooding the body.
You’re cut off (S) and jam the breaks (R). You take a deep breath. In. Out. Maybe two. In. Out (A). Your heart pounds, ears heat up, and hands sweat (R). Another breath. In. Out (A). You inquire internally, What just happened? You acknowledge that you were tuning the radio when the other driver cut you off (A). You offer a conciliatory wave to the other driver (r) and continue to drive with a little more care (r).
Now you’re starting to make some progress. Injecting a couple of breaths into a stressful moment creates space for options. Options are freedom. I could do this, or I could do that. No longer stuck in one habitual, reactive outcome, you have a moment to zoom out on the situation and see it for what it is: a momentary lapse in judgment, a near-miss, a neutral event. You question assumptions. You respond with composure and compassion. You spare your body several minutes or even hours of stress.
Before you begin your commute, you take a few deep breaths. In and out and in and out and in and out (A). You are aware of all the challenges a crowded highway could present and decide to take the train instead (r).
As awareness is welcomed at multiple points of a stressful experience, we find opportunities to gain wisdom through reflection, inquiry, understanding, and peaceful action. Welcoming awareness before a potentially stressful situation occurs, as in the last scenario, is the ultimate way to avoid it, redesign it, or at least prepare for it. The secret is seeing a situation for what it is and not for what you think it is. In other words, the world is not out to get you, traffic is not personal, you have the choice to respond however you’d like, and the way you respond informs your future. As Eli Wiesel might coach you, therein lies your freedom.
Yesterday, my neighbor and I chatted from our driveways. She could barely breathe through her laughter. She’d just read a meme picturing a husband and wife sitting together with the caption: “Would you please stop blinking so loud, you f*cking f*ck?” Oh yes. A stress-inspired sign of our times.
So let’s create a new scenario—a crunching, clicking, heavy-breathing, open-mouth-chewing housemate. It’s mealtime and they are on full display (S). We could reactively lash out or criticize (R). We could repress our feelings and sit silently annoyed, brooding (R). We could hold in our anger during dinner and verbally ambush them later (R). We could also engage awareness before mealtime begins, take a deep breath, and come up with some options to help us avoid the stress in the first place:
Using acceptance as an awareness tactic
We could come up with dozens of versions of the first three options. That last one, outright acceptance, is really hard. I’ve been attempting acceptance throughout The Great Unpleasant and find it’s been mostly ineffective. You see, I’m in lockdown with eight other humans: one partner, six children, and a dear friend who’s bravely riding out the germ storm with us. Sometimes my home is a complicated place to be. Noisy. Messy. Suffocating. Chaotic. Unquiet. (For example, there are currently pizza bagels burning in the kitchen and a clarinet squeaking The Hobbit theme song from the stairwell as I type.)
My experience of irritation has been so intense as of late that I ramped up my mindful awareness practice with the specific intention of nipping some of this complication in the bud. I thought that increasing my formal meditation time would help. After spending hours upon hours sitting on the cushion, trying to no-mind my way to acceptance, I came up cynical, critical… and if I’m to be totally honest, a little bit crazed. No matter how quiet and focused I became, I could not break through the irritation. This failure is not easy for me to admit. I’ve been teaching mindfulness and peace practices for almost a decade, so my inability to offer lovingkindness to my own family disappointed me. But hey, I’m human and these are extraordinary times, so I forgave myself and tried another way.
Getting loud as an irritation override
When I was trained in Transcendental Meditation many years ago, my teacher said, “When the voices in your head get loud, turn up the volume of your mantra.” It worked. Since then, I have experienced countless sittings during which I silently screamed my mantra over nagging thoughts until eventually, the mantra overpowered the space between my ears and my mind found a consistent and neutral point of focus.
Years later, as I slid down into half pigeon during a yoga class, my teacher said, “Let your breath be louder than the pain you’re experiencing.” I inhaled deeply and released a big sigh. Once again, it worked. Like the mantra, increasing the volume and intensity of my breath drowned out the discomfort of a challenging pose, and I was able to manage it with greater ease.
These past few weeks, I’ve sought relief for my chronic irritation through mindfulness and found nothing. Mantras and yoga brought me no peace. After too many failed attempts, I literally pumped up the volume on my Alexa speaker to release this stagnant irritation and guess what? It worked again.
The technique I landed on is Journey Dance. My friend Toni Bergins created this awesome free movement practice—it’s basically shamanic ritual set to your favorite songs. I go to my bedroom, close the door, blare music, and dance like no one’s watching. I start with heavy music that matches my mood—The Indigo Girs’ cover of Letter to Eve is my go-to. Wade in the Water followed by Zydeco (The Hanumen), Paper & Fire (John Mellencamp), Don’t Stop Me Now (Queen), Let’s Get Loud (Jennifer Lopez), Can’t Stop the Feeling (Justin Timberlake). I slowly lift out, song by song, exhausting my internal suffering, finding new space for lighter feelings, and spinning into experiences of joy. The special sauce in this process is surrender. While dancing and sweating, I surrender all of my irritation to God. ”Take it, God,” I request, “Please take this burden because I want to feel free.”
After Journey Dancing, I’ve found I have more tolerance for “what is,” more acceptance of The Great Unpleasant, and more space in my heart for lovingkindness.
(Are there other ways to get out of your head? Yes, so many ways. I encourage you to share your methods in the comments below.)
Let’s imagine you suddenly find yourself in an argument. You don’t mean for it to happen. It starts innocently, “Hon, can you please stop chewing like that? I’m trying to work and the clicking sound your jaw makes is really distracting” (S). Your partner responds defensively (R). Before you know it, you’re in a heated quarrel over the way you treat their mother (R).
Think about what it means to be hooked. You’re stuck and unfree. The more you struggle against your entrapment, the more you injure yourself. You want to undo what’s been done but you can’t. You feel desperate. In this moment, you must see beyond the hook and recognize who, between the two of you, is the saner person. If it’s them, let them take the lead. With them in the driver’s seat, your job, at minimum, is to be guided and to find some thoughtful space between your words.
If you’re the saner one, encourage an end to the fight by practicing submission, or as I like to call it, “going belly up.” Imagine two dogs—a Yorkie and a Lab—meeting for the first time. They approach each other and there’s a whiff of tension (S). The Yorkie yaps full volume, protective and fierce (R). The Lab plays at first, jumps and woofs, then realizes he’s scaring his tiny counterpart and gets low, lies on his side, exposes all of his vulnerable bits, lets the Yorkie sniff (A). The Yorkie stops yapping and the two settle down (r).
The saner dog in this case is the Lab, so he humbles himself until the Yorkie can see he’s not a threat. He stops barking, gets low, stays still, and waits. He knows he is bigger and stronger, but he’s also acknowledging that his playful approach, while not mal-intended, is causing distress. His real power rests in his ability to assess the situation and disarm his counterpart by becoming vulnerable.
This behavior is counter-intuitive. During an argument, we humans tend to put up our dukes to establish our power or rightness. We yell louder, we deliver harsher insults, we slam doors with greater gusto. We can easily forget the big picture and get caught up in a tit-for-tat blows with the hope of overpowering our counterpart. Our humanness needs to control the other person, which means we have to be right. The hook digs deeper. But approaching a problem from the belly up perspective is a more effective way to solve it. Here’s why:
Understanding is not agreeing
Being submissive doesn’t mean admitting fault. It communicates a willingness to get quiet and listen to another’s perspective. Being submissive also does not mean you agree with the other person. It just means you’re open. These are the ideal conditions for removing a hook. Your openness may be just the thing that your sparring partner needs. While you’re belly up, you can get curious about their feelings and ask lots of open-ended questions. Perhaps as your partner vents, they relax into truth-telling, reveal new insights, and spontaneously recognize their own lack of sanity, sparing you from having to call them out.
It may turn out that your compassionate inquiry inspires a new awareness of your own unbecoming behavior. Having to apologize or admit you’re wrong can be incredibly uncomfortable—mentally and physically. Realizing you’re out of line is a physiological experience because the stress of getting busted floods the body with cortisol.
Think about the last time you argued with a family member or friend. At some point during the argument, perhaps you knew your approach was ungrounded or you went too far. Maybe you even lied to advance your case. Close your eyes for a moment and put yourself in that moment. Feel all the feelings. Is there tightness in your throat? Squeezing in your muscles? Shortness of your breath? A general feeling of dis-ease? This is the perennial struggle that takes place at our internal crossroads. As your higher-self whispers, This is your shot, dude. Confess your crimes and we all get to move forward, your ego is like, Who do they think they are calling you out like this? Let’s dig our heels in even further! The tension between the two voices in your head creates a storm of discomfort in the body and that’s what you’re tapping into as you recall the argument.
The Great Unpleasant brings about desperate times, and desperate times require humble pie. It takes strength to admit wrongs, to speak truth, and to make peace. If making peace were easy, everyone would do it and our world would be a very different place.
So if you’ve been struggling to find a way out of ceaseless, bitter exchanges, you now have a few peace tools to experiment with:
(Two disclaimers: Do not take responsibility for an accusation that does not resonate with you. That only enables your partner. And if going belly up and listening carefully aren’t enough to inspire awareness and quell a fight, walk away and continue the conversation later when you are both calm.)
Planning ahead with awareness
Once you’re on the other side of a skirmish, take inventory of your unhooked body and mind. What does this feel like? Is there greater ease? Fewer judgments? Less volatility? More love? Make a decision about how you want to feel when you’re with this person and then intentionally behave your way into that feeling.
One thing I often say to my children is, “If you think before you speak, you’ll spare yourself an apology later on.” Our thoughtless commentary can land on other in all kinds of ways, especially these days when we’re all trapped inside our homes and driving each other to the brink.
Our roommates require more of us during The Great Unpleasant. They need us to be more self-aware, more responsive, more understanding, more patient, more accepting, and more helpful. And we need the same from them. Having preemptive conversations, bringing that big “A” of awareness into our relationships before the traffic jam starts or the hook entraps us, allows us to experience more ease and freedom.
Perhaps today is the day you decide to take peaceful action. This day, you gather your living partners and create a new communication constitution. There will be plenty to agree and disagree on during this process. Be playful if you can, be calm when people share their frustrations, and stay focused on the goal: a peaceful home.
Vanessa Linsey is a Mediator and the Operations Manager at MWI. She has spent the last decade helping people resolve conflict through mindfulness. She is a coach and workshop facilitator, teaching clients how to get unstuck from personal and professional drama through mindful lifestyle shifts and healthy communication practices. Vanessa can be reached at 617-895-4027 and firstname.lastname@example.org.