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Mindfulness: Staying in the Moment When the Moment Is Awful

A Personal Perspective: Tolerating discomfort can be a life-changing skill.

Key points

  • Constant exposure to frightening news can exacerbate mental illness.
  • Mindfulness meditation is a proven tool for alleviating stress in stressful times.
  • Staying in the present moment with kindness and compassion can help one tolerate emotional discomfort.

Like the recent mass shooting at a Texas elementary school and the racist slaughter in Buffalo, scary news can be especially hard for those of us with mental illness to absorb and live with.

We tend to be highly susceptible to negative emotions that are being parlayed on the news right now. Despair, frustration, anger, and fear are all on display, and I can only take so much before I start to spiral down into hopelessness and depression. I know I need to limit my exposure and up my recovery game. And that means turning off the news and tuning into the moment.

At this moment—this pure, unadulterated, precious moment—I am alive and well. I can breathe. I am safe.

I’m learning to rely on the sanctity of the moment through mindfulness meditation. This can be defined as “a type of meditation in which you focus on being intensely aware of what you're sensing and feeling in the moment, without interpretation or judgment.”

It’s touted as a drug-free, non-invasive, life-changing remedy for everything from back pain to spiritual alienation. It’s even being incorporated into behavioral health programs at hospitals like UCLA, alongside more traditional techniques like process group therapy and medication management.

When my therapist initially urged me to look into it several years ago, I was hesitant. I believe in brain plasticity and the ability of the mind to heal itself. Still, as someone who’s used to better living through chemistry, I wasn’t ready to give up on the tried-and-true pills that have successfully treated my bipolar disorder. I’m still not ready to do that, but I admit, I’ve been much happier since I began investigating mindfulness. Frankly, I sometimes verge on ecstatic—not in a manic sense, but rather an “Ain’t life simply grand” kind of way.

I’ve started taking guided mindfulness meditation classes every week online (free to all through the Hammer Museum), and so far, it’s been wonderful. As anyone who follows my blog already knows, I’ve become obsessed with the bliss of my morning oatmeal and blueberries. I’m in thrall to the caress of a sunny day on my skin, to the trills of the birdsong in the oak outside my window. My senses are re-discovering themselves, and we are all living much more happily together than we ever did before. Mindfulness is to thank for that, I believe.

But then came this week’s horrific news about the latest mass shootings. When the time arrived for me to start my meditation, I laid down on my bed, as usual, closed my eyes, and listened to my breath. I tried to clear my mind of anything but the sound of the air passing through my nostrils and the feel of my chest expanding and contracting with each inhalation and exhalation.

It worked for a few seconds until my brain decided it wanted to think about those little schoolchildren in Texas again. What must have it been like for them, the terror of that atrocity? How can the bereaved parents ever go on? Why can’t our nation overcome this insanity?

Stop it this instant! I snapped at myself. Concentrate! Breathe! Be zen!

It’s easy to live in the present moment, I realized, when the present moment is all blueberries and bliss. But what do you do when the moment is terrible? Fortunately, the counselor leading the meditation—Diana Winston, Director of Mindfulness Education at UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center—was wiser and more experienced than I was.

She’d anticipated that people would have difficulty letting go of the horrors happening in the world right now, and she steered the class around that. The upshot of her guidance was not to avoid the discomfort; but to hold the difficult moment with kindness and compassion, then bring yourself back to the present.

Easier said than done, of course. My thoughts kept returning to the carnage. But I did as the counselor instructed: each time this happened, I’d notice it and say to myself, “Thoughts wandering,” then gently pull my attention back, over and over again, to the movement and sensation of my breath. This, I finally understood, was the true meaning of a mindfulness “practice.”

As a therapist friend said, tolerating discomfort and returning to the breath is like exercising a muscle. The more you do it, the easier—or perhaps, the more instinctive—it becomes.

I did some research after my session and was surprised to learn that the most well-known mindfulness technique, mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR), was created for this very reason—as a way to accommodate discomfort. According to the journal Practical Pain Management (2021), in 1979, Jon Kabat-Zinn “adopted the Buddhist wisdom that was initially developed to help deal with the distress of long meditations, where the body experiences discomfort from being in one position for an extended period of time.”

But tolerance of physical pain is not MBSR’s only benefit; studies have repeatedly shown that it can also lessen emotional distress and significantly improve overall wellness and quality of life.

I can certainly attest to that, novice though I am. I realize now that you can’t hold on to the perfect moment forever. The reality, in all its distracting messiness and unpredictability, will surely intervene. But still, you can always come back to the breath—to that one certain thing your body will not deprive you of, for however long you may live.