Whatever happens day by day as various authorities work out rules of re-entry in the tenuous phases of COVID-19 response, the easing of quarantine has many of us asking ourselves what we’ve learned from this experience so far, what we’ve lost and what we want to recover.
Re-entry, whether to half-capacity churches, marked-off restaurant spaces or masked-and-distanced in-person work, offers new opportunities to renew and reorganize our priorities.
We may have allowed good habits to slip. We’re complaining about weight gain from inactivity and too much food and drink. We’re concerned about depression as we helplessly view strife in the news while being deprived of the soul-opening wonder of travel to new places and of the connectedness of communal prayer at the local church.
Now that many of us are slowly expanding our perimeters (in Colorado we’ve just gone from “safer at home” to “protect your neighbor”), how can we renew our commitment to health and restore wonder in the real world where “small is great and great small” (a phrase I borrow from this collection of reflections) after spending so much time watching traumatic news events in confinement?
Re-opening ourselves to small, significant wonders (the Eucharist, smiling eyes dancing above a face mask, dust motes in the sunlight) and small, significant opportunities to make ourselves a gift to those closest to us (listening with love, working well, “wasting time” in play) is a good beginning. Renewing healthy habits is another.
That doesn’t mean we abandon commitment to healing the painful divisions in the country. We can remain informed by the national narrative, but need not be driven by it. How fondly I now recall the days when a news broadcast occupied just a 30 minute slot on the television roster, and we filled in the gaps with targeted reading about issues that concerned us. We can get that back by imposing our own limits on drama-driven news.
Our re-entry priorities can begin with small, manageable efforts to regain wellness, wonder and spiritual spark. I’ve been working on it, and here’s what I’ve found helpful.
1. Begin with a one-page miracle.
We tend to think of wellness in terms of physical health alone, but over decades of research coupled with boots-on-the-ground work with clients seeking to improve their mental health, Dr. Daniel Amen, psychiatrist and director of the Amen Clinics, has teamed up with his wife Tana–nurse, fitness expert and black belt–to create a powerful program that approaches wellness by beginning with the brain.
When I noticed my COVID-claustrophobia had resulted in a revival of unhealthy eating, sluggish movement, brain fog and an expanding waistline, I turned to their book The Brain Warrior’s Way, which I’d started in January and had set aside until the scale motivated me to read at least a page a day. About halfway through the book, the Amens challenged me to write down what I wanted in four key areas of my life: physical, psychological, social and spiritual. The book directed me to Tana Amen’s website where I could download a tool to simplify the process.
It’s called the one-page miracle.
Taking time to write out what you want and read it every morning works. The focus provided by reading your own words daily helps you to ask, in every tempting moment, “Is what I’m doing getting me closer to what I want?” And to make a better choice.
The one-page miracle can help you get back to what you want for your life. For me, it’s a healthy brain and body, a more focused habit of contemplative prayer and stress reduction, renewed relationships with family and friends, and deeper union with Christ.
The Brain Warrior’s Way helps you prioritize habits in tune with the goals you’ve set. The one-page miracle is followed by a 14 day planner (the Brain Warrior’s Journal), and these two downloads (backed with the why’s I received by reading the book) helped me re-organize my life. Six weeks later, I’m lighter both physically and spiritually.
I have to add that The Brain Warrior’s Way Cookbook is the tastiest of all the collections of its kind I’ve tried (I mean, I know I need to cut the sugar and processed carbs to feel better, but what can I eat that I will keep on eating after I’ve lost a few pounds so I don’t have to go through this again?) This cookbook is about abundance, not deprivation, and sticking to the 14 day starter (which isn’t easy while cravings are at their peak) was a godsend. Leave it to the Attention Deficit Disorder experts to create a tool that can keep you focused.
Wellness is often seen as only a measure of a few physical markers, but without a larger picture, results are limited. Optimal wellness, which addresses physical, psychological, social and spiritual health brings deeper healing to the whole person. Increasing our capacity for contemplative wonder and our energy for other-directive service replenishes our spiritual spark and allows us to expand the practices that keep us connected to Christ.
The one-page miracle addresses them all, but you’re the one who defines what you want in each of those areas.
2. Make stress reduction a priority.
I’ve been a counselor for over 20 years, and I know in my bones that diffusing stress with exercise, play and prayer is essential to wellness. The most challenging part of the first phase of quarantine was being so overwhelmed with what had to be done (phoning families and children, zooming with colleagues, recording videos) from my little home office that I resisted making sufficient time for self care in the habitual way that usually sustains me.
I did cling to prayer, spiritual reading and distance participation with my church (more on that in a moment).
Then came exercise. Slowly I gave myself permission to leave my desk and walk for longer stretches, and finally (I realize I’m late to the party on this one) I purchased a Fitbit. Data has its weaknesses but when it comes to weight and movement, there’s no better motivator than a number you want to lower or raise.
Then, with a call from my dear friend Kristin, who initiated a re-igniting of the conversations that have fueled us for years, I began to feel like myself again. Don’t underestimate the power of a good conversation (as well a hug when possible) to diffuse your stress and recharge your spirits. If we learned that during quarantine, we need to remember it as our activities and commitments begin to re-multiply.
Dr. Amen’s book Feel Better FAST and Make It Last: Unlock Your Brain’s Healing Potential to Overcome Negativity, Anger, Stress and Trauma summarizes the latest research on practices that improve mental health and can guide you to what kind of stress reducing techniques will work best for you.
It’s a very accessible read filled with easy-to-implement steps for adding meditative deep breathing to your daily routine, for memorizing scripture and prayers that support a quick mindset shift and for killing ANTs (automatic negative thoughts) that destroy joy and keep us trapped in unhealthy mental loops.
3. Renew your faith.
I saved the best for last. The greatest gift of this tragic time may be the reminder that the things we often rely on to boost our spirits–comfort food, alcohol, online shopping, entertainment–are short-lived and ultimately unsatisfying. We were made for more.
The second of Steven Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People is “begin with the end in mind.” My brother Dan once pointed out to me that this is why God provides us with the direction to begin the week with corporate worship and begin each day with prayer. There is an end to this life and we are wise to begin each week and each day with that end in mind. Heaven. Union with God. The beatific vision.
“Don’t lay your treasures up here below,” Christ gently advises. Why? Moth and rust corrupt. Thieves break in and steal. “Lay your treasure in heaven…where your treasure is, there will your heart be also.”
I’ve been learning from psychiatrist Gregory Bottaro’s book The Mindful Catholic: Finding God One Moment at a Time to take a “sacramental pause” and reconnect to the Father more frequently throughout the day. Peace returns and stress diffuses in this act of attention to the moment at hand in the presence of God.
Dr. Bottaro’s book is a gold mine of practical direction in the spiritual life, combining the latest mental health research with the wisdom of the saints. I listened to the Audible version first, attracted by the fact that the inimitable Dr. Peter Kreeft (Doors in the Walls of the World: Signs of Transcendence in the Human Story), narrates the preface, and Bottaro narrates the book itself. Its content was so helpful I then bought the book’s Kindle version so I could integrate the ideas into my own prayer life. This is not a one-time read. It’s a gift for reordering your connection to Christ.
And it reconnected me with spiritual classics I already love, St. Thérèse of Lisieux’ The Story of a Soul, Fr. Jacques Philippe’s Searching for and Maintaining Interior Peace and Fr. Jean Pierre de Caussade’s Abandonment to Divine Providence.
The Mindful Catholic: Finding God One Moment at a Time is accessible to Protestant readers as well. It’s a powerful and practical reminder to stay, in these troubled times, on the path of trust and love. God is not asking us to flit about in agitation and resentment, “calling out” everyone we think is missing the mark, but to stay rooted in him. If we’re called to “speak truth to power” in a given moment, he will give us what to say. In the meantime, we live, to the best of our ability, in under his protection and in his eternal love.
Fr. Philippe, whose little book is loaded with spiritual gems (“it is not so much that we will overcome, but that HE will overcome”) reminds us that maintaining peace is spiritual combat, and I think there’s a connection with The Brain Warrior’s Way here.
We always encounter opposition when we make good resolutions, whether for the health of our bodies or our souls (which are absolutely united anyway). You have to decide these healing practices matter to you and be intense about about staying with them no matter what others are saying and doing.
With ongoing pandemic restrictions, economic recession, violence in the streets and straight-up hate between the two major political parties continuing to rise, I found myself desperate to aim for the peace Christ promised:
Not as the world gives, give I unto you.
A young father spoke of that peace to me on the church lawn after one of the first limited-attendance masses we were allowed. “We have to come back,” he said. “It’s the only thing keeping the world together at all!”
He was holding the hands of his two young children. They were wearing masks as we were. I doubt they’ll ever forget the strangest church experience ever (we were still limited to 10 people in the 100-capacity space at the time) or their loving father’s priorities that they begin with the end in mind. His example fanned the flame of my faith.
Are you anxious these days? I am too. But I’m learning how to trust even so. As Fr. Philippe reminds us, “the reasons why we lose our peace are always bad reasons.”
That’s just true. And it’s restoring my spiritual spark.
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What’s helping you recharge wellness, wonder and spiritual spark? I’m always looking for resources and I’d love to hear from you in the comments or by email!
If you enjoyed this post, you might also like Scapegoats, Solitude and Solidarity: Merton as Quarantine Companion and Pollyanna vs. Curmudgeon: The Case for Realistic Optimism.