There’s an ancient Zen saying that I believe speaks to our current situation: The whole world is upside down. I think about this as I listen to the news of storms, fires, earthquakes, rampant illness, and political unrest. This seems especially true with my clients. Nearly everyone I treat has experienced a major disruption in their lives—to their work, family, finances, health, or well-being.
The sadness and loss brought on by COVID has stretched many of us to our limits. After my client Sara’s mother died of complications due to COVID, she told me in a session, “I used to believe that we were never given more than we could handle. I don’t buy that anymore.” While all of us hoped that, collectively, we could move ahead and rebuild our lives, the state of the world—with COVID variants and all the rest—has made this more difficult that we thought. Reports show one-third of people are currently experiencing high anxiety and depression, with children and ill and aging family members particularly impacted. For those struggling with “long COVID,” myriad symptoms persist in ways we’re struggling to understand.
So many of my clients tell me they feel they’ve “failed” during the pandemic—as parents, partners, and more. I think it speaks to how collectively worn down we are. For many of us, this feeling of failure has been too much to bear. Our innate negativity bias causes us to berate ourselves. My clients say things like, “I haven’t been a good parent. I haven’t been good at teaching my kids how to learn and grow. I yell at them too much. There’s so much I’m juggling, and I can’t keep up.” Others say things like, “I feel like I’ve let my partner down. I’m tired and grumpy all the time.” They feel like they’ve failed their family.
The question I’ve been struggling with—and I’d imagine many other therapists are struggling with too—is how to help these clients feel held and cared for at a time when social supports, emotional connection, and physical presence feels so curtailed.
Fortunately, we have decades of research that demonstrates how mindfulness and compassion practices can lower our stress, decrease anxiety and depression, build resilience and perspective, and help us become kinder and more generous.
I’ve been finding a particular short meditation practice helpful in supporting my clients during this period of sadness, loss, and exhaustion. It’s more gentle than many traditional breath practices of meditation, which can be difficult for people to do even during good times and can be especially triggering during COVID. In this meditation, kindness and compassion are key features. It’s comforting to those who’ve experienced trauma or grief, or to those who are often hard on themselves or others, whether they’re dealing with work, family matters, or something else. This practice helps establish an inner sense of comfort and creates an experience of being held and supported. You can even use it on yourself when you feel like you’re at the end of your rope or feel like you’ve failed. This meditation practice doesn’t need to be long, either. Try it out in short doses; three to five minutes is good place to start.
Begin by finding a comfortable place to sit, a cushy chair, a bed, or a plush rug. If you don’t have a place to sit, it’s also fine to stand or lie down. If you are sitting, allow yourself to feel grounded and anchored in your chair or cushion.
Next, let yourself feel the weight of your body. If it’s comfortable for you, feel the strength of your spine. Give yourself permission to tend to yourself, even for just a minute or two.
Next, notice the sounds around you, and listen to each sound as it arises. There’s no need to name the sounds. Just notice them. Let yourself rest, even for a few moments.
Next, imagine that you can touch each moment with kindness and tenderness, as if you were holding a bird or something precious and delicate. If intense feelings arise, see if you can cradle or hold these as well. There’s no need to explore or analyze them. Allow yourself to notice and briefly acknowledge each moment and each emotion. Then, return to the anchor of the body.
End the meditation by offering yourself some kindness or compassion, and think about how you can bring this compassion into your daily activities.
Sara, whose mother had recently passed away, began therapy with me as a way of processing her grief. Her mother’s decline had been slow and painful, and she’d died alone. Because she hadn’t been present when her mother died, Sara was angry and wracked by guilt. Attempting to find some peace, she’d tried to meditate using an app on her phone, but when she found her breath she also found an ocean of tears. The experience had been overwhelming. Instead, Sara and I tried this simpler meditation practice. With my guidance, she visualized holding her sorrow in her hands, cradling and containing it, and then returning to her body, which allowed her to feel grounded and anchored. She breathed out slowly. “I feel a little better now,” she said, wiping a tear from the corner of her eye.
Another one of my clients, Karen, had been feeling overwhelmed trying to manage two active teenagers during the pandemic. They were misbehaving, having trouble in school, and were angry and disrespectful at home. One had recently been caught shoplifting. Karen told me she felt like she’d failed as a mother, and was constantly pressuring her husband for more support. She also told me she’d been responding to her kids’ misbehavior by yelling at them—much more than she wanted to, she added. I suggested we try the meditation exercise together. Afterward, Karen let out an audible sigh of relief. “It feels like a weight has been lifted off my shoulders,” she said. I suggested she try to incorporate it throughout the day, especially when she felt her patience wearing thin with the kids. “Take a few moments during the day to tend to yourself,” I told her. “It’ll help you pause, become more resilient, and regain some perspective and respond to the kids more skillfully.”
My client Charles, who was mourning the sudden death of his wife of 30 years, also found this practice helpful, allowing him to feel less alone with his loss. Initially, Charles worried that meditating might trigger his grief and it would engulf him, so we decided to take things slow at first, doing just a three-minute mediation. As he moved back and forth between feeling sorrow and taking stock of his relationship with his wife, I checked in with him. “How are you feeling right now?” I asked him periodically. “I’m doing okay,” Charles said. Eventually, he told me that rather than becoming enveloped by his grief, the practice was helping develop an appreciation of the preciousness of his relationship. He was still sad after the exercise, he told me, but he’d also found gratitude. By the time he left therapy several months later, he’d resolved to continue carrying that gratitude into his everyday life, along with the memory of his wife and a mission to honor her memory. The meditation would help Charles center and focus himself if he became too upset.
Even on their hardest days, I’ve been encouraging clients to find value in their lives. What small acts of kindness can they practice in their daily life? I ask. Whether it’s letting a car go ahead of them in traffic, or even simply smiling at someone walking past them on the sidewalk, I encourage them to look for the small joys in life. Maybe they can notice and appreciate something a partner or child has done for them. Maybe they find joy in helping a sibling or friend with an errand, helping out with chores around the house, or giving or receiving a hug from a loved one. Too often, we focus on the negative and miss these small joys. Meditation practices like this one can help us slow down and become a little more receptive to them.
As you try incorporate this meditation practice with your clients, see if you can encourage them to touch their wounds with benevolence. One of the key components of meditation is allowing ourselves to experience everything that’s happening to us, the joys and the sorrows. By noticing the thoughts and feeling that arise, and then returning to our bodies and our lives without condemnation, we can begin to heal and rebuild.
Photo © iStock/Ponomariova_Maria
Susan M. Pollak, MTS, EdD, is a psychologist in private practice in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She is a longtime student of meditation and yoga who has been integrating the practices of meditation into psychotherapy since the 1980s. Dr. Pollak is cofounder and senior teacher at the Center for Mindfulness and Compassion at Harvard Medical School/ Cambridge Health Alliance and was president of the Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy from 2010 to 2020. Dr. Pollak is a co-editor of The Cultural Transition; and a contributing author of Mapping the Moral Domain; Evocative Objects; and Mindfulness and Psychotherapy, 2nd Edition. She is the co-author of Sitting Together: Essential Skills for Mindfulness-Based Psychotherapy and the author of Self-Compassion for Parents: Nurture Your Child by Caring for Yourself. She writes the popular blog, The Art of Now for Psychology Today, and is a frequent contributor to the Ten Percent Happier App. Her website is, https://www.drsusanpollak.com/