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In every corner of the world and in many aspects of life, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought change and uncertainty.
People with existing mental health conditions, like anxiety and depression, are at risk of having underlying conditions worsened. People who have never experienced anxiety or depression could also see their mental health impacted by the current state of affairs.
If you’ve never considered mindfulness training before, now might be the right time.
“Mindfulness is the awareness that comes from paying attention to the present moment non-judgmentally,” says Safer, a mindfulness teacher based in St. John’s, NL who runs online sessions through his company, Safer Mindfulness.
With roots in the Buddhist tradition, mindfulness involves meditation and a cultivation of awareness about your own thoughts and sensations. Since the 1980s, the mindfulness movement has developed techniques derived from Buddhist practice to help people with a range of conditions that include chronic pain and addiction, as well as give people in the workplace and institutions like prisons better coping skills in day-to-day life.
For people interested in learning mindfulness, there’s no need to have any knowledge about Buddhism.
“What I’m presenting is mindfulness; it doesn’t have the Buddhist language. There aren’t Buddhists names, or Sanskrit words and so forth,” says Safer. “An understanding or familiarity with Buddhism is not required at all from people. But the heart of it is coming out of that tradition.”
What is mindfulness?
“It’s based on sitting practice, sort of getting to know one’s own mind - that’s certainly coming out of that tradition,” says Safer. “There’s a lot of overlap, but there’s are some important differences, which is making it easier for people coming to this for the first time to be able to connect with and understand.”
As much of the world adapts to the changing of routines brought on by COVID-19, Safer has already been well-established in offering students a chance to practice mindfulness online.
Safer has been a mindfulness practitioner since 1968. A fateful meeting as a teenager in California with Suzuki Roshi, the first Zen master to come to the West to teach Zen Buddhism, set him on a lifelong path.
Since moving to Newfoundland in 2008, Safer has been teaching a wide variety of groups, including librarians, geologists, prisoners, university students and people with mental health conditions. Currently, Safer is conducting a weekly series of sessions in partnership with the Newfoundland and Labrador chapter of the Canadian Mental Health Association for people with depression.
In 2018, Safer began offering mindfulness session via Zoom and now favours online sessions over in-person meetings. In a recent set of sessions, he had attendees from across the province, including Stephenville Crossing, Kippens, and Grand Falls, as well as St. John’s.
For Safer, offering sessions online offers some unique benefits for people who would like to participate in mindfulness training: the ability to join from anywhere, avoiding the need for transportation and, importantly, a person who has anxiety can attend without turning on their camera and being seen if they choose. When gathering with a group of strangers is a stressor and a barrier to activity, an online option offers access.
“That’s an interesting advantage you wouldn’t have with an in-person meeting,” says Safer.
Mindfulness has been studied in-depth since the 1980s by academics in a number of fields, beginning with the founder of the mindfulness movement, John Kabat-Zinn. In translating the benefits of Buddhist meditation to a new form of practice, Kabat-Zinn and others sought to help people with mental wellness for people in a number of areas.
Along with mindfulness being used in healthcare settings and institution, the business world has also adopted mindfulness as a way to help employees in their work life. After 40 years of research and study, mindfulness has shown itself as a powerful tool for helping people adapt and cope in a number of areas
“It’s pretty much spoken for itself,” says Safer. “There’s a lot of evidence showing why it’s a good investment for companies like Intel to provide mindful wellness training for staff. Some people talk about productivity; I talk in terms of mental health and wellness – there could be fewer sick days and so forth.”
While mindfulness being used in a variety of settings to help with mental wellness, the practice is essentially the same in all.
“It’s not like there’s one mindfulness for people with anxiety and one for depression,” says Safer. “But it needs to be presented in a context where people are going to be able to relate to it and connect with it.”
If you can pause and not be reactive - not be impulsive - when you need to make a decision. Pause. Let yourself survey the information and let yourself come to a decision, it’s a much wiser process than just being reactive.”
Along with Safer’s sessions with various groups, there are four sessions a week open to anyone -and free.
For new attendees, the expectations are simple. Sessions are usually an hour to an hour-and-a-half in length. Each begins with some comments and instructions at the beginning, and questions and discussion at the end. Sitting and becoming aware of thoughts, guided by Safer, comprises the majority of the time.
“Anyone who like to give this a try, they would sort of get a feeling for it,” says Safer.