How to Prepare for a Crisis
Several years ago, I was preparing to teach my Tuesday morning Mindful Yoga class at Circle Yoga in Washington DC. I was sitting at the front of the class as students streamed in, setting up mats, blankets and bolsters.
Four minutes before class was due to begin, one of my regular students walked into class and straight to where I was sitting. She handed me a small newspaper clipping without saying a word. I assumed it was a yoga comic or other funny yoga tidbit. It wasn’t.
What she handed me was a notice, from the Washington Post, of an awful murder. The murder had taken place on Long Island during the previous weekend, but the woman was from the DC area. When I saw the name of the woman, my brain recognized it as another of my dear Tuesday morning regulars, and I began to lose my bearing. My mind quickened and I thought that I needed to run out of the room.
Last week, I read a story by the Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh about the difficulties he faced helping the Vietnamese “boat people” -- refugees escaping by boat to safer and more welcoming countries. Thich Nhat Hanh and his compatriots hired two large ships to help rescue the refugees and bring them to safety in Australia and Guam.
After his group gathered hundreds of the refugees onto hired boats, the local police discovered their plan and barred food or water deliveries to the refugees aboard. A baby was born on one of the boats at the same time that Thich Nhat Hanh’s travel documents were confiscated, and he was told he would need to leave the country the next day. He described this moment of fear and uncertainty as if he were drifting out to sea with the refugees.
“I vowed that if I could not have peace at that moment, I would never be able to have peace. If I could not be peaceful in the midst of danger, then the kind of peace I might have in simpler times is meaningless.”
Because of his decades of mindfulness practice, Thich Nhat Hanh was able to take refuge in his practice of mindful walking and mindful breathing. He spent the night doing sitting and walking meditation. In the morning, he was granted a visa extension of ten days, and his group was able to help the refugees to safety.
I realize that the question of whether I would be able to teach a yoga class the day after my student was killed is hardly comparable to whether eight hundred refugees would get food, water and safety. What’s the same is the feeling of being carried out to sea because of our strong emotional reactions, a feeling I think we all have had. When we are thrown into unexpected and off-putting situations, we don’t always know how to right ourselves. It’s in those situations that our mindfulness practice can be just the thing to get us back our sea legs.
After reading the article about my student’s last moments, I did my best to pause and breathe, even while images of my lovely student-- a funny, energetic and extremely kind grandmother, arose in my mind. I pictured her as I had last seen her, and sadly also imagined her in the midst of being murdered. My heart resonated with how she must have suffered, and I just ached.
Instead of bolting out the door, I told the class that I needed to step outside, get some fresh air, and do walking meditation around the block. As I walked, I breathed. in… out, in…out, I made a vow very similar to the one Thich Nhat Hanh had made during his sleepless night in Singapore. I told myself that if I couldn’t rely on my mindfulness practice in this moment, then why even have a practice.
We never know what is going to happen in any moment, do we? As Neils Bohr’s interpretation of quantum physics reminds us, the universe exists as a conglomerate of all possible realities. Having a mindfulness practice gives us a powerful and gentle way to work with whichever realities arise. The more challenging the moment, the stronger our practice needs to be to meet it.
Having the ability to face whatever shows up requires advance work. The more we practice mindfulness in our daily lives, the more chance we have of being able to be present when facing a hungry boat filled with refugees, the murder of a friend, or whatever form your crisis takes.
It’s nearly guaranteed that we each will experience some version of this story one day, if we haven’t already. It may be something minor like having your car rear ended. Or something much more disturbing. Whatever it is, if you have a practice that you can take refuge in – whether that’s mindfulness, yoga, God, or some other practice that helps you stay present and calm when facing a crisis – you will be able to work through the situation more easily and effectively.
After a couple of turns around the bock, I returned to the yoga classroom. The sudden intimacy of a crisis brought us together as we had never been before, and I led our grieving class in meditation and movement. We practiced together for each other and for our lost friend. And in doing so, we also prepared ourselves for whatever challenge the universe brings us next.