Six Ways to Tend Your Soul in Times of Turmoil
A siege on the US Capitol, a third lockdown for the UK, trouble in Russia, Hong Kong and elsewhere. Facebook is serving me videos of self-proclaimed prophets declaring the apocalypse is near, while others spread lies about Covid-19 being harmless and vaccines being an evil plot by a global elite to usher in a One World Government. All the while exhausted parents limp along in their home school efforts while also trying to work, and reports warn of the long-term economic and mental health impacts from the Coronavirus crisis. These are tumultuous times.
How can we cultivate, care for, tend our soul right now to stay, well, sane? Here are six strategies I’m trying to implement with links to explore some related practices. I’d love to hear what you’ve found helpful too in the comments.
1. Limit Your Screen Time
If ever there’s been a time to be engaged citizens, it’s now. We need to stay informed, educated, up-to-date. But in times of turmoil our modern ability to be informed about devastating floods and political coupes in far away lands, or hear every conceivable opinion on a given topic from the viral Tweets of strangers can rapidly drain us, sapping vital energy to engage with issues closer to home. In addition, the confluence of news and personal opinion on click-and-ratings-driven media is driving the political polarisation decimating our democracies. Try limiting your screen time.
Intentionally choose your news sources
The Ad Fontes’ Media Bias Chart is a gift to the world. Concerned about growing political polarisation, the creators analysed dozens of popular outlets in terms of political bias, news versus opinion, and factual accuracy. A quick review will show that some of the most popular channels are the most biased (whether MSNBC on the Left or Fox New on the Right), as are some of the most shared on social media (whether Huffington Post or The Blaze). Choose factual outlets for news and consume opinion with discernment, consulting more credible voices on both sides. Reduce your screen time by being choosy.
Try deleting Twitter from at least one mobile device
I’ve written before on the value of social media fasts. I’ve since taken some more radical steps. Finding myself prone to ‘mindless scrolling’ (especially when tired), I took Twitter off my phone last year. The well-being effects were almost immediate as my mind and soul were spared the argument, posturing and faux outrage the platform can engender. When I slipped into bad habits again on my tablet recently, I deleted it from there too (and Instagram). My Twitter and Instagram use is now on my work computer, limiting their addictive powers. Try it and see how lighter you feel.
2. Get Active
Kate, a church leader friend of mine, recently had no less than six mental health-related pastoral calls in one week. Her solution in these socially-distanced locked-down times was to invite each person to go for a walk with her. The research is on her side that regular exercise (and in this case, personal contact) helps promote well-being and resilience. As whole beings, our physical health affects our soul health and visa versa. In times of turmoil it’s important to stay active.
Start an exercise program
There are so many free beginner-friendly exercise programs out there it’s hard to find an excuse on this one! Having neglected cardio exercise for a while, I’m back to a simple 20-minute regime three-times-a-week, with daily walks (thanks to Rupert the dog) and longer walks on weekends (when I’m disciplined).
Start a project
When Nick Page faced a midlife crisis, he built a shed. Psychologists tell us accomplishment is integral to well-being. Whether it’s planting a garden, taking a photography course, doing a Winston Churchill and building a wall (which kept him sane during the turmoil of World War 2), or something else creative or just plain practical, a project can provide a sense of agency and accomplishment your soul will appreciate much more than a Netflix binge.
3. Contemplate Nature
According to research from the University of Derby, people who stop to notice nature experience higher levels of happiness, lower levels of anxiety and depression, a greater sense of closeness to others and of life feeling worthwhile, and a heightened desire to care for the earth. Between 20 seconds and 2 minutes of contemplation like this a day is all it takes to start reaping the benefits, although just walking through a forest isn’t enough. You have to watch the clouds, smell the flowers, contemplate what you’re experiencing.
Notice nature afresh
Here are 15 ways to notice nature based on the University of Derby research and the National Trust. They range from going barefoot on grass to writing a poem or drawing what you see, and can be a helpful tool for seeing nature in a new light. You could try a new approach every day or week.
Look through nature and beyond it
Here’s my take on why natural beauty touches us so deeply. I don’t think nature’s well-being benefits are only a matter of survival value or the biophilia hypothesis, but the fact such beauty gives us a glimpse of a greater Beauty beyond it.
4. Cultivate Gratitude
I was recently asked to give a series of keynote talks to an educator’s conference on the topic of contentment. Much misunderstood, contentment isn’t the same as happiness or fulfilment (or complacency for that matter). It is a sense of completeness. The contented person can say, “In this moment I have enough and am enough.” (More on contentment in the future.) And what helps us find contentment in times of turmoil? Gratitude – being intentionally thankful for what we have rather than focussed on what we don’t, seeing those things as ‘enough’ for this day.
Try a gratitude journal practice
This practice is simple: list five things you’re grateful for today. “As we’ve reported many times ,” says Jason March of Berkley University’s Greater Good Science Center, “studies have traced a range of impressive benefits to the simple act of writing down the things for which we’re grateful—benefits including better sleep, fewer symptoms of illness, and more happiness among adults and kids alike.”
Try one-sentence gratitude prayers
Being grateful for something suggests what you’ve received is a gift, which logically leads to a Giver. Once you’ve written five things you’re grateful for, why not close the loop and offer that gratitude heavenward. “God, I’m grateful for that birdsong I’m hearing… for the friends I have… for the heating that works in my home…”
5. Explore Prayerful Reflection
This past year has been intense. Stressful. Depleting. The longer we live in turmoil the more it feels like we’re buckets punched with new holes, our energy dripping away. As important as mindfulness techniques have been found to be, frankly, I don’t believe they’ll cut it. We need strength from outside us to walk forward in these difficult days.
Reflect on your life
Here’s a short video on the importance of reflection. When life is experienced as a serious of unrelated events we can fail to see the meaning in our days, leaving us weak in the face of difficulty. Reflection gives us space to see how the various parts of life fit together, allowing puzzle pieces to join and dots to connect. Turmoil is easier to face when we can see some meaning to it.
Try a breath prayer
Some months ago I wrote this breath prayer. It has been the single most sustaining practice for me and, it turns out, for many others. A breath prayer is simply a two-line prayer said in a single breath. This one is based on words from the apostle Paul, asking God to fill us with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, and other strengths we could do with right now.
6. Stay Relationally Connected
Perhaps in no other time in recent history have we been more aware of our need for others. While social distancing rules many things out, and isolation must be adhered to when needed, we still must connect. Phone calls. Skype chats. Zoom parties. Socially distanced walks with a friend. Maybe the challenge of this moment is to work out creative new ways to nurture human connection.